Town Council Regular Meeting, 5/6/2019

The big issue was: The power of council committees!

It was clear that the town wasn’t expecting a big turn out for tonight’s meeting. There were only a few rows of chairs set up and these were mostly empty. Nevertheless, it turned out to be quite an eventful night as the power of council committees was debated.

The new charter allows the council to create its own committees, whose members are appointed by the council president. One of these new committees is the Outreach, Communications and Appointments Committee (OCA, pronounced “oh-kah”), which is charged with broadening resident participation in local government and ensuring “transparent communication and outreach to residents.” Sarah Swartz chairs OCA and its other members are Alisa Brewer, Darcy DuMont, Evan Ross, and George Ryan.

One of OCA’s primary duties is advising the council on appointments to multiple-member town bodies (committees, commissions, boards, etc.), a process that has been under great scrutiny lately. As per the new charter, only a few of these bodies are directly under the council’s authority. The rest are under the authority of the town manager, although the council still has the right to vote on his suggested appointees.

OCA has been working on developing a process for resident appointments to committees under the council’s authority. These include the influential Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, which help determine what gets built in town and where, as well as ad hoc commissions to examine participatory budgeting and ranked-choice voting. The charter mandates that the latter two be formed within six months of the council taking office, which puts time pressure on OCA.

Developing a process that the council can use to appoint residents to town bodies hasn’t been easy for OCA. Internal debates about balancing residents’ right to privacy against the need for government transparency have spilled over into larger debates about the authority of council committees like OCA in relation to the council as whole.

OCA has developed a flow chart, called a “decision tree,” to guide how the council handles resident applications to multiple-member bodies. The tree defines the process surrounding these applications, called Community Activity Forms (or CAFs—I’m going to have to post a glossary to help keep all this jargon straight!). A sticking point has been whether the CAFs of applicants to council committees will be made available only to members of OCA, to the council as whole, or to the general public. In the past, CAFs were treated as personnel files and kept confidential, and only select officials could see them. The new charter presents an opportunity to revisit how the town handles them.

The desired outcome of the appointment process is to fill Amherst’s multi-member town bodies with experienced people from diverse backgrounds. These people would ideally have different opinions but would also be able to compromise and get things done. Advocates for privacy argue that potential applicants will be scared off by the possibility of having their names and qualifications publicly debated. Advocates for transparency argue the public needs to know who applied in order to avoid cronyism and evaluate the fairness of the process.

When I first considered the issue, I thought that privacy was the better route to diversity but am now leaning toward transparency. My position changed after considering how much I value open government and realizing how little diversity years of strong privacy has brought us. I have seen no evidence that keeping the identity of applicants private has increased the diversity of our multi-member bodies.

In our present system, too few people get to see the entire applicant pool. Per OCA’s current process, only one of its members organizes first-round interviews, and the Town Manager does the same for town committees. Although others are involved, power over appointments is in the hands of a very small number of people.

Our neighbors in Northampton have opted for more transparency. Their online application for town appointments clearly identifies itself as a public document that will be made publicly available, exposing the process to greater scrutiny.

Triggered by the appointment process, the issue of the power of council committees kept bubbling up over the course of the meeting. In a discussion on a draft of the council’s rules of procedure, councilors debated whether any council committee has the right to establish policies that will affect the council as a whole. This led to debate about what constitutes a binding “policy” versus a more mutable “practice.” No consensus emerged and the issue was referred to the Town Clerk.

The appointment of non-voting residents to the Finance Committee brought still more debate when Finance attempted to wrest control from OCA. (These are advisory positions only; under the new charter, only councilors on the committee can vote.) After putting the issue to a vote, the council decided in favor of OCA, which will retain its oversight of all such appointments.

The appointment process came up yet again in relation to the Energy and Climate Action Committee. Because it’s a town committee, the town manager can use whatever means he see fit to determine a final roster of candidates for an up or down vote of the council. There was discussion among the councilors of making the process for all appointments to multiple-member bodies, including town committees, more public.

The Town Manager has asserted his right to keep the CAFs and other information about his process private, which certainly makes his job easier given the inability of either the council or the public to scrutinize his decisions. The council could have protested against the power of the town manager by voting against his selections or by demanding to see all of the CAFs but did neither. Instead, they voted almost unanimously (with only Evan Ross abstaining) in favor of his appointments, which seemed like a missed opportunity for advocates of transparency to take a stand.

In a final, surprising turn of events, council Chair Lynn Griesemer made a motion to force OCA to make all of the CAFs under its direct purview available to the council as a whole. Alisa Brewer was particularly taken aback and asked Griesemer to repeat her motion. Other members of OCA seemed equally surprised. Swartz launched into a defense of their ability to oversee the process, but met resistance.

The council voted in favor of releasing the CAFs to the full council, although not to the public, which would likely be illegal since applicants weren’t informed that their information might be publicly released. Because the CAFs would only be available to councilors, the town manager complied and the council took a small step toward opening the appointment process, although only to its members.

Griesemer called for a study to be conducted after the first round of appointments in order to assess how best to achieve greater diversity on all of Amherst’s multi-member bodies. At the next regular council meeting, OCA will publicly share its process with the council and present its recommendations for appointments to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.