The View from the Cheap Seats
In the days of vaudeville, rowdies occupied the cheap seats in the balcony. To express their dissatisfaction with a bad performance, they heckled and threw concession-stand snacks until actors were forced to break the fourth wall and shout, “Quiet in the peanut gallery!” During the past year, I’ve sat at the back of the Town Room at nearly every regular Town Council meeting. Although the council’s performance has made me want to chuck things, it’s also made me want to stand up and cheer.
The often-used metaphor of “building the plane while flying it” is apropos, although watching endless hours of dickering over administrative minutiae felt more like riding a slow boat to China. It’s good that the charter has given the first set of councilors an extra year to get the new government aloft because they’ve spent a good portion of their time puzzling over the flight manual.
The language of the charter has created much of this puzzlement. Issues of the authority of the council versus the town manager, particularly surrounding the process for appointing multi-member bodies, remain unresolved. Dangling issues from the previous government have also proved challenging. It took hours of wrangling and multiple meetings for the council to figure out how to create an ad hoc workgroup to examine the Percent for Art Bylaw. At the recent State of the Town meeting, Council President Lynn Griesemer said that the Council would be addressing problems in the charter, although significant changes aren’t permitted until 2024.
The power of the Council president has also been an issue and will be discussed at the regular council meeting on January 6. The president appoints council committees and controls the council agenda. As seen from the back of the room, Griesemer has proven herself an able leader. Her warm demeanor, which welcomes members of the public to meetings, is complemented by a toughness that allows her to mediate fractious debates between councilors. Her sharp mind commands respect and she quickly finds solutions to the many procedural issues that arise. And her dry wit frequently elicits a laugh, even from the peanut gallery. But the president wields considerable power, and she has been accused of stacking council committees with those friendly to issues she supports. From what I’ve seen, what the president wants, the president gets.
As a professor of art history, one of the tools I use when I teach classes is compare/contrast. I ask students to examine two artworks side-by-side and find the similarities and differences between them in order to illuminate where they connect and diverge. The two biggest issues that came up this year offer an ideal opportunity for such analysis: the Station Road bridge replacement and the affordable housing project at 132 Northampton Road.
Imagine if you will: On the left, a temporary bridge called for as an emergency measure early in the year, and approved with undue haste; on the right, a studio apartment building for very low income people, whose approval came later in the year, and only after considerable, often contentious, public input. The proponents of the Station Road bridge were from the affluent Amherst Woods neighborhood; the opponents of the housing project were from an equally affluent neighborhood near downtown. The former cost the town $212,500, with a projected $2.6 million remaining for a permanent bridge; the latter involved borrowing $500,000 of Community Preservation Act money earmarked for affordable housing in an effort to give some of the most housing-insecure people in the area a place live.
The biggest difference between the two is found less in the projects themselves than in how the council responded. Neighbors who lived near Station Road quickly mobilized and demanded that the temporary bridge be built. Additional pressure from the DPW and the town manager seemed to fuel a rushed council decision. The vote to approve the temporary bridge took place at a non-regular council meeting (whereas other votes take place at regular council meetings when not declared an emergency), with almost no publicity and little opportunity for other residents to weigh in.
When neighbors of the proposed housing project mobilized equally quickly, the council corrected course. It took much longer to make its decision and even held a special public session so that more people could speak to the issue. To his credit, even District Three Councilor George Ryan, who represented the upset neighbors, ultimately voted for the project, taking the benefit of the town as a whole into account, even if it affects his chance for re-election. Three cheers are due to the council for their leadership on this issue.
Along with the charter, the other major document that guides the council is their Rules of Procedure. The councilors spent much of the year drafting these, and they conclude with a statement of values (although the Rules really should begin with them—and the entire document should be easier to find by having a link on the council’s webpage). Thanks to Councilor Darcy Dumont, Mothers Out Front, and other concerned residents, these values prominently include environmental sustainability, which has become a signal issue for the Council and the town, as it was for Town Meeting.
Community participation is the first value on the Council’s list, although it’s having a harder time realizing this. Unless there’s a hot-button issue on the agenda, I’m often sitting in the audience alone or nearly alone. Now that the council has had a chance to get moving, it needs to bring more people on board. The committee meetings, where decisions are actually made, are almost always devoid of the public.
The council has had it easy in 2019. Debt continued to taper off; expenses were low; health insurance costs were low. But hard decisions are looming. One or more debt exclusion overrides will be necessary to realize the big-four capital projects. The town manager has warned that in FY21 projected health insurance costs and contractual staff salary increases might consume the town’s entire 2.5 percent annual allowed property tax increase. New development remains a contentious and divisive issue.
In 2020, the council should be running at full speed. We’ll see how well it navigates what’s likely to be stormier weather. Whether worthy of boos or applause, the on-board show is always good. I’ll continue to be along for the ride and hope more people will join me next year. There’s usually room in the audience, and I have plenty of peanuts to spare.