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Town Council gives Bockelman mostly high marks, but offers pointed critiques

  • GAZETE FILE PHOTO GAZETE FILE PHOTO

  • PAUL BOCKELMAN



Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2022

AMHERST — While the town manager is again getting high marks for his performance over the last year, some of his bosses on the Town Council would like to see Paul Bockelman do more to enhance the town’s relationship with the University of Massachusetts, to improve morale within the Police Department, and to include more voices from Black, Indigenous and people of color communities in shaping policy.

The 13 councilors recently released their individual performance reviews, with most stating that Bockelman is meeting the dozen policy and management goals set last year, with time constraints limiting his abilities. They credited his financial acumen, his promotion of community health and safety, and his efforts to combat climate change.

“I am concerned that there are too many demands on Paul and that too many middle management employees report directly to him,” At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg wrote in his review. “I appreciate the extraordinary amount of time he devotes to Amherst.”

“While no person is perfect, we have one of the very best town managers in the commonwealth,” Council President Lynn Griesemer wrote. “These are stressful positions requiring a broad range of skills. What our town manager presents is someone who is able to manage the stress and the job.”

The council will resume its review with a composite performance review to be issued before contract negotiations.

Critiques

Councilors critiqued Bockelman for the town’s relationship with UMass, with reference made to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s talk at the annual community breakfast in which he defended UMass as housing enough students.

“While the councilors have very different opinions regarding both the housing of students who attend the university and the status of students as deserving full support and recognition as residents of Amherst, it is disconcerting that the chancellor believed that the only recourse to bringing the university’s concerns regarding this issue was to make a very public, direct call out of the town,” At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke wrote.

“If the town’s relationship with the university were healthy, I would expect that such public comments would not have been necessary.”

In the community health and safety policy goal, low morale in the Police Department was referenced by District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne.

“I gave ‘needs improvement’ with respect to issues brought up by the police staff who are experiencing a shortage of staff, overtime, burnout and low morale, all of which is leading to good employees leaving our town,” Bahl-Milne wrote. “That doesn’t create conditions for a healthy and safe Amherst.”

On housing affordability, councilors were divided on how well the town manager is doing, referencing the challenges facing middle-income families and individuals.

“The acquisition of grants and movement on affordable housing developments is truly commendable. Amherst has a large percentage of affordable units available, and this is not unnoticed,” District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier wrote.

Homes are still being bought up by developers to rent to students, however.

“The result is the loss of attainable housing for families who want to rent or purchase housing in Amherst and is a contributing factor to our declining non-student/family population,” District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub wrote.

On racial equity and social justice for Black, Indigenous and people of color, there were some questions for the town manager.

“While I see advances being made, the BIPOC community still largely feels unheard in their requests, feedback and suggestions to the town,” At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker wrote. “One of the key ways to strive to achieve racial equity is to include people of color as the decision-makers in the systems that govern their lives.”

“While the town has made progress diversifying staff and committees, it has not incorporated significant involvement of BIPOC residents in shaping policies and procedures,” District 1 Councilor Michele Miller wrote.

“All community members must be listened to, not shut down when their demands are uncomfortable,” District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam wrote. “We need to hear the town manager’s voice; he must share his humanity more, be the leader we need in this time of social change.”

District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes didn’t give a review on this: “While there is no excuse for further delay in becoming the inclusive community we were meant to be and will fail without becoming, we are still within implementation stages. It will be messy and take more than a few months before we reap benefits as with all Civil Rights movements that have come before and make our challenge possible.”

‘Brag sheet’

Bockelman issued the council what he calls a “brag sheet” in which he praised the team that supports the council, its goals and the annual budget-setting process.

That memo cites the work done by town staff and the addition of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department and the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service.

“These accomplishments are a tribute to the quality and commitment of the town’s staff. The past few years have been very challenging for town staff. I want to recognize their professionalism and accomplishments,” Bockelman wrote.

“When you say we want to focus on climate action, we put the effort into that,” Bockelman said.

The best grades for his work came in the financial realm.

“Paul and his finance staff have done an excellent job to ensure the town’s strong financial health,” District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen wrote.

Economic vitality is also an area of strength, even without an economic development director, which Gauthier said the town might want to consider bringing back.

“The town manager has utilized the expertise and experience of town staff creating a flourishing collaboration with the BID and the chamber,” District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis wrote. “This collaboration has helped us creatively weather the lack of an economic development director and the economic impacts of COVID-19.”

District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney, though, suggested strategic planning to ensure the town can do well in the face of UMass challenges.

“UMass continues to replicate town merchants’ special food offerings and redirect spending to its own campus (coffers) at the expense of the town merchants. As retail sales focus more and more on just alcohol, offerings, and diversity of retail in town suffer,” Rooney wrote.

Steinberg praised Bockelman’s recruiting and ability to retain high-level employees.

“Throughout his self-evaluation, Paul reminded us that his accomplishments are also the accomplishments of all of our employees,” Steinberg wrote.

“He should be commended for bringing these employees to Amherst, keeping them here, enabling them to serve the public, and reminding us of what they do every day.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.