GOL Nominates Nine  for Charter Review Committee

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Report on the Meetings of the Government Organization and Legislation Committee, June 4-6, 2024

All meetings were held over Zoom and were recorded. They can be viewed here and here and here.

Present
Ana Devlin Gauthier (Chair, District 5), Freke Ette (District 1), Pat DeAngelis and Lynn Griesemer (District 2), and George Ryan (District 3)

Staff: Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

The Government, Organization, and Legislation committee (GOL) selected 9 of 12 applicants to recommend to the Town Council for the Charter Review Committee after two days of interviews. Selected were: Andy Churchill, Bernie Kubiak, Julian Hynes, Raphael Rogers, Dan Muscat, Erika Miljin, Ken LeBlond, Meg Gage, and Marcus Smith. Not selected were Darcy DuMont, John Varner, and Patrick Meagher.

The Amherst Home Rule Charter Section 9.6 mandates that there be a review every year ending in “4”. The review cannot change the form or composition of government and is restricted in other changes the committee may make. The charter review committee’s charge is to:

• Develop an understanding of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Law and the existing Home Rule Charter that define the present form of government for the City known as the Town of Amherst as defined by Amherst Home Rule Charter, September 25, 2017.

• Raise public awareness of Charter Review process through various community outreach efforts (i.e., Town websites, request community organizations to include information in their newsletters, etc.)

• Develop and deploy a variety of feedback mechanisms (i.e., surveys, invitations to testify, public meetings, focus groups, etc.) throughout the review process

• Analyze feedback from the community prior to initial, preliminary, and final reports

• Hold a Public Forum on preliminary report

• Review, propose, and report on process, deliberations, drafts, and recommendations in three stages: initial, preliminary, and final (see Reports Section for contents and timing).

Choosing the Nine Member Committee
When asked what was important in selecting the members of the charter review committee, Council President Lynn Griesemer said she wanted people without preconceived ideas who had a willingness to listen and a willingness to seek public engagement. George Ryan wanted to make sure the committee members encompassed a diverse geographical distribution in town. He felt that those who had prior involvement with the charter review might be better “to stay in advocacy, rather than be on this body.” Freke Ette wanted to see a diversity in age, gender, and knowledge. Pat DeAngelis also thought that diversity in work experience was important, and Ana Devlin Gauthier wanted committee members who would reach out to those most impacted by the charter.

Councilors’ votes are displayed in the table below. Devlin Gauthier said she supported Darcy DuMont, a former town councilor representing District 5, because she felt that someone who had experience with the charter as a town councilor should be on the committee. If not, she wanted to be sure that the committee obtained input from town councilors. George Ryan worried about putting Julian Hynes on the committee because he will be a first-year college student and “should be allowed to enjoy and experience that without a lot of meetings and other responsibilities.” He cited the painful experience with the redistricting committee, which had two college students as members, “and they both disappeared.” Ryan and DeAngelis spoke for Dan Muscat as a self-employed tradesman as providing diversity.

Voting record of the GOL for candidates for the town’s Charter Review Committee. Photo: screen shot/YouTube/amherstma.gov

The discussion did not result in any committee member changing their initial preferences.

Interview Process
Each candidate was asked the same six questions on two days of interviews, June 4 and 5. Below is a summary of responses in the order that the interviews were conducted. Candidates had summitted personal statements which can be found via the links below.

Andy Churchill chaired the committee that developed the current home rule charter. He said he has looked at the recommendations of the League of Women Voters of Amherst (LWVA), and found some of the ideas interesting. He added that he has been an active town resident since 1995, serving on several town committees. His goals for the charter review committee are outreach, data collection, and collaboration in order to improve the current charter. 

Darcy DuMont was a town councilor for three years.  She was very involved in the LWVA charter review and was instrumental in the creation of Valley Green Energy, the soon to be enacted community choice aggregation energy provider and in the creation of  the town’s Energy and Climate Action Committee. She stressed the need for the charter review committee to do outreach and to look at what other towns have done with their charters. She is particularly interested in advancing good government principles.

John Varner said he views the charter as a work in progress, not a finished document. He feels improvement is needed, especially in the balance of power between the Town Manager and the council. He said he looks forward to sitting down with a group of people and discussing these issues. He is a frequent attendee at town meetings and serves as an alternate on the Zoning Board of Appeals. He describes himself as “highly opinionated”, but regards himself as a “deep thinker who can use what learns to find effective solutions”

Bernie Kubiak said that there are two large pieces to charter. One is what the state says we have to have, and the other is more discretionary. He feels the council is still evolving. It still needs to work on time management and how information flows in and out of the council. He said he brings an understanding of government from many years’ experience. He believes governments must make decisions fairly and in the open and noted that the absence of a local press is a real problem, because it makes it hard to get the word out. Kubiak was part of a committee that reviewed the town bylaws and currently serves as a resident member of the Finance Committee. It is important to him that people in a group feel free to express themselves.

Julian Hynes:is a graduating senior at Amherst Regional High School. He thinks the charter review committee should look at specific areas of the charter to figure out areas that haven’t worked well. For instance, he said the right of one councilor to be able to cut off debate and postpone a vote has caused a lot of controversy. Also, he thinks the committee needs to review the rule that prohibits town staff from serving on the council. He would also like to look at the parts of the charter that weren’t completely implemented, such as participatory budgeting. He said he will bring the youth perspective to the committee. He is currently co-chair of the Public Shade Tree committee and heads several youth groups. He also watches many town meetings and reads both The Amherst indy and The Amherst Current and also the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He feels it is important to get to know the other members of the committee so all can work collaboratively. 

Rafael Rogers feels that a weakness of the current form of government is that it could lead to less participation from the public. The charter is also missing specifics on the role of the Town Manager. Rogers works in communication at UMass and has done a lot of outreach. He watches many town meetings and especially followed the controversy surrounding the school committee last year. He currently serves on the diversity committee at the Jones Library. He is skilled at analyzing data and writing reports. He notes challenges with collaborative work if the goals aren’t clear. He feels the charter review committee needs to raise awareness of its charge and communicate with stakeholders. 

Patrick Meagher moved to Amherst in 2021 from Washington D.C. and works with the World Bank and its relations with local governments. He endorses some of the LWVA recommendations, such as term limits. Locally, he has worked with Circle of Care to help resettle a refugee family in Springfield. As a member of the charter review committee, he would do a careful analysis of state laws and review how other towns have done things, as well as talking to those in Amherst town government. He said that he speaks several languages, which could be helpful with outreach.

Dan Muscat thinks that some things are going well with the current form of government, and some things are raising complaints. There is a much smaller group making decisions now, and he is still skeptical of how well the town government is working.  He is a self-employed contractor. Although he said he is not a “town political junkie”, he reads the Indy, The Bulletin, and the Gazette. He served on the reparations committee of the Jewish Community of Amherst, and said, “I have earned a lot from talking to people and seeing what the world looks like through their eyes.”

Erika Mijlin: feels that public input should be the most important component of the charter review committee’s work. She is most concerned with the parts of the charter that deal with public participation and transparency and relation to officials. She follows government representatives on social media and keeps up with the school committee. She said she tries to stay informed and was glad when meetings converted to being virtual, so they were more accessible. Although she has worked in Amherst for 30 years, she only moved to town when the change of government happened six years ago..

Ken LeBlond has lived in Amherst for 12 years. He said he is  Impressed with the current form of government. He attends some town meetings and will approach the charter review commission with an open mind. He has worked in public service for the past 25 years and is now a communications manager at UMass. He would like more information on the charters with the same form of government as Amherst. In addition to print media, he likes to follow local officials on social media. 

Meg Gage was a member of the original charter commission and also participated in the two- hour discussion at the LWVA meeting last week. She would like to see more participation, greater transparency, and better access to government. She helped form the District One Neighborhood Association, which aims to keep the residents of North Amherst informed about the town. She said she likes things that are not controversial, because” there is too much controversy in town with people holding grudges.” As for the charter review committee, she would like it to set a timeline, so it can make well thought out decisions and not be rushed to complete its work as happened with the original charter commission.

Marcus Smith works for a federally funded public/private development corporation. He said public participation in the charter review process is paramount to him. He watches a lot of town meetings and reads print media. He wants to understand how other towns run their governments. His watchwords are: research, understanding, and listening. 

The Town Council will vote on the slate recommended by GOL at the June 17 meeting.

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