Town Council Regular Meeting, 4/1/19

The big issue was: votes on the elementary school SOI & East Street School affordable housing project!

Votes took place on both the Statement of Interest (SOI) for building a new elementary school and transforming the old East Street School property into affordable housing. Spoiler alert: They both passed unanimously! Later in the evening, voting unanimity was raised as an issue.

The School Committee had already unanimously approved the SOI for the elementary school building. In order for the town to demonstrate consensus surrounding the parameters of the new project, the state granting agency was also asking for a strong show of support from the Town Council. The room was packed, as it had been at previous Council meetings when the project was discussed.

After the vote, the audience erupted in applause. A special letter of support from the Council, which will be included with the SOI, was passed to each Councilor to sign. This was an unusual move that added to the theatrical flair surrounding much of the Council’s recent school-related proceedings. For those who have been following the issue, the vote was anti-climactic. Of all the councilors, I had only heard Sarah Swartz express reservations related to a likely property tax increase that will accompany borrowing for the project. Unlike the temporary Station Road Bridge, she supported the school project in the end.

After the school vote, people slowly trickled out although a number remained. I wondered why?

I was less certain about the vote on leasing the East Street School Property to the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust. The Trust had already received approval for the project from Town Meeting. Because of a minor change in the Trust’s plan, the Council was revisiting the project and could potentially derail it. At the previous regular Council meeting, Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke had pressed for more research on the property value, implying that the town might want to sell it, or use it for other purposes. (After the meeting, the Trust disclosed that the value of the building and surrounding property was about $2.4 million; see my previous post on the project.)

Like the rest of the Council, Hanneke voted in favor of the project and a Request for Proposal, will soon be issued to potential developers. John Hornik, Chair of the Trust, said that Amherst could have 15 or more affordable housing units in as little as five years. This is an important contribution to town. No matter how few, these units will make a big difference to people otherwise priced out of Amherst. We need to find other ways to create various kinds of affordable housing—and much more of it!

People continued to stick around, waiting for the next issue, which was Meg Gage’s presentation on behalf of a number of former Town Meeting Representatives who were in the audience. They were calling for the Council to develop an advisory committee similar to one that had been adopted by Town Meeting just before it was dissolved. Town Meeting had created this committee to provide Representatives with more information on important issues. It would have acted as Town Meeting’s research arm, producing detailed reports and weighing all sides of various issues without recommending up or down votes.

Gage and other members of Town Meeting’s advisory committee had sent their proposal to the Town Council as it was being seated. Griesemer waited until tonight to put it on the agenda, she said, because she wanted to give the Council time to settle in first.

There had been opposition from the Select Board against forming an advisory committee. Similar opposition was voiced by a number of Councilors, including former Select Board member Alisa Brewer. Brewer and others argued that they were already doing the kind of research that the proposal called for, and that having a separate committee doing so would be redundant. Councilor Cathy Schoen pointed out that issues change, and a standing committee would have difficulty understanding all of them well enough to produce detailed reports.

Brewer nevertheless strongly supported the framework that Gage presented for thinking through issues. This framework—which she called “a gift”—is a set of written guidelines that would help Councilors assess the impact of their actions. They would use it to record what research they have done and with whom they have consulted to determine the social, cultural, environmental, and economic impact of potential legislation and policies.

Hornik also spoke on behalf of forming a Council Advisory Committee. One of the previous justifications for having such a committee, he said, was that Town Council’s Select Board, Finance Committee, and Zoning Boards always seemed to vote unanimously or nearly so. While some people argued that this showed consensus, others argued that it showed a lack of diversity of opinion. Such a committee is justified if it leads to more diversity of opinion on the Council.

The Council passed the issue to the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee for further study. A number of Councilors seemed to favor the reporting framework Gage presented, which is well worth adopting because it will create a standard, written record of each Councilor’s decision-making process. Given the unanimity of the three big votes that have come before the Council—the two tonight and the temporary Station Road Bridge—diversity of opinion seems lacking. While a standing Advisory Committee might not be the right answer, the uniformity of thought expressed in block voting is as unhealthy for good governance as divisiveness is.

One last aside regarding public participation: Councilor Evan Ross chastised Gage for coming before the council with a proposal without going “through a proper channel, in a proper form” by which he meant either getting a councilor to sponsor the proposal or getting the required number of signatures from town residents to compel the Council to take it up for discussion. Hanneke jumped to Gage’s defense, pointing out that residents are perfectly within their rights to submit proposals for the council to consider; all that the charter mandates is one signature—that of the petitioner. A public hearing is required for resident petitions with more than 150 signatures; petitions with less than 150 signatures, such as this one, are put on the agenda at the discretion of the Council Chair, which is what Griesemer chose to do.