Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prometheus bound

We would finish last night. The question was when. We got started at about 7:45.

Article 14 pertained to the Town acquiring an easement for land on Main Street where the parking garage encroaches on private property, but details are still being worked out with the land owner, and so the Select Board asked that this article be dismissed.

Article 15 – was to see if the Town would accept the report of the Fire Station Study Committee, and to ask that the Town Manager create long range plans for financing two of its recommendations – one for two stations, and the other for three. The Chair of the Fire Station Study Committee described the group’s work to date. Last time the committee came before TM was to request money to hire a consultant to study the current system, consider its future needs, and identify possible sites for a new station and the associated costs. TM appropriated $20,000 for that purpose. The committee issued an RFP and received 11 responses. They chose a company and developed a report, and the summary of that was presented last night. (The full 46-page report is available here.) The gist of the report is that there are challenges to providing fire protection and emergency services within adequate response times in a long skinny town. The current two station set-up provides inadequately for the southern part of town and needs to be rectified. The Committee’s report provides several options, and their recommendation that the three station option be pursued.

The Select Board unanimously supported the article. Robie Hubley commended the committee’s work and talked of visiting Vernon, Conn., when interviewing Larry Shaffer, and seeing the new fire station and emergency center built there under his tenure. Hubley said that made him confident that Shaffer knew his way around this kind of financing plan. Alice Carlozzi, Finance Committee chair, said they too were unanimous in their recommendation for support, and appreciated this step as a progress report and chance for TM to express opinions.

A member then moved to divide the motion – any member’s prerogative if the sense of the article lends itself to division. This one divided easily into A and B – receiving the report, and having the Town Manager create financing plans. We quickly vote on the first part, and the vote to receive the report is unanimous. On to the second part.

A member sought to amend the motion, eliminating the part that asks for a plan for a two station concept, leaving only the three station option on the table. He tells a story about a bad fire in his apartment building in South Amherst in 1987, and how it took the fire department more than 7 minutes to arrive because of traffic downtown, how much worse the fire was because of the delay, and how scary it was to imagine a loved one being trapped in the fire.

Several people spoke against the motion to amend, saying that presenting plans for both options would be instructive. After some procedural confusion about which order to vote on the motions (and did this meet the inscrutable requirements of “voting the higher number first?” – it did not,) we vote on the amendment. It fails in a voice vote. I didn’t vote (I was still taking notes at that moment, and somehow spaced on the voting) but I had intended to not support it. I do feel like the three station concept is almost a foregone conclusion – or should be – so I kind of liked cutting to the chase and sparing the Town Manager’s time by not going through the motions of creating a two station financing plan. But I was persuaded by the arguments that the comparison of the two will be instructive. When the contentious issue of funding this comes before TM, one expensive three station plan would be easy to ridicule. Comparing it to a less-expensive but less-optimal two station plan will provide perspective and help frame the argument in terms of X-dollars buying Y-additional coverage, and whether it is more worth saving or spending that difference.

A member then complained about the irresponsibility of any such plan when we’re already looking at another significant budget shortfall, and we have other capital needs. He then invoked that familiar TM refrain – “Make the colleges pay!” Just think of all we could do if they – read: UMass – paid their “fair share.”

A few questions about timing on the project (we’re in year 2 of a multi-year timeline – what happens when depends which option we pursue,) and which maps show which options, and why some options aren’t even being considered (some options were immediate no-gos because they defied national standards and practices or involved locations with traffic impracticalities) and then we voted. The Yes votes were overwhelming, with just a few scattered No votes. I voted Yes.

Article 16 sought to create an emergency access bylaw whereby new and renovated buildings – except single-family dwellings – with supervised alarm systems would be required to install lockboxes with necessary keys or access codes, enabling the Fire Department to gain entry. Currently they either have to wait for a key holder to show up, which wastes a ton of the Fire Department’s time, or they have to break down a door or window, which costs the building owner a lot of money to fix. Both the Select Board and Finance Committee were in unanimous support. There were a couple of questions from the body about whether the Police Department could access the boxes also (no) and whether the Fire Department rather than the building owner should initiate the annual inspections (apparently not – no one opted to respond to this suggestion) and we quickly voted unanimously to support this. So quickly did we vote in fact, that some people were confused and thought the vote was about calling the question, but that hadn’t happened, so it wasn’t.

On to Article 17 – making non-permitted, hence illegal, open burning a ticketable offense. This is intended as a deterrent against and punishment for student bonfires. The SB supports it. The FC supports it. A couple of members support it for its very obviousness. Then other members talk about Native American ceremonies, the role of fire in human history, and the pleasures of playing guitar around fires in the woods back in college, or toasting marshmallows with your kids, and suddenly it appears that in Amherst illegal burning is considered a civil right. So passionate are these bonfire devotees that we actually have a counted standing vote on calling the question, which requires 2/3 majority. It passes 90 Yes, 31 No. We then immediately have a standing vote on the main motion. It too passes 93 Yes, 30 No. I vote Yes to both.

Article 18 – the end is in sight! This is a technicality – granting an easement for wires and cables to connect to the cell phone tower being erected on Pulpit Hill Road. Everything about the cell phone tower and its contract are a done deal. This is just to grant the necessary but overlooked easement. SB and FC support it. Members are concerned that we got shafted in the deal with Verizon, and we ought to be soaking this rich company. "Too late" is the response. Giant ovation (thank goodness!) for DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring, recently back from National Guard duty in Iraq, who explains that we get the money from Verizon, plus 50% of additional antenna rentals on the tower, which together may total up to $60,000 per year if fully-utilized. The Town also gets to use the tower for its own antennas, and gets a storage facility. We vote. It gets nearly unanimous support, with the requisite couple of Nos thrown in for good measure.

And then at about 9:15, the fall Town Meeting was dissolved.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Updated attendance and voting results

The attendance and tally vote records have been updated to reflect the 11/8 session. They are sorted by name, by precinct, and by vote.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

A productive and drama-free evening

Back to the business of the Town, rather than the World.

To start the meeting, Anne Awad of the Select Board moved to put the remaining articles back in their numerical order, overriding the various rearrangements we made October 30th. The vote in support of the motion was unanimous.

Article 6: Saving the Kimball House on North East Street – this article sought to authorize the Select Board to enter into both a compensation agreement and a mitigation agreement with the State’s Department of Agricultural Resources to make amends for the highly-unusual effort to remove previously-designated Agricultural Preservation Restriction land from that status in order to compromise with the new owners of an historic property. They had wanted to demolish their 200-year-old house and replace it with a new one, but after much hew and cry have agreed to preserve the building’s exterior and some of the surrounding landscape, provided they could instead build elsewhere on the property. Because the spot they desire is APR-protected, the Town needs to get that development-preventing restriction removed, something the State does not take lightly. Hence, both compensation (to the tune of $211,000, based on the assessed value of the land being removed from APR for the new house) and $100,000 of mitigation (as penalty and disincentive to other communities that might consider removing an APR) are required. Of the $211K compensation, $50,000 has already been appropriated by TM from Community Preservation Act funds; the property owners have contributed another $25,000; and an 11-acre parcel that will be added to APR is valued at $8,000, leaving an outstanding balance of $128,000. This must be paid by the Town within five years, and the State has required that obligation be backed by the “full faith and credit” of the Town, meaning there is no way to avoid paying it – at the end of five years, it would be taxed back to us if unpaid. The $100K of mitigation also is due within 5 years, and while still required, lacks the “full faith and credit” vow, and can be cash, land, or a combination thereof.

Mr. Hubley introduced the article, reading a letter from the DAR about how they wouldn’t do this for just any town, but Amherst has been exemplary in creating APR land and has made a compelling case for why this house should be saved.

Jim Wald, vice chair of the Historical Commission spoke on that committee’s position, which amounts to “we must save this house.” This committee first got involved via the demolition request by the owners. There are less than a handful of brick houses from this era left in Amherst. It is special because it has never been modernized or repurposed as a business or student housing; the house and surrounding farm are a complete geographical and economic unit from the early 1800s; the big house shows that farmers were successful and well-esteemed. Much work by many has gotten us this far.

The Conservation Commission and Farm Committee both support this in the name of historic preservation. The Select Board supported it, 4-1. The Town Manager explained the whole complicated situation quite clearly, and emphasized that you only get one chance to save a house like this. The Finance Committee voted 3-1 not to recommend the article, though they were torn and an earlier vote had been to support. Their concerns were the high price and the debt obligation.

Much thoughtful discussion and questioning ensued. A member of the Community Preservation Act Committee explained that there is a mandated 10% minimum of CPA funds that must be put toward historic preservation every year, and we typically do more than that. He explained that with the CPA surcharge increase approved by voters this week, that 10% will be around $60,000 per year, which is higher than the $45,000 annual amount the debt would require if no gifts or land were part of the deal, assuring the body that the funding was comfortably within the means of CPA. Another person was concerned that this was a slippery slope and that we might be setting a precedent where we will be obligated to people who threaten to demolish historic homes. There were questions about if CPA didn’t want to fund this in future years (seems unlikely, says CPAC) and Finance Director John Musante explained that even if the town had to pay all of it from taxation, it would amount to an average of $7 per household per year for five years. The “minority report” from the dissenting Select Board member was that it was too much money for what the Town “gets;” if the house burned down we’d have spent the money for nothing. She also warned of unknown potential needs competing for CPA funds.

Eventually the vote was called. It was a counted standing vote – 102 Yes, 32 No.

This was an interesting issue and the vote definitely broke along very different lines than those that often divide the body. Standing votes give instant feedback about who is voting how, though except for watching video of the meeting, no permanent record of the vote exists.

I voted in support. This is one of those rare votes where you really do only get one chance. If TM did not approve this, the house would be demolished, and that’s it. It’s not like a defeated zoning proposal that could come back to Town Meeting in the future. One shot – keep it or lose it. I’m glad we kept it.

Article 10 sought to create an Agricultural Commission. All relevant boards and committees supported it. This amounts to a name change for the Farm Committee, and because it would be created by TM, only TM could dissolve it, as opposed to the Select Board now holding that power. The State is encouraging towns to have these, giving them more clout and more grant opportunities. The Ag Commission would be strictly advisory, just like the Farm Committee is now; it would have no binding authority. A few questioners wanted clarity on small details, and then we voted nearly unanimously in support.

Article 11 was about potential zoning changes in the Main and High Street area, but the final plan and recommendation are still in the works, so the Planning Board asked that it be referred back to them and it was.

Article 12 was another potential zoning change related to updating the farmland conservancy overlay district to bring it back into compliance with its original intents, but it too is still being worked on, and again the PB requested and received its referral back.

Article 13 was another zoning change, this one seeking to remove the Wetlands District designation from the zoning bylaw. The Planning Board argued that: it was obsolete in so far as the locations it designates don’t match up with current wetlands; and it is illegal because its criteria amount to a “floating” zone, one for whom hard lines can’t be drawn on a map, which violates the regulation that all zoning be approved by a 2/3 majority of TM. The PB said that wetlands laws and protection processes are very strong and binding and the existence of this designation or the lack thereof, neither strengthens nor weakens wetland protection – it just confuses the issues.

Those opposing the change argued that it is misunderstood and should be enforced, and that contrary to claims it hasn’t been used in all its time on the books, it actually appears on many maps. They argued that the designation is intended to “give teeth” to the conservation regulations and serve as a red flag that property owners should consult with the Conservation Commission.

These arguments were countered by those saying that just because the designation appears on maps, it doesn’t mean it is “used,” – they just keep being carried forward on maps, but they are not a determinant of the existence of wetlands. It was also argued that the suggested interpretation that the designation notifies owners to seek Conservation Commission consultation has that process backwards.

Ultimately, arguments from the Planning Board and Planning Department that this is not a useful or used designation, arguments from Town Counsel that the designation amounts to an illegal “floating zone,” and arguments from the Conservation Commission that this designation has no impact on their work, proved more persuasive than the arguments in opposition. With a motion to refer this back to the Planning Board defeated, a tally vote on the main motion which required 2/3 majority passed with 107 Yes votes and 23 No votes.

The meeting adjourned until Monday, November 13 at 7:30 p.m.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Voting and attendance results

Here are the attendance records and tally vote results, sorted by name, by precinct, and by vote.

Update: These results detail only those votes that went to a tally. Tally votes are the only way people's individual votes are recorded. To summarize, every motion to dismiss was defeated and the main motion on every article passed, but only two of each had tally votes, and those are the results contained in these links.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

One for the ages

This time I’ll start at the end and circle back to the beginning.

Just before the meeting ended, I addressed the body for the first time ever. I would have done it sooner in the evening, but the fast and furious pace at which the previous questions were being moved was such that I could scarcely pause my rabid note-taking and put down my pen to raise my hand before we were voting again. So there I was, better late than never, but just barely.

I begin with this because what I said – or more accurately, what I was trying to say – sums up the conundrum of the entire evening for me, and explains why I voted the way I did.

This of course was the “Special Special,” where we were addressing four articles on “matters of universal import” – the genocide in Darfur, the war in Iraq, the potential for war in Iran, and impeaching Bush and Cheney.

While these sorts of “advisory articles” are a fixture of (or a cliché of, depending on your view point) Amherst Town Meeting, they still create much consternation. A significant number of people, members and non-members alike, think it is not appropriate for Town Meeting to deal with such topics. I am firmly in that camp. Among the reasons cited by people who feel as I do: they take up time that should be spent on town business, they lengthen an already-very lengthy process, the enormity of the time commitment keeps good people from serving on TM, we weren’t elected to enact foreign policy, we often lack the expertise to think or vote critically on the issues, passing such articles has no effect, etc. The list is long, and encompasses a wide range of often-divergent opinions on the subject.

So I object to such articles in concept, as noted above, and in practice. How am I supposed to vote on an article that I don’t believe even belongs before the body? If I think it is inappropriate for Town Meeting to be dealing with X, then what am I to do?

There are, as best I can tell, six options – move to dismiss, move to amend, vote yes, vote no, abstain from voting, or stay home.

Moving to dismiss is nearly perfect – and bless Peter Blier’s heart, he did exactly that, and eloquently so. More about that later. I say “nearly perfect” because if it fails (spoiler alert: it failed. Every time.) then you are still stuck needing to make another choice.

Moving to amend might work if the circumstances were such that you could somehow alter the article to make appropriate what had been inappropriate. I can’t even come up with a scenario where that could happen, so that’s not really an option.

Voting yes just rubs me entirely the wrong way. I can’t support that which I don’t even think should be here, regardless of how I, in a non-TM context, feel about the sentiments expressed by the article.

Voting no is the option I chose. I will elaborate more on that shortly.

Abstaining would seem like the best option, except that I really am a stickler for rules and procedures, and the fact is that the Town Meeting Handbook states: “Failure to vote implies acquiescence in the majority opinion.” So in this case, that would feel to me like a vote of support.

Staying home is just not an option I could choose – sorely tempted though I may be.

The problem common to these last four options is that they are all ambiguous and open to interpretation. It would be erroneous, for instance, to draw the conclusion that TM supports these advisory articles just because they all passed. It would also be erroneous to conclude that there are X-number of people on TM who think genocide in Darfur is just fine, since they voted to oppose that article. People who feel the same as I do about these articles not belonging at TM made every one of those four choices. In the absence of a clear option, each of us was left trying to determine how best to represent our sentiments and what our choice would mean.

So I chose to vote no, opting to hang the rationale for my vote not on the substance of the articles but on the procedural boilerplate preceding each one. It reads: “To see if the Town will adopt the following resolution:” Since I don’t want the town to adopt the resolution – nay, I don’t even want the town to be dealing with the resolution – a no vote felt good enough. But this is not an obvious or easy choice, and it might not even be a logical choice. I have heard persuasive arguments on all sides. To me it was the best of a bunch of bad options.

My point is that voting isn’t supposed to be like this, and yet, here we are.

Thus was the complicated and unsatisfying “reasoning” that guided my voting.

So let’s go back to the beginning of this meeting, ’cuz it was a doozy.

We got started at about 7:45. The usual procedural stuff and announcements. Reordering of tonight’s articles, to proceed as 1, 4, 3, 2. Much haggling about why we were doing this meeting now instead of the other meeting, why we’re in conflict with the final gubernatorial debate, etc. And the dullness of all that must have lulled me to sleep, because next thing I knew I was having the most bizarre dream that Select Board member Rob Kusner was wearing a t-shirt with a caricature of George Bush on it, in brazen violation of the “no electioneering/political influencing” rule that the moderator had made clear last meeting and just reiterated tonight. And then – this is where the dream got really nuts – the moderator asked to see the shirt, and Rob took it off while the moderator was ordering him not to, and then Rob, who conveniently just happened to be wearing another t-shirt underneath the Bush one, threw the offending shirt at the moderator, and pandemonium nearly ensued. Gavels were banging, Rob was being weirdly belligerent, the moderator nearly threw him out of the meeting, and it was as though they might come to blows. So then a recess is called and those two go behind the curtain and… No more spicy food for me before Town Meeting, no siree.

Actually, all that was true and it was disgraceful. I was shocked and disappointed that Rob would disrespect his office, the meeting, the moderator and the decorum of the body that way. I will assume that his interpretation of those events is not the same as mine, and if he wants to offer an explanation, I’m sure many of us would be very interested in what he has to say. But mostly, I think we would like an apology.

Moving on.

Article 1. Darfur. The petitioner speaks briefly to her motion and then brings in a gentleman who has lived in Amherst since 1994, after fleeing violence and torture in Sudan. He spoke about the horrors of the situation there and why sanctions and other non-military pressures are necessary, because militarization would harm the people and increase their suffering. Anne Awad spoke regarding the Select Board’s unanimous support for the article. Cited many problems the international community ignored in the past: this is oportunity to give our conscience some protection.

How courageous must you be, and how secure must you be in the reasoning of your argument to get up there after that poor man has described horrible suffering, and move to dismiss this article?

Pretty damned courageous and secure, I’d say.

That’s just what Peter Blier did, and that’s why I believe we should have a tickertape parade in his honor downtown, name a few streets after him and give him a free bus pass.

This was a gutsy move, and he did it with a thoughtfulness and respect that few could manage. Bravo Peter!

He described his strong belief in the sentiments of the articles, and how he agonized over making this motion, but feels strongly that such topics are not the business of Town Meeting. His reasons for dismissal: that our priority should be the town’s business, and that if we are to go beyond the warrant it should be to address local problems that linger and loom; that New England’s long history of addressing such things at TM is not analogous to now, because that used to be the way to express the town’s sentiment and relay information, but today there are many and better options; that the time commitment for TM is onerous enough and precludes participation for many; and that such actions make us feel good but have no real effect, so as individuals we should find ways that are effective instead of holding the false satisfaction of having “acted” here.

The petitioner responded. She disagrees. Thinks it is appropriate, important, effective. The line that spoke to many of us, though not as she intended it, was something like: “There are many people here who know as much about Darfur as they know about local issues.” Indeed. Someone calls the question. We have a tally vote on the motion to dismiss: 53 Yes, 83 No. Dismissal fails; back to the main motion. The question is immediately called again. Overwhelming yes vote, a couple of no votes.

Article 4 – withdrawal from Iraq. Introduced by one person, elaborated on by another. Lies and misrepresentations by the administration. So many deaths. So many casualties. So much suffering and long repercussions. Costs a ton of money. Gerry Weiss speaks to the Select Board’s 4-1 support. War is awful. Please vote to send this message.

This time Joe Bodin moved to dismiss this article, on the grounds that next week we’ll have a ballot question that is nearly identical and the results will be more representative because every voter can make their choice, not just us. The original speaker disagreed: to not vote would be to shirk our responsibility. Someone calls the question. The vote to dismiss is defeated. Mr. Bodin then moves to amend the article to ensure that the results contain a count of the vote. After some ditzing around, the question is called. The vote to amend to include the vote tally succeeds. (I voted yes to this just because. Was there a strategic or ideological way to vote here? I dunno.) Back to the now-amended main motion. Someone speaks in opposition to the article about how this vote would show weakness and that would embolden our enemy. Call the question. Tally vote on the article: 86 Yes, 20 No.

Article 3 – Iran. Two people address this jointly, a husband and wife who went to Iran in the spring as part of a peace delegation. War would be terrible for the people of the country. The people are just like us, kids just like ours. Need to establish diplomatic relations and create diplomatic solutions. Rob Kusner spoke regarding the Select Board’s unanimous vote in support of the article. War is bad. We need diplomacy. Go slowly. Learn the lessons of Iraq war and absence of diplomacy with North Korea.

Blier moved to dismiss again, saying the reasons were identical to the ones stated previously and he supports the spirit of the article but doesn’t believe this is the time or the place for it. The original speaker disagrees. The speaker who opposed withdrawal from Iraq opposes this article even more vehemently. The question gets called. The tally vote on the motion to dismiss fails, 53 Yes and 76 No. The question is called on the original motion. It passes overwhelmingly and without a tally vote.

Article 2 – Impeachment. The petitioner clarifies the less obvious points in the long “where as” list of the article, speaking to the nitty-gritty of why wire tapping laws were broken, why as commander-in-chief the President can be held responsible for torture, and how he has violated different separations of power. Anne Awad spoke for the Select Board’s unanimous vote, believing that such abuses do have local affect. Someone with an impressive background in high-level government law spoke in support. Blier moved to dismiss. It fails again. I offered my two cents about no good voting option for those like me. The question was called for the final time, and the final tally vote was 85 Yes and 29 No.

As a body, we either sent strong clear messages to the world and did our part to help effect change, or we accomplished zip. I sure think it’s the latter, but I’d love to be wrong.

Later this afternoon, (it’s almost 4 a.m. – uggh.) I’ll put up some attendance and tally vote info. Even though the muddiness of the voting leaves its interpretation highly suspect, I can’t resist looking at it.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

October gave a party, TMers by hundreds came

Fall Town Meeting began last night, getting underway at about 7:45.

Lots of announcements and introductions from the Moderator to start things off. Introduction of new town clerk Sandra Burgess, who read the “oh hear ye, hear ye” call of the warrant. Introduction of Doug Slaughter as a new Finance Committee member, and announcement of a FinCom vacancy – those who might be interested should contact the Moderator. Warning of “no electioneering” during Town Meeting – no buttons or t-shirts or whatever extolling pro-this or anti-that.

The Moderator then outlined his expectations for the meeting – he anticipates it running three nights – last night, Wednesday, November 1st and Wednesday November 8th. November 1st is the “Special Special” where the citizens of Amherst will finally restore peace and order to the universe – what took us so long? – though some curmudgeons scoff at such efforts. The Moderator reminded us that there are parliamentary means of opposing articles one considers inappropriate for the body, and that boycotting the meeting is not the best option.

Anne Awad of the Select Board explained that it is traditional at Fall TM to recognize those who have served the town through two or more terms on a board or committee. She read the names of 16 such people, and presented certificates and town pins to those of whom were in attendance: Mark Power, Farm Committee; Robert Grose, Comprehensive Planning Committee; Barbara Mitchell, Conservation Commission; David Henion, Design Review Board; Michael Mascis, Finance Committee; Mary Jane Laus, Human Services Funding Committee; Florence Boynton, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee; Nancy Pagano, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee; Mary Santiago, La Paz Centro Sister City Committee; Kathleen Ford, Leisure Services and Supplemental Education Commission; Adrian Fabos, Planning Board; Carol Lee, Public Art Commission; Van Kaynor, Public Transportation Committee; Jim Ellis, Public Shade Tree Committee; Doris Holden, Registrar of Voters; Zina Tillona, Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Moderator introduced Town Manager Larry Shaffer, on board for his first official TM since starting the job. He talked about how glad he is to be here, praised the town’s employees, and gave special recognition to two groups: the fire and police departments who handled the big fire at Echo Hill with great heroism, and Nancy Pagano and the Senior Center staff who mobilized an emergency stop-gap effort to assist the transportation needs of seniors during a rough transition to a new service provider.

The business of the warrant then got underway.

Article 6 – the continuing saga of saving the historic Kimball House on North East Street – was postponed until Wednesday, November 8th, because its details are still being hammered out.

Article 13 – about removing the flawed Wetlands District designation from the zoning bylaw – was postponed until Wednesday, November 1st, to follow the “Special Special,” because the Planning Board and the Select Board are still working on it.

Article 1—to hear the reports of two committees. We approve it, and hear status updates from the Amherst Energy Conservation Task Force and the Outreach Bus Routes subcommittee of the Public Transportation Committee. The town’s Energy Conservation Task force is – surprise! – trying to get the town to conserve energy. It has done inventories of green house gas emissions, set goals for reduction targets, published a climate action plan, and worked with the town and the colleges to implement many and varied conservation measures. They are looking for ways to engage more citizens in such efforts, and their Renewable Energy Fair on the Common was one such attempt. Among the ways that citizens can make a difference: sign up to purchase renewable energy credits for which the town will receive money if the sign-up goal is met; walk, bus or bike instead of driving; use compact fluorescent light bulbs; and if you insist on having a car, at least keep it well-maintained and don’t idle. And speaking of buses: the Outreach Bus Routes subcommittee reported that a new bus route #32 is planned for debut in December, linking the hot spots of Amherst from Puffer's Pond to Atkins, thanks to the combined efforts of the Select Board, the Town Manager, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, PVTA and UMass Transit. Also, PVTA will fund the Gatehouse Road route for the rest of the year, and there’s a new plan for that neighborhood to be served by a re-routing of a Belchertown Road bus in the future. And all buses are now using ultra low sulfur fuel, so they are less polluting and less stinky.

Article 2 seeks to pay unpaid bills from previous years, but as we have none, it was dismissed.

Article 3 has three parts, all tying up loose ends from FY06. Part A seeks to make up for a deficit in the Health Claims Trust Fund with a transfer of $166,087 from the general fund’s free cash account. That amount will be reimbursed through an extension of an existing temporary surcharge on health insurance premiums. Much discussion about the inexact science of budget prediction, and what a small correction this is in relation to total claims which were more than $9 million for the year. Concerns were voiced about improving budget planning in the face of ever-increasing health care costs, and for how the surcharge and future increases affect the individual employees. Assurance from all that these are key issues being analyzed and addressed going forward. The vote to approve is unanimous.

Part B seeks to make up for a revenue deficit of $85,853 from the sewer fund with a transfer of that amount from the sewer fund surplus. The surplus fund currently has almost $750,000 in it and meeting a shortfall like this is partly what it’s for. Revenues were short primarily because UMass’ water conservation success has decreased their corresponding sewer usage fees more than had been expected. Much of this was a rehash of the original discussion on this budget area from the spring, with concern being expressed about why a higher pricing tier for UMass was eliminated, when that is one of the few ways of getting money from the school. The new information (new to me, anyway) in response is that the third tier was not eliminated rashly – it had been promised many years back that if UMass met certain conservation goals, that tier would be eliminated, and hence, this was following through on the town’s promise. In response to concerns about shortfalls for this year, Finance Director John Musante explained that either water or sewer rates are adjusted each year, and that this year’s anticipated sewer adjustment might occur in January instead of July. The vote to approve the transfer of funds was unanimous.

Part C was about the Golf Course. Same old story. Revenue shortfall. Needs transfer from surplus. “You know who” makes a big stink about it. Same old story. This time though, his latest video hectoring efforts annoyed too many too much, and was cut short. The vote to use money from the surplus to eliminate the deficit was nearly unanimous.

Article 4 – Golf Course, part II. This seeks to transfer the assets of the golf course enterprise fund to the general fund, essentially cleaning up the final details of having removed the course’s budget from enterprise fund status last spring, when it was put under the town’s community services budget. There were concerns about whether this gives the town and TM less insight into its financial situation. The answers to that were a) no, and b) changing is budget status is a done deal – that isn’t what this article is about. Questions about the status of the RFP for privatizing the course’s operations were addressed: it’s in progress, should be issued late this year with response early next year, other improvements are also being made including better marketing; and the RFP would ensure that people can still use the course for hiking, cross country skiing, etc. This vote again was nearly unanimous, with just a couple of scattered nos.

Article 5 was an easy one: rescinding previous unused borrowing authorizations in order to clear them from the books. These are leftover from three projects – a 1984 borrowing authorization for constructing the parking lot behind CVS, which left $298K unborrowed; a 2001 authorization for repairs to the Crocker Farm School which left $3,603 unborrowed; and a 2003 authorization for the Mechanic Street sewer project, for which $400K was not borrowed. No money was to be gained or lost by this action; it was merely a bookkeeping issue. It passed unanimously.

Article 7 was to enter into an Intermunicipal Mutual Aid Agreement for sharing resources with other communities during emergency situations and providing or receiving reimbursement for those resources. It was explained as formalizing a process already in place. Some concerns were voiced about details such as who is authorized to declare an emergency (answer: the town manager) and whether this agreement addresses the fact that the most vulnerable citizens are disproportionately affected by disasters (answer: no, but…) and it was explained these are the kinds of topics covered by the town’s emergency management plan, which is an entirely different document. The vote to approve was unanimous.

Article 8 was a petition article about the Gatehouse Road bus route. It was brought by someone who uses that bus and represents others who do or might use the bus, and was billed as requesting a show of support from the body for continuing that bus service. The petitioner told of collecting lots of signatures and how unhappy people were when the route might have been cut, and they’re happy service is being continued now and new options are being explored. Okie-doke. Lots of people spoke to how great the cooperation has been among all the entities that have kept the service going for this school year, and how important public transportation is, blah blah blah. A representative from the Pedestrian Bicycle Transportation subcommittee of the Public Transportation Committee (I think) spoke about this article being unnecessary at this time because no cuts were made or are expected, and a process is ongoing for prioritizing routes and how to best utilize all the public transit resources. People countered with: Buses are good! Cars are bad! TM must have its say!

To me, the oddest argument in favor of this article is that everyone should ride these buses and encourage others to, because currently they’re empty and it will be easier to support them if they’re full. OK, I get the part about full buses being easier to support – but encouraging people to ride them so that they are full doesn’t make sense to me. Does that mean pretend there is demand where there really isn’t? Does that mean trying harder to justify unjustifiable buses? I think people are stuck on the “Field of Dreams” theory of bus routes – if you build it they will come. But guess what? We built it. They’re not coming. Ridership reflects true demand, and true demand on certain routes is very low. The bottom line is this of course became another referendum on public transportation – are you for it or against it? – and not a discussion of the article, which was actually meaningless. But worse than being meaningless, it will become something to invoke in the future as TM’s past support of this route, next time a case is made for its elimination. I voted no, but I was among a surprisingly small minority. I would have thought that the minority would have been closer in size to the one that opposed continued funding of these routes in the spring, but perhaps because this wasn’t actually about taking any action or spending any money – it was a “show of continued support” – many of my former fellow opposers felt safe in supporting it. Whatever.

Article 9 was about the disposition of parcels on Olympia Drive to be used for affordable housing. This has been a long process, and this technical measure of allowing the Select Board to use its control of the property for this purpose is just the latest step toward this long-identified and long-supported goal. It was explained that a study has shown that 38 units are feasible for the space, and that they will be a mix of affordable and market-rate, and that significant public input will be sought on the project before the development RFP is issued. Concerns were raised about future costs to the town. It was acknowledged that there will be infrastructure costs, just as with any new residential growth, but that the builder and not the town will bear any development expenses. There was discussion about affordable housing’s benefits and necessities to the community, and the “costs of not providing” it. The vote required a 2/3 majority, and only two or three people voted to oppose.

This meeting was adjourned at about 10:15, to be reconvened after the “Special Special” on Wednesday.

And that one is sure to be special indeed.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reviewing the warrant

Wasn’t it just June? Where has the time gone?

Last night was the Warrant Review Meeting in preparation for next week’s Special Town Meeting. Not to be confused with the Special Special Town Meeting. Though Fall Town Meeting is essentially a yearly tradition, by writ, the spring meeting is the “Annual” TM and any other one is “Special.” A Special TM that convenes another Special TM within it – or immediately after—gets dubbed a Special Special. One hopes if we were to daisychain too many of these together, we might seek a new nomenclature.

But one mostly hopes we never face that problem.

And so the Warrant Review. There were only about 20 people there, but it was also shown on ACTV and will be repeated there several times.

The meeting was arranged by the League of Women Voters and the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee, and the chairs of both kicked things off. The moderator and various committee reps then explained each article.

Harrison Gregg began with Article 1, boilerplate that asks us to hear any reports that aren’t in written form. He expects only one “heard” report – from a committee whose name I missed, but it had something to do with energy.

Article 2 is housekeeping about transferring necessary funds to pay unpaid bills from last year, but it will be dismissed, because we paid all our bills.

Andrew Steinberg of the Finance Committee addressed Article 3, which has three parts, all addressing shortfalls from FY06 and the transfer of funds to deal with that. Part A regards the Health Care Trust Fund, and a $166,087 deficit requiring that amount to be transferred from the General Fund’s Free Cash account. Last year this occurred also, but the deficit was larger – more than $700K – and to reimburse the Free Cash account for those funds, a temporary surcharge was added to employee health care premiums from January 2006 to June 2007. For this new reimbursal, the surcharge period will be extended by three months. There were some questions and discussions here about two consecutive years of deficits to the Health Care Trust Fund, which Steinberg said the town is working with an advisory committee and consultant to address going forward. This issue will probably get a fuller hearing at TM.

Part B of Article 3 is about a sewer fund shortfall. Sewer charges are calculated by water usage rates, Steinberg explained, and because UMass has improved its water usage efficiency significantly, they have incurred lower sewer fees than had been anticipated. To meet the $85,853 deficit in the Sewer Fund, that much needs to be transferred from the Sewer Fund Surplus, which currently has a balance of almost $750,000.

Part C is about that perennial TM topic: making up for the Cherry Hill Golf Course deficit. (Cue Larry Kelley’s data-laden “Told ya so.”) The golf course fund came up short $10,742.69 in FY06 and that amount needs to be transferred from the Golf Course Fund Surplus, which has a current balance of more than $13,000.

Article 4 is also about Cherry Hill, and Finance Committee chair Alice Carlozzi explained it. Cherry Hill had been operating for a while as an enterprise fund, but we changed that in the spring and made it part of the regular town budget. This article officially dissolves the enterprise fund and transfers its assets – the remaining Surplus Fund money, and the “fixed assets” such as the course, the equipment, etc. – to the town. This clears up the bookkeeping of eliminating the enterprise fund.

Article 5 is another housekeeping article. It seeks for TM to rescind three previous borrowing authorizations the body has made in the past. These are leftover, not needed, or otherwise non-borrowed authorizations from earlier projects and Carlozzi explained that they simply need to be cleared off the books to give a clearer picture of the town’s debt capacity. No money is gained or lost by this.

Article 6 is going to be a tough one. This is the latest chapter in trying to save the historic Kimball House on North East Street. David Ziomek, director of conservation and planning, explained that the deal the town had made with the State for compensation and mitigation for taking some land out of the Agricultural Protection Restriction status has changed a bit, leaving us $128,000 short. (Recap: the property owners had wanted to tear the house down and build a new one. People went nuts. The owners agreed to leave the house and build a new one near it, but the restrictions on that adjacent land didn’t allow for that. The town has been working hard to get the state to remove the restrictions on that land, which it can only do by putting restrictions on an equal amount of land someplace else, and paying some money. That money was expected to be $83K, which was covered partially by the owners and partially by TM appropriating Community Preservation Act funds, and partially by the value of adjacent land to be added to the APR. But the state wants compensation equal to the appraised value of the land being un-APR’d, which at $211K, leaves us with this $128K deficit.) The proposal is that the town commit to paying that $128K over the next five years. It is expected to come from CPA money, but the CPAC would need to approve that, and the sequencing of these things don’t allow that to happen until after TM deals with this. Will the town keep spending money in order to preserve just the exterior of a house it won’t even take ownership of? Or will we let it be destroyed, for want of a few more bucks, a teensy drop in the bucket when amortized out across the many years it will stand and the many people it will inspire? We’ll see. This is sure to be one of the hot topics of this TM.

Article 7 allows the town to enter into “intermunicipal agreement” with other towns to share resources during an emergency. The moderator handled this one and the next couple. This one seems obvious enough, but I guess there is no such thing.

Article 8 is vague. It seeks “To see if the town will vote to continue, and, if financially and otherwise feasible, improve outreach bus service to Echo Hill and East Amherst.” It doesn’t involve any specific money or commitment at this point. Not sure if this is meant to “get the sense of the body” as Gregg suggested, or to actually tie our hands in some way. It smells funny to me.

Article 9 really is a housekeeping article: transferring two parcels on Olympia Drive from the Select Board to the Select Board, but with a new purpose. What had been in their keeping as general municipal property will now become affordable housing and open space. This is one of those technicalities in the long process of bringing these affordable housing units into being, but I suspect that it will turn into 200 people offering their opinions on the specific development plans – where will the trees be? Where will the parking be? What about those for whom this is unaffordable? Etc. Perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Article 10 seeks to establish an Agricultural Commission, to replace the current Farm Committee. The state looks favorably at such commissions for grants and gravitas. Ziomek described it as essentially morphing the Farm Committee into this new name, with the same directives and advisory roles. The primary difference is that the Select Board created and hence could dissolve the Farm Committee, where this article would give those powers over an Ag Commission to Town Meeting. Pretty straightforward.

Article 11 is an interesting multi-part zoning article, but because the Planning Board feels all the details aren’t yet worked out, they will request that it be referred back to them to probably bring to TM again in the spring. Hence, I’ll skip it

Article 12: Ditto.

Article 13 is a complicated one about removing the wetlands district designation, which the PB now believes is not legal as written because zoning designations must be along specific and unchanging boundaries, and must be made law by a 2/3 vote of TM. PB chair Aaron Hayden described the wetlands designation as “floating,” because it is based instead on the determinations and measurements that define wetlands. The concern is how to remove this designation, which hasn’t been used in many years, without inadvertently exposing wetlands to development. The PB says they need to be protected, but not via a flawed zoning designation. This will no doubt be an interesting discussion.

Article 14 pertains to an easement for the parking garage which was found to encroach on private property. Town Manager Larry Shaffer said that the details of this are still being negotiated with the property owner, and he hopes to bring this article back in the spring.

Article 15 asks TM to receive the report of the Fire Station Study Committee, which details options for improving fire and EMT response times in town, particularly South Amherst. We need not accept the report, but merely receive it. The article also asks the Town Manager to develop a plan to finance either the recommendation for three fire stations, or a revamped two station concept. Either would entail new ongoing expenses for the future, and will surely inspire vigorous debate.

Article 16 seeks to establish an emergency access bylaw, which would require all buildings except single family homes that have supervised fire protection systems (described by Shaffer as systems that trigger an alarm and a phone call to a central dispatch) to have a key vault or “lock box” on site, holding keys or codes needed to access its locked interior spaces. The key to the lock box would be held at the Fire Station. Interesting questions about liability were raised, and many others are likely to come up once this article is discussed at TM.

Article 17 would establish an open burning bylaw that would enable the town to ticket illegal bonfires. Bonfires are currently regulated only at the state level, which allows municipalities one per year. Student bonfires cost the town money to deal with, and by establishing them as ticketable offenses, it will help recoup those costs and formally penalize such acts by creating a $300 fine.

Article 18 is about granting an easement to WMECO and Verizon for installing and accessing underground cables for a cell phone tower that will be built off of Pulpit Hill Road, in an area known as “Ruxton.” Permission for the tower was authorized by TM in the spring of 2005. This article just addresses an overlooked permitting detail.

So that’s the Special. The Special Special was discussed briefly in terms of how it would be handled. The expectation is that it will be convened on November 1st and then immediately adjourned until we complete the business of the Special. I wasn’t certain if the moderator was saying that this is definitely how the Special Special will proceed, or if it is probably the case. Perhaps ongoing discussions make that tentative, or perhaps there is some possibility of the body voting down adjournment and forcing that meeting to be held on November 1st. Or perhaps that is definite, and I just didn’t get it.

I am still formulating my opinions of and intentions for the Special Special, (which comprises four articles on national and international political issues) so I will defer my bloviating on that subject for little while yet.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Branching out

I’ve decided I want to write about more than just the trials and tribulations of Town Meeting (or – egads! – the Survival Center,) so I started a new web site – www.inAmherst.com. It is in the very earliest stages, and I don’t yet have articles for every category, but I hope it will grow and improve. If you check it out, let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

And every child should have a pony

So the “consultants’ report” is in on the Survival Center. Among the recommendations: they should have social workers on staff, child care for board members, and a new location. As luck would have it, I believe that magical money tree they planted out back is just starting to blossom.

It would have been nice if the consultants had focused on how to help the Center get through this crisis in a way that ensures they stay true to their mission and history, and to help them see through the noise and opportunism of this continuing assault to recognize the legitimate issues.

Instead, according to the paper, they get more piling-on of criticism, and a list of expensive “fixes” all aimed at turning the Center into an entirely different kind of an agency.

Why don’t “they” just start from scratch, and create this “ideal” new agency from the ground up? Why did the Survival Center have to fall in order for this vision of a new agency to emerge?

Providing social services is not a zero-sum game.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

More Survival Center stuff

Recent events have reinvigorated what had been a stalled discussion. Be sure to check out the comments section of the following post, or click here to bring up the post with all its related comments at the end. And please add your own thoughts and opinions as well.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Paved with good intentions

The most extraordinary local news topic lately has been the situation at the Amherst Survival Center. The newspapers are full of inflammatory allegations and supposed “human rights violations.” Reports have been issued by Town agents. “Recommendations” have been made with written response required. Concerned citizens are banding together to restructure the place. The Select Board is being called upon to appoint a new Board of Directors.

Crisis! Chaos! Drama!

Excuse me?

I served on the Survival Center’s Board for almost five years, from 1998 – 2002, the last two as Board President, and remained on various committees into 2003. During that time, I and others worked hard to improve its financial, organizational and procedural structure. Some of our efforts were effective, others never were.

I was focused on what I saw as the place’s enormous untapped potential. Operations could run more efficiently, services could be provided in better ways, the population served could be expanded, more money could be raised, if only...

If only. There were myriad “if onlys,” and they frustrated me beyond belief.

After five years of trying and failing to persuade the necessary majority of the Board (whose membership changed much over that time, as terms expired and new people joined) to embrace my views of progress and improvement, I eventually resigned, burned out and glad to be leaving, and disappointed by what I couldn’t accomplish.

And you know what? That is exactly how that should work. I would have preferred a different result, but I have no complaints about the process. As a Board Member seeking change, the burden of convincing others to support my ideas was on me, and I was unable to do that. The majority won, and the minority lost and I was in the minority. Done deal, fair and square.

Eventually I realized that I was trying to make the place be something it was not. There was no obligation for it to conform to my ideal. And just because it had the opportunity to be something different, did not mean it had the responsibility to do so.

So then this brouhaha started a few weeks ago. Some (but not all) of the “recommendations” being bandied about are things I agree would improve the place, or are issues I supported strongly when I was on the Board. So you’d think I’d be happy about all this, happy to see the changes I’d sought way back finally seeming possible. But I’m not. Because the process is so wrong.

It is wrong because the place’s reputation and 30-year history of vital service to the community are being dragged through the mud by the unfounded allegations of a few angry people, which have spun out of control and devolved into an excuse to complain, criticize and disrespect anything at all about the Center. That is a disgrace, and the place, its staff, consumers and supporters deserve better.

It is wrong because regardless of “good intentions,” no outside individual or entity has any right whatsoever to impose its views on the place. The Survival Center is a private non-profit organization. It can be anything it wants to be. It can run any way it wants to run. Its Board of Directors has the only say here. Anyone who doesn’t like the place is free to not contribute money, goods, etc., but that is where that power ends.

It is wrong because, in my opinion, the Town and its agents are way out of bounds with their inappropriate behavior and statements in so many facets of this: misusing their power and their processes, distorting “facts,” blowing small details out of all proportion and invoking “confidentiality” to avoid accountability.

It is wrong because the newspapers are letting wild accusations go unchallenged, ignoring all question of possible agendas, axes to grind and conflicts of interest.

It is wrong because so much of what is being written and discussed indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the agency. I can’t begin to clarify all that here. But suffice it to say, the place is not about being everything to everybody. It is not about the people who don’t go there, or the services it doesn’t provide. It’s about the people who do go there, and the services it does provide, and there is much good in that.

The Survival Center, like any entity, could surely benefit from some changes. But not like this. If we start embracing the philosophy of “the ends justifying the means,” we will not like where we end up.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Fall Town Meeting dates

Mark your calendar. Fall Town Meeting starts October 30, 2006. Other dates the auditorium is reseved are: November 1, 2, 8, 9, 13, 15, 16, 27, 29.

August 18 at noon is the deadine for submitting Zoning Bylaw Amendment petition articles for the warrant.

September 8 at noon is the deadline for submitting miscellaneous petition articles for the warrant.

Petition articles require 100 signatures and must be submitted to the Select Board's office.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Media sensation

Front page of the paper this week. That was kind of weird. But of course, it’s not like this is my first time. These things just seem to happen every 30 years or so.

At least that time, my picture wasn’t next to a headline proclaiming “Second shooting suspect arrested.” Fortunately, there hasn’t been too much confusion on that issue so far.

You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Wrapping up - Random Bits

Short shrift: I’m curious about the effect the ordering of the articles has on the voting. That which comes later in the meeting – or later in the evening – can’t possibly get the same thorough consideration as early stuff – we’ve burnt ourselves out. And some people end up leaving during each session so there aren’t even as many folks left to consider and vote on some issues. And as others have pointed out, having revenue-generating articles follow budget articles might yield very different results than the opposite order.

New view: Try sitting in different places once in a while. It is amazing how different the chatter is, and that can be really eye-opening. And sometimes it can drive you nuts.

Being vocal: Some folks have the most wonderful voices and speaking styles that I could listen to them all day, regardless of whether or not I agree with what they’re saying. On my list are: Isaac BenEzra, Elaine Brighty, Hwei-Ling Greeney, Alan Root and Eva Schiffer.

TM trivia: Guess how many pairs/groups of people we have in TM who share the same address. In other words, how many couples/roommates, etc. serve on TM together? I am including Ex-Officio members. (The answer is below.)

Shades of gray: A friend and I often voted quite differently. In talking about some of those issues, I found we really were in almost full agreement about them, but some small element of the issue itself or the motion dealing with it caused us to vote opposite. Perhaps there is often greater underlying agreement than the voting results would suggest.

Insights and incites: There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from the various e-mail listservs. A couple are specific to TM topics, others to the schools and Amherst in general. All are great resources for asking questions, getting informed answers – often from very different view points, and for being exposed to information and ideas not otherwise accessible. As an added bonus, you sometimes get to witness shockingly personal battles being waged “in public.”

Duly noted: Among the problems with the TM articles that seek to “advise the legislature,” or whomever, is that they are so obvious. This is Amherst. We conform to our stereotype pretty well. The folks in Boston know how our town would weigh in on issues related to war, social justice, alternative anything, etc. We don’t need to “let the record show ...” The record is clear. If we really want to be heard, we ought to save our advisory articles for issues on which our position would be unexpected.

TM trivia answer: 31. That’s 31 households which have more that one member in TM, comprising 63 TM members. That’s a higher number than I expected. You don’t really notice it as you look through various lists, partly due to differing last names.

Humor me: With Spring TM over, other members might now be able to spend a little time considering starting their own blogs before Fall TM. It is simple and free, and it would be so great if we could link a bunch of them together for a really full examination of the issues from different perspectives. Yours wouldn't have to be the same format as mine – you don’t need to recap everything unless you want to. Maybe you would just want to list your opinions or your votes. Maybe occasionally you would want to really spout off about something. Who knows? There are so many possibilities. At least see how the process works. Go to www.blogger.com. It will walk you through 3 simple steps – creating an account (no credit cards, no addresses, nothing like that,) naming your blog, and choosing a template. Voila – you have a blog! Try one just as an experiment. If you don’t like it, you always have the option to delete the entire thing, or just leave it there and ignore it – no one will even know. Then you could try again and make another. Play around with it. It is so easy and you have nothing to lose.

That’s all she wrote: So I think I’ve said everything I have to say about this TM season. As I mentioned in the post about the final session, if other issues related to TM come up before Fall TM, I will probably add my two-cents here. Will I weigh in on other issues also? I don’t really know. You might check back occasionally, just in case. (Also – do check to see if people have added new comments.) Otherwise, enjoy the summer and again, many thanks!

And there are several more wrap-up posts below this one, so don't miss those.

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Wrapping up - Voting

Here are the complete tally vote records:
Arranged alphabetically
Arranged by precinct

Going solo: Number of people whose tally vote record was exactly the same as mine: 0

Had I not strayed: Number of people whose tally vote record was exactly the same as mine, except for the motion to reconsider: 10 (Bertrand, Blauner, Carlozzi, Kelley, Laraja, Moran, Moran, Morton, Schiffer and Slaughter)

And here’s my complete voting record, not just the tally votes. (Coming soon.)

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Wrapping up - Attendance & Vote Totals

Present and accounted for: Attendance by session: May 1 – 187; May 8 – 196; May 10 – 175; May 15 – 201; May 22 – 192; May 24 – 183; May 30 – 176; June 5 – 163; June 7 – 164; June 12 – 172; June 14 – 177; June 19 – 160.

Of leavers and abstainers: Tally vote totals in relation to attendance: May 1 – 167 out of 187 present; May 10 – (3 tally votes) 165, 160 and 151 out of 175 present; May 15 – 193 out of 201 present; May 22 – 173 out of 192 present; May 24 (2 tally votes) 178 and 172 out of 183 present; May 30 – 163 out of 176 present; June 5 – 157 out of 163 present; June 7 – 154 out of 164 present; June 12 – 154 out of 172 present; June 14 (3 tally votes) 170, 170 and 171 out of 177 present; June 19 – 150 out of 160 present.

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Wrapping up - Attendance Extremes

Honor roll: The following TM members get gold stars for perfect 12/12 attendance this spring: Arnold L. Alper, Anne S. Awad, Liv Baker, Isaac BenEzra, Clare E. Bertrand, Patricia Blauner, James A. Brissette, H. Oldham Brooks, Calvin L. Brower, Nonny Burack, Isabelle M. Callahan, Alice A. Carlozzi, James I. Chumbley, Patricia K. Church, Barbara C. Ford, John O. Fox, Richard Gale, Stanley F. Gawle, Marilyn A. Gonter, Michael L. Greenebaum, Grace A. Griecci, Ralph P. Hill, Robie Hubley, Larry J. Kelley, Mary W. Kersell, Robert B. Kusner, Taryn S. Laraja, Joan Ross Logan, Leo C. Maley III, Jenifer E. McKenna, Jane K. Mellor, Andrew T. Melnechuk, Kay J. Moran, Brian D. Morton, Kenneth R. Mosakowski, John Musante, Vincent J. O’Connor, Stephanie J. O’Keeffe, James W. Pistrang, Alan W. Powell, Deanne Sloan Riddle, Alan Root, Irving P. Rothberg, Julia Y. Rueschmeyer, Marcy A. Sala, Eva Schiffer, Marcie Abramson Sclove, Douglas Wesley Slaughter, Mary Streeter, Charles J. Traitor, Fil Valiunas, Gerald S. Weiss, Molly Kirsten Whalen and Walter J. Wolnik. (54 total)

Honor roll, part II: Also praiseworthy are those folks who became members during TM, and then had perfect attendance: Anne Sterling Bush, Robert J. Crowner, Irwin Friman, Adele G. Levine, Susan C. Pynchon and Ryan Quinn. (6 total)

M.I.A.: Missing person alerts are being issued and search parties dispatched for the following members who never showed up at all: Christopher D. Bascomb, Pamela Brown, A. Edward Cutting, Kevin C. Gale, Woden B. Kusner, Carol Lee, Patrick D. MacLeod, Strider Rubeck, Morris Abraham Singer and Michael Joseph Waskiewicz. (10 total)

For complete attendance records, click here.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The End

Could we possibly finish? There was still a lot to do. I was betting on Wednesday myself. More pessimistic types thought next week. The optimists said it had to be done last night.

So the twelfth session of Town Meeting actually began with the second session of the May 24th Special Town Meeting, which had been called and immediately adjourned until after Article 34 of the Annual TM.

This one-article warrant sought to appropriate $16,000 of Community Preservation funds for the purpose of paying for appraisals and surveys of land that the town is considering acquiring or protecting. Such studies typically cost $4000 - $6500 each, and are often funded with assistance from groups like the Kestrel Trust, or from the land owner. There were a few general questions about conservation land – about the ability to see a map showing parcels intended for protection (yes, just go to the Planning and Conservation Office,) the amount of land the town currently owns for conservation or protects with Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (about 2000 acres of each) and whether after paying for land studies the Town ever declines a parcel (occasionally.) The vote to approve is nearly unanimous, and I was among those voting in support.

Special TM dissolved. Back to the Annual TM.

Article 35 sought to appropriate $20,000 of Community Preservation funds to study and plan coordinated signage for the town’s parks, recreation fields and adjoining conservation lands. The current signage identifying such spaces and providing useful information ranges from inadequate to nonexistent. This article was brought by the Community Preservation Act Committee which is responsible for collecting requests for CPA funds and determining their eligibility and priority within the four areas of allowed spending (open space, historic preservation, affordable housing and recreation.) The Finance Committee supported the article, but the Select Board opposed it. Among the SB concerns was their usual committee meddling type stuff – seems like too much money, want more info on how many signs, what would they look like, what would they cost, what would they be made of, etc. (You know, the kinds of questions one might be able to answer after having done a sign study . . .) They also objected to including the Design Review Board in the process, believing this to be outside their purview, though they were quickly assured that this is just the sort of thing the DRB does and must do. Amidst all this was also one strong and defensible argument – that this is the sort of thing that should be done by the Public Works department, and should fall under regular town funding, not CPA funding. A reasonable position, though I would still defer to the committee, whose purpose is the diligent distribution of these funds. Members weighed in on both sides. One suggested a sign competition among volunteer carpenters as an alternative. Another felt the money could be better spent on a map or booklet with all local park and rec info. Another felt signs were good advertising and would increase awareness and usage of the areas. The voice vote was too close to call, so we had a standing vote, resulting in 78 supporting the motion, 72 opposed. I voted in support.

Article 36 was the final action for balancing the FY07 budget – the transfer of $1 million from the stabilization fund. Our previous budget votes were predicated on this use of reserves. The Finance Committee reiterated that this was the final year of a multi-year plan for using reserve funds this way, and that TM has consistently supported this plan. The Select Board supported this 4-1, and talked about their long discussions regarding whether or not only $500,000 of reserves should instead be used, before ultimately agreeing with the FC. A member suggested that there is actually an additional million dollars in reserves that the FC isn’t telling us about, and pointed out that we would soon be credited with more than $600,000 that had previously been debited us by the state, because of a past situation with our health claims trust fund. The FC said the assertion about an extra million was false. Another member questioned how our future reserves could be growing at the rates the FC projects. It was explained that increased revenues from new growth are expected, the aforementioned credit from the health claims trust fund is included, and the turnback of funds that had been budgeted but not used, all contribute to the gradual rebuilding of the reserves as projected. Another member made an interesting point about the impracticality of our current process for dealing with the budget, where we finalize each appropriation as we go along rather than treating each appropriation as preliminary and finalizing the entire figure at the end. There were various concerns about inadequate reserves, the cost of debt service, worsening conditions for the next budget, and the familiar refrain of “get more money from UMass and the colleges!” The vote to appropriate money from the stabilization fund requires a 2/3 majority, and it passed easily. Yes, I supported it.

Article 37 was about appropriating money from Free Cash to the General Fund, but as this was unnecessary, the article was dismissed.

After disposing with Article 37 so quickly, the FC chair used the extra time to thank different people who assist so vitally in the budget and TM process, and we thanked them with our applause. I apologize that I did not catch all their names, because I would have liked to include them here. (UPDATE: Joyce Karpinsky, Libby Lass and Gail Weston are those good folks we were applauding. Many thanks to them!) Thanks and appreciation were then showered on John Musante, who has been filling the role of interim Town Manager while also performing his Finance Director duties. He received much praise from the FC and SB, and a standing ovation from TM.

We were moving through all this pretty well. We might really finish this up!

Article 38 was brought by the Select Board and sought to put on the November ballot a proposal to increase the CPA property tax surcharge by half a percent. State law allows a CPA surcharge of up to 3%, and ours is 1%, so this would raise us up to 1.5%. Their reasoning was that next year this would bring in around $113,000 from taxation which would be matched 100% from state funds, for a total of $226,000 in increased revenues which we could then use for capital projects like restoration work on Town Hall and the Jones Library, freeing up operating budget funds. Paying for repair and maintenance of town property with CPA funds – clever. But wait – didn’t the SB just oppose the CPAC’s recommendation for using CPA funds for a signage plan, saying that money should come from the operating budget? Some might say that isn’t logically consistent, but what do I know? Perhaps the difference is that the SB wants to decide what is and isn’t eligible for CPA funds. The SB’s micromanagement of committees does, I’m afraid, have a certain consistency to it.

Kiss my chances for a town committee appointment good-bye, huh?

Beyond that nonsense, this is a tough issue. On the one hand, it really is a tiny increase, it benefits from being matched with state funds, and the benefits of CPA spending in the community are terrific in every category. On the other hand, there is a real sense of an increasingly oppressive property tax burden in the community, and a very strong likelihood of needing to ask voters for another override soon in order to pay for basic town services. Sure, voters can oppose the CPA increase if they want to, but whether it passes or fails, to follow it with an override request will inevitably have the effect of “here we go again.” If we only seek an override by dire necessity, wouldn’t we want to give it the best possible shot at passing? Does it make sense to precede a need with a want? That negative outweighs the various positives of this proposal for me.

The Finance Committee opposed the motion, saying that it should be considered in a larger context addressing all the financial problems and plans.

The CPAC supported it, but what body ever opposed giving itself more money?

People made the predictable and the previously mentioned arguments for and against. Ultimately, it passed in a tally vote of 89 supporting, 61 opposing, and I voted to oppose.

Article 39 sought to “strongly urge” the Select Board to seek an “RFP for the lease and/or management of the Cherry Hill Golf Course by private entities.” The petitioner of this article is a TM member who wants the Cherry Hill budget to never be a TM issue again. He asserted that privatizing management would still enable golf to be affordable to the whole community. Neither the SB nor FC took a position on the article. A shy and quiet fellow shared with us some up-to-the-minute Cherry Hill financial figures he just happened to have in his pocket. In keeping with the established pattern, those numbers were then re-framed and re-interpreted for us by Mr. Musante. Another member spoke of his desire to maintain town ownership and not “exploit” this “resource.” We had a standing vote which passed with 72 supporting, 62 opposing. I voted in support.

Article 40 sought to have the Town Manager compile and keep updated a fact book of key town data and information, providing easy access and a “common foundation for decision making by Town Meeting members and other town officials.” Everyone supported the concept, though the FC downgraded their initial stance from “recommend” to “no recommendation,” feeling the budget situation made this an inopportune time for it. The SB wanted to refer it to the TM Coordinating Committee, but some argued that it was outside the committee’s purview, and the motion to refer was defeated. The vote to support the main motion passed resoundingly, and I was among those supporting it.

The end was in sight. But it was 10:00, so if we were to forge ahead, any new article required a motion to that effect. We got one, it had full support, and we moved on to Article 41.

This article sought to request from the Select Board a five-year financial projection for level town services “with rationale for each” and the proposal of “sustainable strategies” to support those projections, all to be shared with Town Meeting. Again, most everyone supported this concept, and discussion focused on specific language of the article’s terms, which was ultimately edited to satisfaction. After the vote, those words again: “The ayes have it, the motion passes.” I voted in support.

Article 41 was the last article on the warrant, but long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, we had voted to defer article 19 until after article 41, so we weren’t quite done yet.

Article 19 sought a zoning bylaw change, to regulate where drive-through facilities can and cannot be located. Apparently this was previously unregulated, and that is why the resulting drive-through chaos ensued. Or whatever. At this point in the evening and the meeting, a zoning change allowing Wal-Mart on the town common might well have passed. After brief explanation and briefer discussion, this motion which required a 2/3 majority passed unanimously.

And thus ended Amherst’s 247th Annual Town Meeting.


Random Bits

More pictures tonight – this time of all the sad park and rec signs, or lack thereof. Not quite the sewage treatment plant, but hey.

Rumors that our earlier bad behavior had driven the moderator out of town never to return, proved to be false. Rumors that he came home to find the interim moderator waiting on his front step, desperate to return the gavel, are unconfirmed.

Quite a crowd gathered at ABC for refreshment after the meeting. Luckily, the giant orchestra that was playing when we arrived soon finished their set, allowing for actual conversation. It was great to chat, put faces to names, and commiserate over this long crazy process.

So now what? What becomes of the blog? Good questions. There will be some wrap-up stuff in the next few days, so do check back. After that, it’s kind of hard to say. We definitely don’t want this to devolve into “Stephanie’s random thoughts on everything.” Issues relevant to TM will continue to come up occasionally, and I will probably weigh in on those, and then presumably pick up more or less like this with the fall TM. Just sorta see how it goes, I guess.

Let me say now that this has been a real kick. I had no idea how this was going to go, and it has blown me away. I’ve learned so much from so many, and connected with incredibly nice and interesting people, all because of the blog. Thank you very much for reading, for commenting, for e-mailing and for all your kind words.

And with that, I think my 15 minutes are just about up.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Tally ho!

For your analyzing pleasure, here are all the tally votes related to Article 23:

The original from 5/10.
The motion to reconsider, 6/14.
The motion to refer back to the Planning Board, 6/14.
The final vote, 6/14 .

Here’s some breakdown regarding the main motion:

Regarding absence/abstention
51 people were absent or didn’t vote on the Article 23 main motion both sessions.
25 people who were absent or didn’t vote the first time voted in support of the motion this time.
22 people who were absent or didn’t vote the first time voted to oppose the motion this time.
18 people who voted in support the first time were absent or didn’t vote this time.
9 people who voted to oppose the first time were absent or didn’t vote this time.

Changed their votes
8 people who voted in support the first time voted to oppose this time.
4 people who voted to oppose the first time voted in support this time.

Didn’t change their votes
73 people voted in support both times.
39 people voted to oppose both times.

15 people voted against reconsideration but then voted in support of the final motion.
2 people voted for reconsideration and then opposed the final motion.

Click here for the lists of member votes, arranged by the preceding categories. The final category I listed above about reconsideration is not broken out separately, but those votes are included in each member's voting line.

Many thanks to my husband for his wicked Excel skills.

And don't miss all the interesting discussion going on in the comments section of the "Déjà vu all over again" post.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Déjà vu all over again

The guts of last night’s meeting were devoted to a technicality.

Apparently, upon meeting an absurdly low threshold for “new information,” any article from the current Town Meeting can be reconsidered if it is so moved by a member who voted with the majority, abstained or was absent during the initial consideration.

This is really great news. We have 70-100 people absent each session. Think of the possibilities! Amherst’s 247th Annual Town Meeting might well go on in perpetuity.

And so a member absent the first time and now present for his fourth session so far (out of eleven) moved that we reconsider Article 23, the one about fixing the Professional Research Park zoning designation to allow “quiet businesses” to meet with clients on site, if such client visits are primarily by appointment.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: I support this zoning change. I am disappointed and frankly mystified by the opposition to this. But I did not support its reconsideration.

Why not? So many reasons. This met the “letter of the law” allowing reconsideration, but it in no way met the spirit. If you condone misusing reconsideration in this way now because it serves your purposes, you lose the moral authority to oppose such misuse by “the other side.” Anything that exploits absence for benefit is odious to me. Heck, if just a couple more people who supported this change had not been absent the first time, we wouldn’t even have this problem. But they were absent, and that resulted in a loss, and that should teach us all a lesson: you need to come and vote every night folks – that’s what this is all about. And you also have to accept defeat. Democracy doesn’t mean you always get your way.

The new information claims were also particularly lame: Having now gone through the budget, we know what bad shape we’re in, and people might have voted differently the first time if they had known it would be so bad. If there are TM members for whom that is true, it does not bode well for the body.

A lot of the arguments against reconsideration were just as bad, and it pained me to be allied with them. How can we reconsider this when we don’t even remember what this issue is about? We didn’t bring our paperwork on this. We can’t remember how we voted last time. People who were absent last time don’t have enough information. The budget is balanced – this won’t help. Please.

Eventually we had a tally vote on the motion to reconsider. It passed with 89 voting in support, and 81 opposed. I voted to oppose.

So this vote now transports us back to the point in discussion right before the vote several weeks ago. People start making all the same arguments for and against. Tiny rational change. Step toward diversifying tax base. Big-picture benefit. Traffic! Plenty of empty space around! Eek – change!

My favorite ridiculous arguments:

There’s so much available vacant space, so obviously demand isn’t there. Despite claims to the contrary, these spaces are primarily store fronts. In addition to being more expensive than office space, it is crazy to think that you would put a professional services firm in a space that is intended for something like a pizza place or a bike shop. Yeah, you could if you were exceptionally desperate, but otherwise you wouldn’t. You’d go to Hadley.

We say we want a vibrant downtown, but this could draw business away from there. Right. Because nothing gives a downtown that fun, bustling, vibrant flair like professional offices. Downtowns are about retail, restaurants and entertainment. Sure, other kinds of businesses like to be in that mix, but they don’t contribute to the vibrancy. It’s nice to be able to stop in at your accountant’s office or your lawyer’s office while you’re downtown doing other things, but if downtown were all lawyers and accountants, you wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

This designation was intended to help UMass research start-ups, and we can’t abandon them. A change to this designation wouldn’t preclude such UMass entities; it would allow them and others. Instead, we have neither.

Honestly, I can’t understand why this doesn’t pass. (And it doesn’t. This is its second attempt at this TM, and it has come before the body several times previously.) I can see why the neighbors in Amherst Woods don’t want it, even though I think they are being unreasonable. At least their opposition makes a little sense – abutters never want anything changed. But what about everyone else? I can only conclude that it is because some people oppose any development of any kind – even smart, quiet, clean, low-impact development.

So there was no new drama in this discussion. There was a motion to refer it back to the planning board, and that failed in a tally vote with 58 supporting and 112 opposing, and I voted to oppose. We then had a tally vote again on the main motion, and again it failed, this time by a wider margin: 102 supporting, 69 opposed, and I voted in support. Last time it was 99 supporting, 52 opposed. It required a 2/3 majority.

This raises some interesting issues. If you’re going to go through the trouble and aggravation of reconsideration, I would think you’d only do so if you were absolutely certain it would work in your favor. Perhaps they thought they were sure, but maybe some people who supported the vote last time changed their vote this time because they were offended by the reconsideration. Personally, I think that would be an irresponsible vote. We can always only vote what is in front of us. Those opposing reconsideration had the opportunity to express that opposition with the vote on the motion to reconsider. But it passed. Again – you don’t always get the outcome you want. But that was the outcome, and now we were voting on the merits of the article. To be voting a grudge instead of the current motion is wrong. What’s next – you oppose a motion just because you don’t like the person making it? The system really falls apart if we don’t defend its integrity. Not much good happened in that regard last night.

Once that debacle ended – after like an hour and half – we moved on to the Community Presevation Act articles. CPAC money is collected through a property tax surcharge, and the money can only be used in four categories: affordable housing, open space, historic preservation and recreation. CPAC money cannot be diverted to the schools, the operating budget, etc. This makes these articles quite non-controversial. The first was divided into three parts.

Article 32A was to appropriate $6500 of CPAC funds to the Amherst Housing Authority for various repairs and improvements to a four-unit affordable housing property the town owns in North Amherst, called Keet House. The vote to approve this was unanimous.

32B was to appropriate $45,000 to the AHA for money toward the final financing package for a planned 11-unit affordable housing project on Main Street. It also passed unanimously.

32C was to appropriate $30,000 for the 4-unit project on Stanley Street that will partner Habitat for Humanity and Amherst College, on land donated by the college. That too received unanimous support.

Article 33 was about appropriating $92,500 in CPAC funds for a variety of historic preservation projects, including work at the town cemeteries, studying the town commons, researching the expansion of historic districts, finding ways to protect historic houses, continuing the funding of archival preservation of historic town records, and funding publications about the various historic districts of town. The vote on this was also unanimous, or may have had one or two quiet opposers.

Article 34 was to appropriate $125,000 toward protecting open space on the Holyoke Range, either through purchasing the property in question, or purchasing a conservation restriction on it. The value of the property is substantially higher than this, and other funding sources will contribute to the ultimate financial package. Determining whether it is purchased outright or protected by the deed restriction was not up to Town Meeting – just appropriating these funds toward one of those eventual outcomes. This passed with near unanimous support – a handful of people voted to oppose. I voted in support, as I did with all these CPA articles.

And with that, we called it a night.

Random Bits

The meeting began at about 7:37 – a record!

The first order of business was a nice one: outgoing Town Clerk Anna Maciaszek was presented with flowers and gifts for her service to the Town, with particular appreciation for continuing to assist Town Meeting, even though her new job in Connecticut has already begun. A donation envelope and a card have been circulating during the last couple of sessions. With the moderator temporarily suspending the TM rule against applause, Anna received a standing ovation.

This was Hawaiian Shirt Night. Is this a real tradition? I have no idea. Mysterious e-mails and rumors about it circulated during the day. I would say about a third of us participated, myself included. I thought it was a great idea – fun, simple, unifying. Bravo! Or Aloha! Or whatever.

If approval of the reconsideration motion put us back to the pre-vote point in the original discussion, then I wonder why the Planning Board didn’t sit at the tables up front. Instead, a couple of non-TM PB members were stuck trying unsuccessfully to be recognized from the gallery, and Paul Bobrowski had to do all the PB work.

I’m thinking that the night TM finally ends – assuming we ever reach that point – I will be celebrating its conclusion afterwards at my favorite downtown establishment, the Amherst Brewing Company. Will you join me? We’ll hoist a non-partisan pint to a job well done. Or at least, a job done, well or otherwise. Cheers to that.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Meanwhile, back at the middle school

This meeting started rather differently than most. After the usual announcements, the first person recognized by the moderator was a longtime local activist from Northampton who talked about the dangers of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and implored us to “be good neighbors” and contact our representatives in Boston and Washington about the issue. Because she was not an Amherst resident, TM had to vote whether or not she could address us, and I was glad that we voted yes. It was the polite thing to do, and who knew what she was going to say? Of course, this sort of thing could easily become a nuisance, but that is not the case currently, and granting her three minutes seemed very reasonable to me.

Then the moderator uttered the sweetest of words: “Article 27.”

Why was that so sweet? Because it wasn’t Article 26. We have spent five meetings on Article 26. We began Article 26 on May 22nd – three weeks ago. Now we were moving on. Hallelujah!

Article 27 is about appropriating a certain amount of money for the reserve fund. This is not the same as “reserves,” but rather is money made available to deal with unexpected issues and overruns that occur during the year such that another Town Meeting doesn’t have to be called in order to pay those extra bills. Typically that amount is $100,000, and that is what this article originally specified, but the Finance Committee moved instead to appropriate just $50,000, because our Article 26 deliberations have put us over budget by $50,000 and that money needs to come from somewhere in order to pass a balanced budget. The Select Board supported the FC recommendation 4-1. People had various concerns about how that would work – if we typically need $100K, shouldn’t we keep it at that? Others weighed in on the “balanced budget” concept: the budget isn’t really balanced anyway because we are already taking $1 million from reserves to fill the gap and just because it is a round number doesn’t mean it is a magic number that can’t go up or down if needed. An SB member had spoken with the incoming Town Manager and he expected to have been able to deal with the $50K shortfall issue by Fall without any problem, but would be fine with this option also. Ultimately, we vote in favor of the recommendation, with perhaps only one person voting no. I voted in favor.

Article 28 concerns appropriating to ACTV money the town receives from the cable company. The Select Board moved to dismiss the article, because our current cable contract expires at the end of this fiscal year, and terms for a new contract are currently being worked out, making this article moot. Once there is a new contract, a similar article will be brought back at the Fall TM. One TM member had questions about where the money goes and wanted to make a new motion, but because she had spoken briefly about that, she was no longer eligible to make a new motion. This is one of those procedural technicalities I really don’t understand, but there you go. The vote to dismiss was unanimous.

Article 29 is the first of three capital spending articles put forth by the Joint Capital Planning Committee, which comprises two members each from the FC, SB, School Committee and Library Board of Trustees. Their goal is to spend 10% of the tax levy on capital needs, but this year’s situation allows for only 8.2%. Article 29 seeks to authorize the expenditure of $600,000 of Chapter 90 funds, which are largely raised through the gasoline tax and are specified for road work. The bulk of that – $500,000 – is for road repairs and $100,000 is for a new dump truck. An additional $15,000 of the truck’s cost for sanding and plowing equipment is not eligible for the Ch. 90 funds, and will be raised through taxation as part of Article 30. There was little discussion specific to this article, and the recommendation passed with one or two people voting against. I voted in support.

Article 30 is about capital spending on new equipment. It seeks to spend $1,119,943, with TM appropriating $801,943 to be raised from taxation and $230,000 from ambulance receipts. The additional $262,700 will be from grants, which are not appropriated by TM. The expenditures in this article and the others can all be found in the FC Report part 2, with additional detail of the JCPC’s 5-year plan in the appendices at the back. Many of the items on the long list elicited no discussion, but others did.

The electronic voting machines raised several questions and issues in light of the debacle of the 2000 presidential election. The Town Clerk explained that the Federal Government will give money to State Government to purchase the machines, and the State will allocate the machines to the towns. The Secretary of State has sole discretion on which machines are purchased, and like many voters, he is concerned that the machines create a paper trail to verify the vote. It is expected that the chosen machines, of which there will be one at each polling place (but not at the UMass locations,) will print out the completed ballot which will then be counted at the tabulating machine – not at the voting terminal itself. These machines will be available to all voters but intended for those with disabilities that prevent voting independently with the standard paper ballot system.

There were questions about the expense and necessity of a new $30,000 postage machine. It was explained that Post Office regulations require a new postage format that is harder to counterfeit. If we don’t meet the new regulations, we would lose valuable postal discounts that complicance allows.

There were various questions about the new police cruisers. Typically four are replaced each year, this year only three. The Police Chief talked about how many cruisers are in the fleet (12 marked, 6 unmarked) and how they are used (typically 4 during the day, 14 in the evening.) They need to be reliable and able to achieve 100,000 miles, they need to be spacious enough to hold “prisoners” in the rear and all of the officer’s equipment up front. He said the current models get 16-23 miles per gallon, and that changing models requires extensive redesign of equipment and mounts.

After some discussion about how the schools recycle their computers and the various successes and challenges associated with such efforts, we were ready to vote. Once again, the vote on this recommendation was nearly unanimous, with only 2 or 3 opposing votes. I again voted in support.

Article 31 is about capital spending on buildings and facilities. It has been divided into two parts, with part A being nearly everything, and part B being just the money to be appropriated for the Town’s Master Plan.

So 31-A seeks to appropriate $350,000 for repair and maintenance of various town buildings. As with the capital equipment needs, the repair and maintenance needs were prioritized for energy efficiency, with several expected to recoup their initial cost via energy savings in 3 to 5 years. The discussions on this were brief and straightforward. The suggestion to fund Town Hall maintenance with CPAC money was opposed by a Historic Commission representative. The plan to invest $30,000 each year in sidewalk maintenance couldn’t be accommodated this year. There’s mold in the police station vents and their HVAC system is costly and inefficient. A school feasibility study has been needed for a long time to help plan and budget for the school system’s future needs, and that can be done most efficiently by an outside consultant. Marks Meadow needs air conditioning for its computer room because it’s an extra hot room in an extra hot school. Let’s vote. It’s unanimous.

31-B is the $135,000 to fund the town’s comprehensive master plan. This process was initiated in 1999, and this appropriation to pay the consulting firm’s fee is the final appropriation for this project. The FC is unanimous in its recommendation, and the SB supported it 4 in favor, 1 abstaining. The abstaining member (I assume) then moved to refer the proposal back to the Comprehensive Planning Committee, because of various concerns. Though she says she is supportive of the plan, she wanted three issues addressed: 1) receiving a fee breakdown of the consultant’s contract so that we can hold them accountable for their time; 2) a full-cost accounting of not just the consultant’s fee but collateral costs to the town including printing and publicity costs for the finished plan, etc.; and 3) expectations of what would be required from town staff to accomplish the plan, and how that might impact their regular daily work. She had spoken with other towns across the country that had used this consulting firm, and those discussions lead her to these concerns. The chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee recommended against referring back to the committee saying that it would result in no change. The Town Manager can request tracking of time, just as he can do with all contracts. Collateral costs and staff time have long been considered and approved by the town departments most affected, and those will be supplemented by enormous amounts of volunteer time and effort. She cautioned that delaying now could set the project back by a full school year, since the plans are timed to the academic calendar. Another Comprehensive Planning Committee member said that he spoke to the same people in the other towns that have used this consultant, and had no concerns at all. Those towns recognized that every cost could not be predicted up front, and had no issues of town business going undone because of interruptions by the planning process. He stressed that the master plan is necessary to enable all the voices and ideas about Amherst’s future to be heard.

After two more speakers made similar points, the question was called. A standing vote was requested on the motion to call the question, which resulted in 123 yes votes and 34 no votes. I voted no, because I wasn’t sure enough discussion had occurred yet – I didn’t know if the mood of the body was for or against the money. But of course, this was just an amendment, so it was not the end of discussion opportunity. So the motion to call the question passes and we come to an immediate vote on the amendment to refer. It fails strongly (and I voted against referral) but some people wanted a tally vote. 15 members need to request a tally vote, and there were only 12. So the tally vote request failed. Back to the main motion.

Another amendment – this time to appropriate $85,000 instead of $135,000. The person proposing this amendment had various concerns about why an earlier proposal expected $85K now plus more money later, and so suggested we stick with that figure. The committee chair explained that the $135K is the $85K plus more money later, all rolled into one, because it was agreed that it was simpler this way. Another member supported the smaller amount and suggested that an existing draft plan from the early 1970s would help move us forward without “reinventing the wheel.” Really. I’m not kidding. A plan from 1973 was being touted as the path to Amherst’s future. I think my wide-eyed amazement actually strained muscles in my face.

Fortunately, this didn’t have much support. Someone very familiar with the '70s plan pronounced it “totally inadequate,” and spoke to the necessities of fully funding this process today. When the question was called and we voted on the larger number – the FC recommendation – despite its lopsided support, we had another tally vote, with 113 voting in support, and 41 opposed. As there was no further discussion, we had the appropriation vote, which was even more lopsided in its support. Both times, I was among the supporters.

Five more articles done, and we adjourned to Wednesday, June 14.

Random Bits

The folks at home missed out last night because ACTV had technical difficulties and was unable to broadcast. It is surprising that they were also unable to put up any sort of notice to that effect on Channel 17.

The question of how much UMass and the other colleges contribute to town services keeps coming up, this time both in direct questions to that effect, as well as through a proposal for future consideration for turning fire services into something akin to an enterprise fund, thus allowing us to bill the schools. I am skeptical, but I will be very interested to follow these discussions.

My question about the police cruisers didn’t lend itself to the TM discussion, but here goes: why do they have so many different paint, logo and type styles? You could see three Amherst cruisers and think they are from three different towns. One style is particularly cheesy looking, in my opinion. I like the one with the town seal.

I had thought I might speak for the first time last night, in support of the master plan. Turned out I didn’t need to. Plenty of people made excellent points and the body was clearly in support.

Ten articles to go. One night seems unlikely. Two? Maybe. Much beyond that is really approaching the realm of the ridiculous.

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