Amherst inaugurates 13 members of new Town Council

  • Crocker Farm Elementary School Choir performs at Sunday’s Town Council inauguration. staff photo/Scott Merzbach

  • Judge James Collins swears in 13 councilorsat Sunday’s Town Council inauguration. —Scott Merzbach

  • Judge James Collins swears in 13 councilors at Sunday’s Town Council inauguration. —Scott Merzbach

Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2018

AMHERST — During the Great Blizzard of 1888, the Palmer’s Block in downtown Amherst was destroyed by fire, a tragic incident that led to the property being acquired by the town and becoming the site of the Town Hall a year later.

In her poem “Excellent Judgment and the Best of Pluck,” composed specially for Sunday’s inauguration of Amherst’s first Town Council (See Page A4 for full poem), Karen Skolfield referenced the event from 130 years ago as marking a new beginning for town government.

“The blizzard remembered, not because our town was buried,” Skolfield said, “but because we stood together, dug our way out, rebuilt what once had burned.”

This theme of unity ran throughout the inauguration at which the 13 councilors, elected by voters last month, were sworn into office by Judge James Collins at the high school auditorium.

A bagpiper led the procession into the auditorium, which was followed by loud applause from several hundred spectators as the new form of government, adopted by voters in March, began its life.

“What a wonderful first greeting for our new Town Council,” said emcee Nancy Eddy, a former member of the Select Board who has been active in town politics for 50 years.

“Let us look at today as a new beginning and a celebration of what is next,” Eddy said, adding that residents are putting faith in the council being able to consider everyone’s needs.

Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, Collins told the councilors the “future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their ideas and dreams,” before having each councilor stand and then be sworn in as a group. He expressed confidence that the council will advance the cause of decent and effective government for Amherst.

Changing of the gavel

Douglas Slaughter, the last chairman of the Select Board, announced that a new gavel is being made from the historic tree cut down from Mount Pollux Conservation Area. He presented the Town Meeting gavel to the Town Council, and that gavel will be used for the first few months until the seasoned wood is fashioned into the new gavel.

The Rev. Vicki Kemper, minister at First Congregational Church, described the inauguration as a transformational moment that lays the groundwork for a brighter future of justice, peace and love.

Amherst’s values are reflected in the support that has been shown for Lucio Perez, the undocumented immigrant who has been in sanctuary at the church for more than a year.

“The town stands shoulder to shoulder with us and we could not be more grateful,” Kemper said.

Karrington Dowe, an Amherst Regional senior and co-president of People of Color United, said he has been inspired to promote social justice since coming to Amherst from Georgia.

“One thing you can trust is everyone wants what’s best for the community,” Dowe said.

Still, Eddy said that the town shouldn’t forget the intense debate over the new form of government after the Charter Commission proposed eliminating Town Meeting in 2017.

Matthew Charity, chairman of the Human Rights Commission and the keynote speaker Sunday, described the honor and privilege of being part of Town Meeting, recalling that when he came to Amherst he got the League of Women Voters guide that informed him how he could contact all local and state representatives.

He said the new council will set the new precedent for how to engage community.

“Now you represent us, all of us, and have an opportunity to make sure all our voices are heard, and that we’re present through you,” Charity said.

Eddy said she was grateful to Town Meeting for helping her get her foot into town politics. “It provided a lot of people with an opportunity to govern the town and make sure we were meeting its challenges,” Eddy said.

As the ceremony closed, Torin Moore, student success adviser for the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, performed a rendition of “Stand by Me,” while two selections were sung by the Crocker Farm Elementary School Choir, directed by Eleanor Lincoln.

‘Government from scratch’

Though it met for the first time Monday, there is still uncertainty as to how the council will go about its business.

“We are really building a government from scratch,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

But observing that the town has existed since 1759 and that town employees recently stepped up to make over the Town Room as the Town Council chambers, there shouldn’t be any problems.

“We’re going to be fine,” Bockelman said.

Among those in attendance were former state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who was on planning committee for the inauguration, retired U.S. Congressman John Olver, retired state Rep. Ellen Story, current state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose. state Sen.-elect Jo Comerford and state Rep.-elect Mindy Domb, as well as University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson.

“What a great beginning for this new chapter in the town’s history,” Rosenberg said.

“It’s not every day you get to see history made,” Domb said.

To mark the occasion, formal photographs of each councilor and group portraits were taken by Greg Bernier of ITB Professional Photography and Studio, and a photo booth was set up where people could have their pictures taken with the town flag, an entering Amherst sign or pennants from UMass, Amherst College and Hampshire College.

Dorothy Pam, a councilor for District 3, wore a boutonniere, as did each member sworn in. Pam said the ceremony was “lovely” and that she is ready to get to work, noting that while there will be some growing pains, the town is blessed with stability in its employees and management.

Russ Vernon-Jones, a former Town Meeting member, said he is thrilled by the experience of those who will serve on the council, which he anticipates will bring the town together and be inclusive in its work. The first meeting, he said, will be an opportunity to blur the lines between the Amherst Forward political action committee, which endorsed some of the candidates who won, and the independent candidates.

“I’m hopeful when they pick a president and vice president it will reflect those values,” Vernon-Jones said.

Both the Council’s president and vice president selected Monday were candidates that were endorsed by Amherst Forward.

Those who attended the inauguration said they are upbeat about the new government

Jerry Guidera, a member of the Amherst for All pro-charter campaign, said he was pleased to see so many people, from all perspectives, celebrate the occasion.

“This sets the right tone after all that effort,” Guidera said. “I’m excited for the future.”

“I thought this was a lot of fun,” said Elisa Campbell, who served six years on the Select Board. “I’m hopeful this will result in a more effective town government.”

Though he was a Town Meeting member since 1966, Lewis Mainzer said he is comfortable with the change. “It’s a good group, and a perfectly reasonable form of government,” Mainzer said.

Irv Rhodes, who was on the Charter Commission and served as campaign manager for Shalini Bahl-Milne, a representative for District 5, said with the ceremony over, it’s time to get down to business.

“All I can say is ‘game on,’” Rhodes said.

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