No public comments in new process for Amherst board candidate interviews 

  • Amherst Town Hall. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Saturday, January 11, 2020

AMHERST — When candidates hoping to serve on the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals are interviewed at upcoming public meetings, only elected town councilors on the Outreach, Communications and Appointments panel will be asking them questions and offering comments.

The Town Council agreed this week to amend its rules of procedure for all standing and ad hoc committees so that a public comment period is required only at “regular committee meetings.”

Approved 11-0, with District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont abstaining and District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne absent, the amendment means that the interviews for the Planning and Zoning boards, as well as the interviews for the nonvoting members on the Finance Committee, can be conducted at these special public meetings.

The idea is to make the process for Town Council-appointed committees smoother while offering some protection to those being interviewed, officials said.

At the December meeting, in which the first reading on the revised rule was done, District 4 Councilor Evan Ross,chairman of the Outreach, Communications and Appointments committee, said the idea of not allowing public comment is to avoid having people making critiques and potentially hurtful statements about candidates during the interviews.

“We are hoping to prohibit public comment during those,” Ross said at the time.

A memo sent by Ross to Council President Lynn Griesemer elaborates: “OCA members are concerned that with interviews as the sole agenda item, public commenters may comment on a named individual interviewee. There is also the possibility that a commenter might make disparaging comments about an interviewee.”

Regular committee meetings would continue to have a period set aside for public comment.

The rule change was crafted so that it meets the state’s Open Meeting Law.

At Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said the Town Council is not allowed to make a rule that the public can’t talk about candidates, while DuMont said to take public comment out of all special meetings would not be wise.

Last May, the Town Council made its first appointments to the Planning Board and Zoning Board, but the OCA panel did interviews in private and never divulged how many residents had applied or how many were interviewed.

Most committee appointments are done by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, with interviews conducted out of the public eye. Bockelman brings forward his selections, which can be approved or denied by the Town Council, or confirmed through taking no action.

Before adoption of the new charter in March 2018, appointments to the Planning Board and Zoning Board were also made by the town manager and subject to approval by the Select Board, with the Finance Committee named by the town moderator.

The rules change doesn’t affect the current process for applying that is used by both the Town Council and Bockelman, in which Community Activity Forms, or CAFs, are filled out by residents interested in serving on boards; those are deemed personnel records and not subject to disclosure.

Because these application forms are not made public, the number of people who apply for specific committee work, and those interviewed for those positions, are unknown, with only those recommended by the town manager or the council subcommittee identified publicly. People interviewed and passed over, for instance, are not publicly known, and some of those who may have reached a finalist stage before withdrawing are also not made public.

Even under the proposed process, the Town Council will not disclose the number of applicants to the public or the press until the interviews are publicly posted.

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