Town Council Regular Meeting, 3/18/19

The big issue was: political theater!

Never have I seen the Town Room so crowded! Every seat was taken. People without seats stood around the edges of the room. Why? Because the elementary school project was back on the agenda and residents were eager to comment on how the process was going. The School Committee is at the beginning of the grant application cycle and unless things go awry, it will soon submit a statement of interest (SOI) to enter the competition for funding from the state. (For more on this, see my previous blog post.)

Between the last regular Council meeting and this one, the listening sessions hosted by the School Committee have been completed and the final, seventy-three page report assembled by hired facilitators was made public. As expected, the School Committee voted unanimously in favor of the proposal to build a single, new elementary school with approximately 600-students with either a K-5 or K-6 grade configuration. One last step remains in the process before the Committee can submit the SOI: the Town Council must vote to approve it, which they will do on April 1st.

Michael Morris, Superintendent of Schools, and Anastasia Ordonez, Chair of the School Committee, once again presented the project to the council. The councilors have sat through this same presentation multiple times, as have I. There was no new information. Instead, the public stole the show.

There was obvious concern on the part of Council Chair Lynn Griesemer that the number of people in the audience wanting to make public comment would cause chaos or at least cause the meeting to run unmanageably late. She handled the situation with her usual wry humor, calmly guiding presenters to state their minds without repeating what had already been said. She kept each speaker to a few minutes without rushing them away from the podium.

A procession of people took their turn at the mic. The principles of all three elementary schools spoke, followed by teachers, parents, and other concerned residents. Impassioned speeches were made. Tears were shed. All told, more than twenty people spoke and all* supported the proposal!

The Massachusetts School Building Authority has asked for evidence of consensus in favor of the proposal before the town will be eligible for funding, by which it means unanimous or near unanimous “yes” votes from the School Committee and the Town Council. Three people called on the council to unanimously vote “yes.” While a strong vote of support will help, I think this is the wrong thing to ask of our Councilors. They should vote based on what their constituents say to them and what they feel is best for the town, not in a block. As with the School Committee, I expect that there will be strong support from the Council and that the project will move forward.

Members of the public are clearly ready to appear and speak to issues that they find relevant. Allowing the time for this, and having it recorded, is a crucial part of town governance. Although it has aspects of political theater, public comment is a record of the wishes of residents. It’s an important way for our politicians to be held accountable and for outside agencies to get a sense of what residents want.

After the school discussion the room cleared out as usual and everyone who left missed an entirely different kind of theatrical presentation with more subtle implications but whose impact is also relevant to life in Amherst.

John Hornik, chair of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, made a charming presentation in the form of a five-act play that he narrated using PowerPoint. He was there to ask the Council to authorize the Town Manager to sign a 99-year lease on the East Street School building property so that it can be used for low-income housing. Town Meeting had begun this process and it is up to the Council to see it through.

Amherst has had a long-standing shortage of affordable housing. Municipal Affordable Housing Trusts allow towns to segregate money from their general funds for creating and preserving low-cost places to live. Town-commissioned reports from 2013 and 2015 document the soaring costs of Amherst’s tight real-estate market, which has been driven by national trends and a growing population of UMass students that prices families and low-income workers out of the rental market. The 2015 report says that by 2020 there will be 2000 additional UMass students looking for off-campus housing.

Architecture firm Kuhn-Riddle did a preliminary study of the East Street School property and concluded that the old school building could be re-used in conjunction with new construction for a total of around 30 units. The Housing Trust is calling for a minimum of 15 of these to be used for affordable units. Other specifics will be determined later in the process, once the Council approves the lease. According to Hornik, if the project receives funding from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (which it should), the reduced-cost units would typically exclude students.

Hornik’s amiable, low-key dramatization drew an uncharacteristically effusive show of good will from the Council, who clapped upon its conclusion. He should have taken a bow!

But in the follow-up Q&A, Councilor Mandi-Jo Hanneke pushed for a delay in the approval process, calling for the Finance Committee to determine how much the building is worth. She questioned whether the town should commit to leasing it for so long when it might be able to sell it and use that money for other things. Councilor and Finance Committee member Cathy Schoen pointed out that any cost/benefit analysis must also account for the town’s principles and how much it ethically, and not just monetarily, values affordable housing.

Hanneke seems to be emerging as the fiscal conservative on the Council. This is an important role, and I agree that the town has limited resources and spends too much on a number of things. Affordable housing hasn’t been one of them, however. This project will cost the town little to nothing and can bring tremendous benefit to families in need. Why wait? The Council decided not to refer the matter to the Finance Committee, and will be voting on a decision at the next regular meeting.

Given both votes, it’s going to be a very momentous meeting!

* The lone dissenter was a boy of approximately middle school age who has made public comment to the council before. It’s wonderful to see someone so young invested in town government. Unfortunately, he misunderstood the SOI process. He was opposed to design ideas from the previous project that have not been adopted in this new version and was objecting to things that were irrelevant.