‘We accomplished so much’: Town’s first Town Council deemed by many a success, others are critical

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2022

AMHERST — Formed after voters put an end to representative Town Meeting, the three-year inaugural Town Council recently concluded its work by adopting zoning changes that could bring a second parking garage to downtown and require that mixed-use buildings have a minimum amount of commercial space.

In approving the zoning amendments at its final meeting on Dec. 20, before six new councilors were sworn in on Jan. 3, though, the 13-member council closed its term with some of the same divisions its tenure started with, including questions about what development is appropriate for Amherst.

For outgoing At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer, whose continuous service as a townwide representative dates to her election to the School Committee in 2002, the Town Council’s actions illustrate why she supported changing the form of government.

“The Town Council’s deliberation and action is as accessible and transparent as I’d hoped it would be, and far more so than anyone who was not a member of representative Town Meeting ever experienced,” Brewer said.

Residents now have more influence over the actions of the Town Council than they did over Town Meeting, Brewer said, even though there may be continued griping over the outcomes, whether it be for zoning changes, affordable housing or the Jones Library expansion and renovation project.

“As to the argument made by some that town councilors aren’t listening because they aren’t agreeing with the most vocal residents, that’s like the standard Amherst argument that the process was bad because I didn’t get what I wanted,” Brewer said.

While Brewer is largely pleased with how the council has worked, despite the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has caused in running a government, Darcy DuMont, the District 5 councilor who is leaving after opting against seeking reelection, offers a scathing critique. She refers to the last 37 months as an “utter failure of the current Town Council to come through with a new, democratic, transparent government that effectively represents the people of Amherst.”

“This Town Council is unabashedly undemocratic in so many ways it is breathtaking,” DuMont said. “We can only hope that in the next two years, the public will get a much better sense of just how bad the situation is.”

She levels her main criticisms at what she sees as the council prioritizing economic drivers that benefit downtown property owners and developers. DuMont also argues that objectives of the charter change, such as empowering voters, increasing thoughtful deliberation and decision-making, and better long-term planning, have not happened.

Brewer, though, notes that DuMont campaigned in 2018 on a building moratorium that wasn’t brought forward until this year, and only after other councilors responded to a citizens petition. Brewer also views an irony in the results of the Nov. 2 election, the first where councilors had to stand for reelection, where District 4 Councilor Evan Ross lost even though he achieved several goals for improving downtown Amherst that he laid out in a specific agenda.

For Ross, who helped lead the drive for the zoning change that’s likely to lead to a multistory parking garage downtown, positive work was done for the town. In farewell remarks to the council, Ross cited achievements as support of the Jones Library expansion and renovation, getting three affordable housing projects in the pipeline ,and setting the stage for climate action and making the town just and equitable with new departments.

“We accomplished so much, all while setting up the structure and process of a new legislative body, and while having our term punctuated by an historic global pandemic,” Ross said at the final meeting. “We have moved our community forward and we have fulfilled the promise of the new charter.”

Outgoing District 3 Councilor George Ryan, who also lost a reelection bid, cites successes as creating the council from scratch with a workable committee structure that will help the next council move forward, and the support for four capital building projects that will be undertaken and guided by Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Steve Schreiber, who previously served as chairman of the Planning Board and represented District 4, and Sarah Swartz, who represented District 1, also chose not to run for reelection. In the final year, the Town Council made strides, he said.

“I think the Town Council found its rhythm in 2021 as we navigated a number of important issues, including zoning amendments, the expansion and renovation of the library, the renovation of the Town Common, (and) the creation of a new community safety department,” Schreiber said.

DuMont said one of the few accomplishments, aside from initiatives to tackle climate change, was the creation of the public safety alternative and the new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department, but that credit for that should go to the Community Safety Working Group and the support received from Bockelman. “The council went along, because it basically could not do otherwise,” DuMont said.

Andy Churchill, who chaired the Charter Commission that crafted the new town charter, said he is pleased that councilors can take the time needed on each issue and understood what they are voting on. “That often was not the case with Town Meeting, so this feels like a real step forward for good, thoughtful government,” Churchill said.

Brewer said the Town Council was also able to hear from constituents in many ways.

“I so appreciate the time and personal exposure residents were willing to provide to talk to us formally and informally on complex issues, especially issues of affordable housing and public safety,” Brewer said. “I hope they realize how much influence they had on us.”

Even with divisions, Ross said his advice is for councilors is to work together as much as possible.

“Finding common ground isn’t always easy, and sometimes compromise feels like folding,” Ross said. “But we need our town to continue moving forward, and that will require councilors finding ways to collaborate and compromise.”

Schreiber said councilors should get their news and information from newspapers rather than blogs and social media, and be encouraged to speak openly and freely, within the limits of the rules set down by the council.

Ryan said it would be better for the council if it could resume in-person meetings, that while functioning well enough in a remote setting, that is not healthy for creating and maintaining personal relationships.

“I felt that some of the unpleasantness of the last few months, in addition to the general nastiness of the election, was exacerbated by the fact that we no longer met face-to-face on a biweekly basis,” Ryan said.