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Guest column by William Kaizen: Amherst Town Council, The view from the peanut gallery

  • Members of the Amherst Town Council are, front row from left, Cathy Schoen, Lynn Griesemer, Patricia De Angelis, Sarah Swartz and Alisa Brewer; middle row from left are Mandi Jo Hanneke, Dorothy Pam, Darcy DuMont and Shalini Bahl-Milne; back row from left are Stephen Schreiber, George Ryan, Andrew Steinberg and Evan Ross. gazette file photo



Wednesday, January 15, 2020

In the days of vaudeville, rowdies occupied the cheap seats in the balcony. To express their dissatisfaction with a bad performance, they heckled and threw concessions until actors were forced to break the forth wall and shout, “Quiet in the peanut gallery!”

During the past year, I’ve sat at the back of the Town Room at nearly every regular Town Council meeting. Although the council’s performance has made we want to chuck things, it’s also made we want to stand up and cheer.

The often-used metaphor of “building the plane while flying it” is apropos, although watching endless hours of dickering over administrative minutiae felt more like riding a slow boat to China. It’s good that the charter has given the first set of councilors an extra year to get the new government aloft because they’ve spent a good portion of their time puzzling over the flight manual.

The language of the charter has created much of this puzzlement. Issues of the authority of the council versus the town manager, particularly surrounding the process for appointing multi-member bodies, remain unresolved. Dangling issues from the previous government have also proved challenging. It took hours of wrangling and multiple meetings for the council to figure out how to create an ad hoc workgroup to examine the Percent for Art Bylaw.

At the recent State of the Town meeting, council President Lynn Griesemer said that the council would be addressing problems in the charter, although significant changes aren’t permitted until 2024.

The power of the president has also been an issue. The president appoints council committees and controls the agenda. As seen from the back of the room, Griesemer has proven herself an able leader. Her warm demeanor, which kindly welcomes members of the public to meetings, is complemented by a toughness that allows her to mediate fractious debates between councilors. Her sharp mind commands respect and she quickly finds solutions to the many procedural issues that arise. And her dry wit frequently elicits a laugh, even from the peanut gallery.

But the president wields considerable power, and she has been accused of stacking council committees with those friendly to issues she supports. From what I’ve seen, what the president wants, the president gets.

Compare/contrast

As a professor of art history, one of the tools that I use when I teach classes is compare and contrast. I ask students to examine two artworks side-by-side and find the similarities and differences between them in order to illuminate where they connect and diverge.

The two biggest issues that came up in 2019 offer an ideal opportunity for such analysis: Station Road Bridge and the affordable housing project at 132 Northampton Road.

Imagine if you will, on the left, a temporary bridge called for as an emergency measure early in the year, and approved with undue haste. On the right, a studio apartment building for very low-income people whose approval came later in the year, and only after considerable, often contentious, public input.

The proponents of the Station Road Bridge were from the affluent Amherst Woods neighborhood; the opponents of the housing project were from an equally affluent neighborhood near downtown. The former cost the town $212,500, with a projected $2.6 million remaining for a permanent bridge; the latter approved borrowing $500,000 of Community Preservation Act money earmarked for affordable housing, and will give some of the housing-insecure people in the area a place live.

The biggest difference between the two is found less in the projects themselves than in how the council responded. Neighbors who lived near Station Road quickly mobilized and demanded that the temporary bridge be built. Additional pressure from the DPW and the town manager rushed the council’s decision. The vote to approve the temporary bridge took place at a non-regular council meeting (whereas other votes do, when not declared an emergency), with almost no publicity and little opportunity for other residents to weigh in.

When neighbors of the proposed housing project mobilized equally quickly, the council corrected course. It took much longer to make its decision and even held a special public session so that more people could speak to the issue. To his credit, even District 3 councilor George Ryan, who represents the upset neighbors, ultimately voted for the project, taking the benefit of the town as a whole into account, even if affects his chance for reelection.

Three cheers are due to the council for their leadership on this issue.

All aboard

Along with the charter, the other major document that guides the council is its Rules of Procedure. They spent much of the year drafting these, and they conclude with a statement of values (although it really should begin with them — and the entire document should be easier to find by having a link on the council’s webpage).

Thanks to councilor Darcy Dumont, Mothers out Front and other concerned residents, these values prominently include environmental sustainability, which has become a signal issue for the council and the town, as it was for town meeting.

Community participation is the first value on the council’s list, although it’s having a harder time realizing this. Unless there’s a hot-button issue on the agenda, I’m often sitting in the audience alone or nearly alone. Now that the council has had a chance to get moving, it needs to bring more people on board. The committee meetings, where decisions are actually made, are almost always devoid of the public.

The council has had it easy in 2019. Debt continued to taper off, expenses were low, and health insurance costs were low. Hard decisions are looming. One or more debt exclusion overrides will be necessary to realize the big-four capital projects. The town manager has warned that in fiscal 2021, projected health insurance costs and contractual staff salary increases might consume the town’s entire 2.5% property tax increase. New development remains a contentious and divisive issue.

In 2020, the council should be running at full speed. We’ll see how well it navigates what’s likely to be stormier weather. Whether worthy of boos or applause, the on-board show is always good. I’ll continue to be along for the ride and hope more people will join me next year. There’s usually room in the audience, and I have plenty of peanuts to spare.

William Kaizen is an art historian and chair of the Amherst Public Art Commission. He has taught most recently at the Bard Microcollege at the Care Center in Holyoke.