Town Council Regular Meeting, 11/18/19

The big issue was: ECAC’s climate action goals!

The Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC) presented its first report at the most recent regular Town Council meeting. ECAC asked the Council to commit Amherst to three goals: reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030; preparing to become carbon neutral by 2030; and actually becoming carbon neutral by 2050. 

By convening ECAC last winter, the council signaled that one of its core values was fighting climate change. ECAC is a complement to the Zero Net Energy Bylaw that Town Meeting previously approved, and has been meeting every two weeks since the spring. Its nine voting members include two current town councilors—Darcy Dumont (District 5) and Evan Ross (District 4)—and seven residents, with Town Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello providing staff support.

Vice-chairs Laura Draucker and Andra Rose presented ECAC’s Phase One Outreach Report, which is based on the opinions of approximately 250 town residents solicited this past September and October. Unsurprisingly, everyone they surveyed is in favor of stopping climate change. The most useful parts of the report are the stakeholder interviews, which contain detailed comments from town residents and officials regarding Amherst’s ability to address climate change.

Residents of local apartment complexes asked for increased bus service, particularly on weekends, so that they could drive less and have increased access to shopping and medical care. A mixed-use developer of such apartments, whose name was withheld, noted that the profit margin on landlords is very small and that “even a 2 percent increase in costs or taxes can really impact the bottom line.” S/he suggested that tax incentives would be necessary to support green developments, as well as changes to zoning to allow more density. Building Commissioner Rob Morra said that other zoning changes might be needed, for example in relation to the siting of free-standing solar arrays. Both BID Director Gabrielle Gould and members of the Chamber of Commerce suggested that the Mass Saves energy efficiency program run by the state needs to be made more attractive to landlords and small business owners. 

Guilford Mooring, Director of the Public Works Department, detailed some of the town’s previous attempts at energy efficiency that, he said, proved expensive or inefficient, such as hybrid and bio-diesel vehicles, and methane capture at the landfill. He added that the DPW continues to actively explore green technology, although he remains concerned about its cost effectiveness. School Superintendent Michael Morris was also concerned about expenses. He noted that electric buses have a limited range and said they could only be purchased in addition to our current fleet. They would also necessitate grid updates. Police Chief Scott Livingstone said that he supports installing solar panels on the roof of the police department building, which uses a significant amount of energy, but has not been able to convince the town to do so. 

All of these problems require the same solution: money or incentive programs that amount to the same thing. Not all of this money has to come from the town. That some of it will, however, was clear to the councilors and became the focus of discussion.

Leading off the Q&A, Councilor-At-Large Andy Steinberg asked if the town could afford to reach ECAC’s goals. Drauker responded that while there are considerable upfront costs, many of the solutions to climate change will be cost neutral or save money over the long term. She acknowledged that mitigating climate change and cost efficiency will both be necessary if Amherst is going to continue to thrive. 

Drauker pointed out that UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College have all committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, a considerably more aggressive timeline than ECAC has proposed. During public comment, Russ Vernon Jones suggested that the town use 2045 as its deadline for the same, and other members of the public agreed.

Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Sara Swartz (District 1) expressed concern that the cost of such ambitious goals would unduly affect people with low incomes. Swartz said that not everybody who wants to change their energy consumption habits can easily do so. As the owner of a small farm, she described how difficult it has been for her family to afford greener technology. Drauker responded that low-income residents were already paying too much for energy, and that one of ECAC’s goals is to reduce these costs especially for that community.

In the lead-up to the vote, Councilor-At-Large Mandi Jo Hanneke made a motion to refer ECAC’s proposal to a committee. She said that she was struggling to approve goals that might not be achievable, and wanted more information from the Community Resources and the Finance committees before voting “yea.” After a forty-five minute debate in which Hanneke was the only councilor arguing for referral, the rest of the council voted down her motion.

Hanneke then raised a point of order, saying that the council could not vote on ECAC’s proposed goals that night without violating section 8.4 of the town’s Rules of Procedures. Ross agreed, reminding the council that he was a member of ECAC and that he fully supported its goals, but hadn’t been expecting the vote to come so soon. According to the rules, any non-emergency measure must be discussed at a meeting prior to the one where the council votes on it. 

This is a good practice. It gives the public and councilors a chance to digest a measure and consider it more thoughtfully before committing the town to action. While climate change is a global emergency, waiting until the next meeting to vote on ECAC’s goals is a perfectly reasonable request and less onerous than referring it to committee. Instead, the council voted  (12-1) by the necessary super-majority to override its own rules. 

In the end, the entire council—including Hanneke—voted to support ECAC’s goals. 

From the audience, watching the council finally get to a unanimous vote was frustrating on a number of levels. Councilors raised objections to the measure on the table, then voted unanimously in favor of it. They used their Rules of Procedure to throw roadblocks in the way of the measure, but then disregarded these rules to pass it earlier than necessary. In the end, no substantial debate took place.

All of this wrangling is indicative of the council’s first year, where it has spent much of its time working on developing best-practices, rules, and regulations while struggling to achieve real goals like reducing Amherst’s carbon footprint. Phase Two of ECAC’s report will focus on achieving its now mandated goals, and should contain suggestions for actual programs and their associated costs. At that point, there will be another opportunity for a more significant conversation where real differences of opinion are aired.