The big issue was: the climate committee!
After spending the fall with my family in Ghent, Belgium’s premiere university town and home to the Van Eyck brothers’ world-famous altarpiece, I dove back into Amherst politics and attended my first Town Council meeting.
Ghent’s town election took place while we were there. They have a parliamentary system that uses much better election practices than Amherst—or anywhere in the U.S.—does and includes mandatory voting, weekend election days and strict campaign finance and advertising regulations. The Green Party typically ends up sharing power with the Liberal/Democratic Party, which was the case and is not so different from the competing political factions in Amherst—minus the far-right Flemish nationalist party!
Upon returning to Town Hall (or should I say “City Hall”?), I was surprised by the reconstructed Town Room. Its centerpiece had transmogrified from a modest meeting-room table to a Supreme Court-style podium of dubious grandeur surrounded by all-seeing camera eyes manipulated by a media crew ensconced in a hidden back room. This set-up was designed like a soundstage to look good on camera but was intimidating to behold in person. Making things worse, the room was broiling hot.
At the start of the meeting there were a number of people in the audience. By the end, it was just me and Meg Gage who was there as an observer for the League of Women Voters. Councilors Schoen and Shalini Bahl-Milne had to call in remotely and were alternately inaudibly quiet or blaringly loud. No one said where Bahl-Milne was, but Schoen later announced that she was in Europe (Switzerland to be exact). When the meeting began at 6:30 PM in Amherst it was 12:30 AM for her.
One of the most significant administrative duties of the council is designing and appointing “standing committees,” which are better thought of as Council committees. The council as a whole oversees the membership of these committees, although Chair Lynn Griesemer makes the appointments. They and will consist of members of the council, with the exception of the Finance Committee, which will also include members of the public. These committees are where most of the important decisions will get made. Keeping an eye on them will be crucial for understanding how power flows through the new government.
The “Energy and Climate Resilience Committee” is the first committee developed by the council, marking climate change as one of its key issues. The committee’s mission, or “charge,” was developed by Councilors Darcy Dumont and Evan Ross, and needed to be approved by a vote of the entire council before it could begin its work.
One of the things that the climate committee will engage with is the town’s Zero-Net Energy Bylaw. Town Meeting passed the bylaw in 2017, which stipulates that most new town building projects will have to generate their power through renewable resources. This adds up-front costs that get translated into savings over time with the benefit of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Other issues that the committee could potentially explore are mitigating the effects of climate change on farmers as flooding increases, and how to keep the roads better paved as winter freezing and thawing increases.
Although the council was clearly in favor of establishing the committee, it got bogged down in the details, particularly as related to the wording of the charge and its goals. Councilors struggled to pin down the list of subjects that the committee would address and referred the charge to an ad hoc committee for further consideration without approving it.
The town also demonstrated its commitment to working on issues related to climate change through staffing changes when Assistant Town Manager David Ziomeck introduced the town’s Sustainability Coordinator, Stephanie Ciccarello.
The other major issue that came up before the council was the failing Station Road Bridge. As per Guilford Mooring, Superintendent of the Department of Public Works, the bridge needs to be replaced. The question of whether or not the town should build a temporary bridge was put to the council. Guilford and Town Manager Paul Bockelman were in favor of one, at a cost of approximately $200,000. When pressed, Paul said that there would be no impact on public safety without one, only inconvenience for abutters. Any decisions about the bridge were left hanging. Afterwards, a number of abutters made public comment asking that the temporary bridge be built.
Late into the meeting, when I was the only spectator left in the room other than town staff, there was a “plink, plink” against the windows. During a break, Meg Gage had gotten locked out of the building and asked a police officer to throw rocks at the window to get let back in! She swept back in for general public comments, requesting that the council make a strong effort to recruit residents from under-represented communities to committees. I was disappointed that we were the only people who stayed until the end. Where were all of the people who had previously been so invested in local government when Town Meeting was running? Watching at home?
By the time the meeting ended at 11:00 PM, the sun was rising over the Alps. It speaks to the commitment of both Cathy Schoen and Shalini Bahl-Milne that they remotely participated until the end. I walked out into the cold night air weary from the long meeting and late hour. But watching the council do its hard work was certainly more informative—and at times more entertaining—than another night of Netflix after the kids are in bed.
Being in the Town Room in person made the drama of forging a new government tangible, with all of the necessary but unwieldy process this entails. I realized that it might not be so bad to wait a few years and run for council after all the setting up is done, when the new committees and other structures necessary for governance are in order.
Things to watch out for: Station Road Bridge funding; whether the council will be able to get anything substantive done given all of the procedural work on their plate and their debate about committee charges.