Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Innovate or stagnate

This budget situation must inspire new thinking about how the work of the town gets done. We need more emphasis on finding better ways of doing things. Not just at budget time – all the time.

Recently, Amherst’s Information Technology department changed the town offices’ inefficient and unreliable phone system. IT Director Kristopher Pacunas knew there had to be a better way. He researched alternatives, and chose a digital network that provides reliability, more phone numbers for more direct lines, flexible growth, and according to the Gazette, it “is not expected to cost the town more money.” Better service, no extra cost. Innovative thinking. Bravo!

What other processes and systems could be improved? Changing the phone network was a big deal, but new approaches to simpler situations could also save time, money or effort, or yield better results.

Renewing a dog license – is there a better way to do that? Producing the town’s Annual Report – might that be improved? Replacing street signs, fulfilling common information requests, inspecting smoke detectors – isn’t there some potential gain lurking everywhere?

Giving a fresh look to that which is so familiar that it’s barely noticed is inspiring. Ask yourself: if I were creating this today, is this how I would do it? With all I know about this, can’t I come up with a better way?

If improvement for its own sake isn’t incentive enough, can we find concrete ways to encourage innovative thinking? Can we reward great ideas that improve processes, save money or give better results?

Naysayers and status-quoers will protest: “We/they are too busy just keeping things going – there’s no time or energy to think new thoughts or try new things.”

They are stuck in yesterday’s Amherst. Tomorrow’s Amherst will have higher expectations and greater demands, and we must prepare for that today.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Quick blog intro for the uninitiated

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My musings on "Candidates Night"

Last night, the League of Women Voters held a “Meet the Candidates” night. These were my thoughts and impressions, chronologically:

  • Harrison Gregg, running unopposed for Moderator, made a great point when talking about the upcoming Town Meeting. He said that in the midst of the budget crisis situation, people and time are among the resources we need to use efficiently, and that we need to stay focused and prioritize our efforts and attention. Excellent advice indeed. Perhaps, just temporarily, we can quiet those perpetually squeaky wheels and rein in those civic hobbyists who so colorfully bog down town government.
  • The Jones Library Board reps and Oliver Smith Will trustee are running unopposed.
  • Jean Haggerty was extremely compelling as candidate for a seat on the Amherst Housing Authority. I know how vital she is in creating important programs and community-building activities at Ann Whalen Apartments, and I suspect she would be a great addition to any group or committee. She is knowledgeable, determined and well-spoken. I think hers would be a valuable voice as a tenant representative to the AHA. Her opponent in the race was not present, and I’m afraid that I don’t even recall the person’s name.
  • Former Select Board member David Keenan is running against incumbent Anne Awad. He alluded to a rocky history with the town or the Board, which I believe I’ve read a little about in the paper. I liked some of his no-nonsense ideas and blunt honesty, but I wasn’t sure whether he was really a serious candidate or just trying to make a point and stir up debate with his running. If he is serious, I’m not sure he is the answer to what ails the Select Board currently.
  • Anne Awad is very impressive – smart, personable (much more so than comes across on Select Board Meeting broadcasts,) professional and quick with details. However, she has been a major force on a Select Board that I feel has been going in the wrong direction. Where we need leadership and decisiveness, we get ad-hoc committees, public comment hearings and non-binding referendums. Where we need to let the work of the town proceed as intended, we get micromanagement, second-guessing and conflict-of-interest policy that is best described as “if it ain’t broke – break it.” I mean no disrespect to her or the rest of the Select Board, but they don’t have my confidence. Despite all that, I’m not at all sure that I can vote against her at this time.
  • The School Committee panel was very interesting. Makes you feel good to see such dedication to the schools and the children. Elaine Brighty has been on the committee for a while and is its chair. She has always impressed me. I wasn’t familiar with either Sonia Correa Pope, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the committee last year, or Stephanie Gelfan, who is running for the first time. Both were full of ideas and innovations and enthusiasm, and that was appealing. But Elaine Brighty knows how things really work and how having a good idea is much easier than implementing it. I have no strong opinions on this race yet and will need to learn much more about how the school system and its budget work. All of these women impressed me.

It was an interesting and informative evening. For those who couldn’t attend, the event was taped for ACTV and will be broadcast daily up until the election, on Channel 17. Get exact dates and times here.

Many thanks to the LWV for this and all their events and publications that seek to make us informed citizens.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

What I think: respecting the experts

I would like to see a greater respect for the hard work and expertise of town committees making recommendations to Town Meeting. I know, I know – the committees have a responsibility to educate and persuade Town Meeting, and Town Meeting’s role is not to be a “rubber stamp” granting automatic approval, and there’s got to be checks and balances, etc.

Too often though, the result of hours of incredible diligence and effort by truly expert groups and individuals is cast aside by people who simply have a different opinion, informed or otherwise. I realize that some who oppose a recommendation are themselves expert and have also committed great time and diligence to the issue. And in those cases, their opposition is right and important. But it is a disservice to the town to cavalierly overrule our committees.

I see the current situation with the Select Board and the trees downtown as an example of senseless disrespect for committee work. If we can’t let the planning department and the shade tree committee and the tree warden determine the best trees for downtown, then we are in a bad situation indeed. Town government might well grind to a halt as concerned citizens weigh in on the pros and cons of every conceivable act or decision.

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