Town Council Regular Meeting, 1/6/20

The big issue was: the vote for President and Vice President.

I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to attend this week’s regular Town Council meeting in person. It’s far more entertaining to be in the Town Room than sitting home and staring at a screen. Fortunately, Amherst Media does a good job shooting town meetings and I waited eagerly for them to post the video. I had been looking forward to a discussion about the power of the Council President and Vice President that was slated for this meeting, which was to be followed by a vote to appoint these offices.

The Charter gives the President a tremendous amount of power. According to section 2.2  as well the Council’s rules of procedure, the President presides at all meetings of the council, sets the agenda for these meetings, regulates their proceedings and decides all questions of order. They appoint all Council committees. They alone can call for a special meeting of the council (whereas it takes three regular members of the Council to do so), and they call emergency meetings. Other lesser powers are vested in the presidency as well. The stipend for the president is $7500.

The only powers specified for the Vice President are that, in the absence of the President, they preside over meetings and can call an emergency meeting. The Vice President is paid the same $5000 stipend as the rest of the other councilors.

A Glitch in the Works
Two days after the Council meeting, video of the first two and half hours went up on Amherst Media. I emailed them to ask where the rest was because the discussion about the president and vice president came later in the evening. Finally, I heard back: There had been a technical glitch and they had lost the remaining footage!  Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe came to my rescue, sending me draft minutes of the meeting. Generously, Council President Lynn Griesemer was also willing to speak with me on the phone, as was Vice President Mandi Jo Hanneke and Councilor Cathy Schoen.

Several themes emerge out of the minutes. One was that the Vice President is the “President in training,” and although they have little mandated power of their own, they are being groomed for this position. Alisa Brewer responded that the Select Board rotated its Vice Chair so that all members would have the opportunity to act as understudies, although Andy Steinberg pointed out that there were only five Select Board members versus thirteen councilors.

Another recurring theme was that the power of the President to set meeting agendas was too strong, and that other councilors should be brought into the process. Griesemer agreed that allowing more councilors into this process would be a good idea, and reiterated this to me when we spoke.

When asked what duties she has assumed as Vice President, Mandi Jo Hanneke listed: reviewing meeting minutes; tracking future agenda items and attending agenda setting meetings; crafting the language of motions; standing in for the President at a variety of events; presiding over meetings that the President is unable to attend; giving guidance to the President on the charter; reviewing documents for the President; and giving the President other advice. She has also recently participated in closed-door meetings with UMass, which other councilors took umbrage to. Darcy Dumont commented that the Vice President has assumed a lot of authority, despite the duties of this role being largely unspecified in the charter or rules of procedure.

On the phone, Hanneke noted that other councilors also help craft motions and that she thought her previous role as a Charter Commissioner was the reason she was consulted for charter-related issues and not her position as Vice President. She said that when  she served on the Charter Commission, she envisioned the role of Vice President as someone who does various things at the request of the President and she continues to see the role this way.

A Glitch in the Vote
It finally came time for the Council to elect new officers. Things went smoothly for the Presidential vote. Griesemer was nominated, accepted the nomination and was unanimously re-elected without fuss.

Then came the vote for Vice President. Unexpectedly, Steve Schreiber nominated Schoen! While Schoen expressed interest in the position, she respectfully declined. Comments that she made earlier in the evening, when she remarked that there is currently a team in place that works well together, seemed to have guided her decision. She said to me that, while she would like to run for Vice President in the future, she felt it would have been too divisive to accept the nomination this year.

Hanneke was then nominated for the vice presidency, unanimously reappointed, and the meeting adjourned at almost midnight.

The power of presidency and vice presidency will undoubtedly come up again. When they do, the council will need to further consider how to more equitably distribute the duties associated with these positions. They might consider allowing the Vice President to appoint Council Committees, or allowing committee membership to be determined by ranked choice voting among the councilors. The President could be disallowed from sitting on council committees and only be charged with ensuring their smooth operation. The vice presidency could be mandated as a rotating position. For that matter, so could the presidency.

As far as the lost video footage goes, accidents happen and Amherst Media provides an invaluable service covering town government. Having to contend with the lost footage reinforced that there’s no substitute for being there. Knowing the outcome of a vote is easy to learn from the minutes. Understanding the substance of a nuanced debate is impossible without better documentation, and is even more absorbing in the actual presence of those having the discussion. Watching the council do its hard work in person is much better—and much more consequential—than either “Netflix and chill” or the distant drama of national politics.