Guest columnist David Sloviter: Amherst deserves a Town Council that listens

  • Amherst Town Hall

Thursday, January 28, 2021

If you feel a need for a civics lesson at The School of Dysfunction, you cannot do better than by attending a Town Council meeting in Amherst.

Councilors attend meetings, often after soliciting public comment in advance, and ignore public input by simply voicing the opinions they brought to the meeting. It is a hearing at which nothing is heard.

It almost doesn’t matter what the topic is. Last March, in what seems a lifetime ago, they held one of the last public meetings before the pandemic. The topic was a safety issue from which the neighborhood was seeking relief. It was exactly the kind of situation that the Town Council, the only body in Amherst with the authority to deal with the situation, should resolve.

The town administration proposed a parking change presented by Department of Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring, who said, “This is a road I would not put parking on. It’s too narrow.” He has spent his career dealing with the function of the town and safety issues, so one would think council would accept his view. They did not.

Council disregarded the data that it didn’t like and came up with unrelated suggestions to support preconceived ideas. It seems you only hear at a hearing what you want to hear. One councilor, Steven Schreiber, who stated that parking should be allowed on every street, twice suggested parking meters. Another councilor, Darcy Dumont, was “really wrestling with special treatment” for the neighborhood in question. She only wanted to consider a parking change if it was townwide. The issue was not about privilege. It was safety. It seems that Ms. Dumont was not wrestling with the idea of people who feel threatened.

Apparently, facts can be ignored if you don’t like them. Sound familiar? The irony is that a Mitch McConnell Senate and Amherst Town Council function in a similar manner. Town Council invited comment, allowed witnesses, including their own town staff, and then ignored anything they didn’t like. The verdict was as predetermined as the then-recent impeachment trial in the Senate.

Now Alisa Brewer has taken preconceived bias to a new low by playing the race card. In a recent zoning discussion, she characterized opposition to relaxing zoning rules and to certain kinds of development as being racially motivated by saying that, “white homeowners in Amherst don’t want change. I understand that fear is what is driving this.”

The issue is about preserving the character of the town of Amherst, not race. People of color also don’t want more private student dorms dominating the downtown. Both white people and people of color would like a town government that listens and helps. Instead, we get a council with immovable private agendas that accepts and approves anything that a developer claims, regardless of the misrepresentations. It is a corrupted process and corruption is wrong in any form.

The new Town Council form of government, which replaced Town Meeting, was supposed to streamline local government by being smaller and meeting more frequently. Among the stated goals pushed by the supporters of change was that a smaller group would be more responsive and avoid the unwieldy nature of a large group. Rather, it seems to exist, in part, so that people who want authority and power will have a home. They often do what they want while ignoring anything with which they personally disagree. It is often not about doing the people’s will but their own.

The leadership of Council President Lynn Griesemer is one of the few bright spots. Her stunning patience and commitment to fairness, building consensus and staying on topic is impressive. If only more councilors would follow her example.

The citizens of Amherst deserve a town government that is responsive to their concerns. There are times when members of our community need help, relief, and problem-solving. They need resolution in a timely manner and only the Town Council can provide it.

It can listen to what its citizens propose with open minds and make a decision or it can remain frozen in its narrow-minded parochial interests and avoid responsibility. Change is inevitable and people of all colors welcome change that is based on fact, reason, and inclusiveness in spite of what Ms. Brewer claims.

Amherst deserves better. We have one elected body that has all of the power and authority. No one can reasonably expect to always get their way but we would like to be heard and considered without being labeled as racists or elitists to make it easier to dismiss us. Town Council cannot claim to invite public participation if it chooses to ignore it.