Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Still working our way through the budget

Back again. Same old thing.

Announcements. Clarifications. Complaints.

Good explanation from the Finance Committee about our current fiscal state, followed by their good and informative explanation of their recommendation for the Public Works budget.

The Select Board wants $20,000 more for Public Works to pay for sidewalk repairs, which the public works committee informs us can’t possibly be done this year.

A TM member recommends a third option – increasing the FC recommendation by $7000, and reallocating $30,000 more to fuel costs, funded by that extra $7K and cutting two summer positions.

Another member makes a “general” recommendation, which has nothing to do with Public Works, but involves the choice between getting the legislature to let us create a “meals tax” or revising the cost-of-living adjustments for those retiring from the town.

See? Same old thing. Anyway . . .

Preliminary vote. Larger number first. That’s the Select Board’s figure and it fails strongly. I voted to oppose.

Two recommendations remain – the FC’s and the “More fuel, fewer people” one.

Questions about figures. Explanations about figures.

Vote again. Larger number first. The member’s recommendation fails almost unanimously. I again voted to oppose. Fairly quickly we vote on the appropriation of the FC’s recommended amount of $1,737,044, which passes strongly, and which I supported.

On to Planning, Conservation and Inspections. More good explanations from the Finance Committee. Unanimous support from the Select Board. Yet another option from the member who apparently never met a budget recommendation that didn’t want for a little amending. This time he wants to reduce the amount by $183,000 through various means, including eliminating positions that don’t currently exist. And for good measure, still another member recommends reducing the FC recommendation by $20,000, well, just because.

More questions and clarifications of numbers and how the department works. Then we vote again. Larger amount first – which this time is the FC recommendation. It wins on the preliminary vote and the appropriation vote of $898,047, and I vote to support it both times.

On to the Community Services budget. Still more good explanations by the Finance Committee. Every area of this budget sector is touched on, but most people are focused on just one: the funding to local human service agencies.

Originally the FC recommendation was to cut those funds in half from last year, down to $70,000. When $20,000 became available through our appropriations for General Government last week, they recommended that that $20K go here, reducing the original cut from $70,000 to $50,000, which would provide $90,000 in funding for these agencies.

The Select Board recommended a cut of only $5000 to this area, for $135,000 in funding.

The Human Services Funding Committee recommended no cuts – fund it at the same level as last year, $140,000.

Discussion predictably revolved around how worthy and vital these agencies are, even though that was never in dispute. A few brave folks dared to question the wisdom of funding them when we are in a severely compromised budget situation that cuts core town services, but they were quite overwhelmed by the stories of drama, tragedy and disaster made in support of full-funding.

This is a complicated topic, one I could argue about with myself all day. Why does the town even give money to charities? Well, it’s part of what makes Amherst good. The funding is not part of the town’s core services, which are being cut, so how can we justify it? Yeah, but we’re really talking about a tiny amount of money – can’t we find it somewhere? Shouldn’t people choose their charitable donations on their own, not have them made involuntarily through taxes? Well, taxes fund all the state and federal money such agencies get also. Ok, but does that make local tax funding better or worse? But these places depend on this money – a big cut is too drastic. On and on and on, just trying to persuade myself one way or the other.

Ultimately, when it came time to vote on the larger amount (the Human Services Funding Committee recommendation) and it passed in a tally vote of 87 in support, 76 opposed, I voted to oppose it. First of all, it makes the most sense to me that such funding is a desirable thing to do after Amherst has met all its core town needs first, and that is not the situation we’re in this year. And despite our bad situation, we were looking only to reduce, not eliminate, the funding. Secondly, as the impassioned discussion on this topic showed, Amherst residents care strongly about our local agencies, and I am confident we would not have let them suffer. An article or two in the newspaper about the loss of this money would have resulted in a huge outpouring of generosity from residents to these agencies, which might well have surpassed the funding that would have been cut.

I don’t envy the Finance Committee having to tackle that issue. If they hadn’t recommended any cuts to that area while cutting core services, they would have looked irresponsible. Instead, they did recommend cuts, and to some that is still irresponsible, or at least hard-hearted. Was it the amount? Would it have been possible to recommend a cut that was responsible but not "mean?" I think they were doomed either way. It almost required that people react to their recommendation, whatever it was going to be.

Moving on.

As I mentioned, there are many elements to the Community Services budget – Public Health, the Senior Center, the Community Services subcategory (which includes the human service agency funding,) Veterans’ Services, LSSE, pools, town commemorations and the golf course. The only other one that got real attention was the golf course.

Funding for Cherry Hill golf course is a perpetual town argument and seems to fuel a personal obsession for one TM member. Over the years, the course has lost a lot of money. This year, the Finance Committee projects that its finances will be a wash – it is expected to take in enough money in course-generated revenue to pay for itself, so while the town appropriates the operating money up front, it is expected to get all that money back.

I don’t know the whole long history of the course or all the details of the ongoing argument. To me the compelling details are these: 1) Why not consider golf to be like our other town recreation offerings? We don’t require the various pools, parks, sports programs and LSSE classes to pay for themselves – why must golf? 2) Money lost in the past is water under the bridge. Going forward, the plan seems solid enough, and we can continue to reevaluate.

The Finance Committee recommendation was supported by the Select Board. The member who opposes the course recommended reducing its budget by about $57,000 dollars, which he felt would leave it with enough to operate this season and make it possible to receive proposals for an outside group to lease or manage it on the town’s behalf, which a later article will propose.

This recommendation was accompanied by our first multi-media presentation – a video portraying the expensive history of the golf course and its repeated appearance as a Town Meeting topic. It was followed by the usual disagreements about figures. Eventually we voted and the larger amount – the FC recommendation – won, and I voted in support of it.

We finished off the evening with the official bottom-line appropriation vote for the whole community services budget area of $1,831,363, which I supported, and we then adjourned to next Monday night, June 5th.

Random bits:

The evening’s big drama came from a light bulb exploding in the ceiling, and raining down what looked to be sparks and glass on the audience. Luckily, no one was injured.

I sat in the second row from the back, in the center section, about four seats in from the left. I think I like the back the best, because I can see everything – who is raising a hand to speak, who is leaving, etc.

Much to my surprise and embarrassment, tonight I realized that Jim Scott, whom I voted for in the TMCC election, is not who I thought he was. Interesting. I’m sure he is a fine fellow and will be good on the committee anyway. Somehow, I was just a little confused . . .

While TM spent its longest evening yet in a very hot auditorium, the Blue Jays were pounding the Red Sox. Always tough to win when the other team gets 5 home runs. Guess I’m glad I missed that one.

I can barely sleep after Town Meeting. There’s so much to think about that I just can’t shut my brain off. Does anybody else have that problem?

Continue reading...

Sunday, May 28, 2006

In my humble opinion

So Town Meeting is wading through a budget that has been painstakingly crafted over many months and countless hours, countless meetings of every relevant department and committee, countless agonizing compromises and calculations, all to balance a $4.7 million deficit. Through the diligent work of the Town Manager (actual and interim,) the Finance Committee, the School Committee, the Library Board of Trustees and the Select Board, we have before us a balanced budget recommendation with near unanimous support, excepting a few very small differences recommended by the Select Board majority and minority.

Let me emphasize again how much time and effort and big-picture balancing, cooperation, compromise and painful cutting created this budget recommendation. Lots. Get it? A ton.

So at Town Meeting, our job should be simple. Learn as much as we can or care to about this resulting budget recommendation, ask good questions to further our understanding, appreciate the heck out of all the work that went into its creation, and then pass the damn thing.

Instead, we’re getting ad hoc policy and spending recommendations from the floor: I think we should do this. I don’t like this – why don’t we do this? Why do we do this anyway, when we should be doing this?

Umm, a little late, folks.

To me, the idea of 200-ish people weighing in on different ways to distribute our spending at this point in the process is frankly nuts. Could we as individuals or as a body have a better sense of all the contingent factors of each allotment than the Finance Committee? Do our personal opinions take into account all the future financial and community effects? Do we think that we have more information or better judgment than the Finance Committee?

Of course not.

Those who want to influence the town’s spending priorities in different ways need to make themselves part of the budget process very early on. Get all your information together (because an opinion is not the same as information.) Talk to the experts. Go to the meetings. Spend the spring making your case. That is how to effect change in the budget. If the change you are sure we need is important enough, then it is worth the time and effort that will take. The budget is not created in a cavalier seat-of-the-pants fashion, nor should it be altered that way.

This really gets to the heart of my philosophy about committee recommendations. Basically, I tend to trust them. I believe that the Finance Committee has the most expertise about the town’s finances. I believe the Planning Board to be the most expert entity in dealing with the town’s planning/zoning situation. I believe no one knows more about the realities and needs of our schools than the School Committee. And who better than the Shade Tree Committee . . . nah, I won’t go into that one again.

“We’re not just a rubber stamp of approval!” is the cry echoing from every corner.

To that I say: Why not?

Unless you doubt their facts, their competence, their process, their motives or their integrity, then why would you doubt their conclusions?

The point of all of these entities is the specialization enabled by division of labor. Their purview is complex, and they become the experts in their areas so that the rest of us don’t have to. And there is vast opportunity for each of us to weigh in with our personal questions, concerns and ideas as part of the long and deliberative process that precedes and informs the recommendations that are ultimately made to Town Meeting.

And as a Town Meeting member, if you really can’t agree with a recommendation, you can always vote to oppose it. That makes much more sense than trying to alter it in some complicated way that disrespects both the committee process in bringing the recommendation, and the Town Meeting members’ process of making diligent and informed voting decisions.

I am, of course, brand new at this. I may be too naïve or idealistic in my view of how “the system” works. Perhaps being heard and effecting change are less possible than I believe. Fair enough – I concede that point. However, as a new TM-er, trying my best to make good and educated voting choices, I can say without hesitation that I can not and will not vote for a complex and significant alteration of a recommendation that has only been presented mid-discussion, giving me no time to consider, study or prepare. If your recommendation can stand up to scrutiny, please give me plenty of time to scrutinize it – not minutes – days, better yet, weeks. It is not that I think that the committees are automatically right, but in my eyes, you as the “opposer” bear the burden of proof. And if you can do that, I welcome it, and in fact, I thank you.

Just my opinion, of course.

Continue reading...

Friday, May 26, 2006

This and that

We're everywhere: There’s nearly a TM quorum in this week's Bulletin: a profile of Irvin Rhodes, Arnie Alper helping the Survival Center, Frank Gatti and Eleanor Manire-Gatti sending e-mail from Iran, Larry Kelley’s karate video, some weird blogger, a column by Paul Bobrowski, a column by “the triumvirate” -- Clare Bertrand, Andy Churchill and Baer Tierkel. That doesn’t even include the article about Monday’s TM session. Or the Police log. (Oh relax – it’s a joke.)

Thanks to Eva: Some helpful clarifications from Eva Schiffer on a couple of references in my post about Wednesday’s meeting. Quoted from her e-mail, with permission:

“Special Town Meeting -- adjourned till after Art. 34:
The Community Preservation Act Committee recommends projects (in separate articles this year) on a) open space, b) affordable housing, c) historical preservation, and d) recreation. Their recommendation on open space got left off the main warrant by mistake. This (as you guessed) was the only way to get it considered during this budget cycle.

"Assistant Town Manager position: eliminated during the budget crisis of the early '90s.

"Treasurer: John Musante's predecessor, Nancy Maglione, was Director of Administration and Finance; in addition, we had a treasurer/collector. Both retired in the same year. John was then appointed Finance Director/Treasurer; in addition, a new collector, Clare McGinnis, was appointed. These are all enormously complex and responsible jobs.”

Attendance update: Out of 244 TM members (the total before the last meeting) 104 have been to all six sessions and 12 haven’t been to any yet. Everyone else is between those two extremes.

Small structural changes: The red post titles are now linked to bring up that post, with its comments (if it has any) on a separate page. To get back to the main page, either hit your “back” button, or click the “Stephanie’s Town Meeting Experience” title at the top, or the little "<< home" thing at the bottom. Also, at the end of each post, I’ve tried to make it a little more obvious how to comment by making the comment link more prominent. Do let me know if there are other tweaks that you think might improve things.

Continue reading...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

TMCC results

Results are up on the town web site -- and right here, saving you another click.

Otto Stein, 94 votes
Peggy Roberts, 93 votes
Yours truly, 65 votes
Phil Jackson, 60 votes
Jim Scott, 53 votes
Mary Wentworth, 47 votes
Frank Wells, 26 votes
All others, 1 vote

If I understand the plan correctly, the top four vote-getters are elected to 2 year terms, and the 5th highest vote-getter will be awarded the final year of Marcie Sclove's term when she leaves the committee in a few months.

Thanks to all who voted for me, and I look forward to working with all of these good folks on this committee.

Continue reading...

And the budget saga continues

So now it’s Wednesday and we’re right back at this.

We began with a most arcane issue: the calling of a Special Town Meeting – full reading of the “O hear ye, hear ye” warrant and all – followed immediately by a motion to adjourn it until after Article 34. This has something to do with new money that is needed for land acquisition with Community Preservation Act funds, and by my interpretation, is essentially equal to adding a new article to the current warrant. Apparently you can’t do that, so you go through the technicalities of calling and adjourning a Special TM, which basically means we’ll deal with this issue a little later. Okie-dokie.

Next up: a massive and unnecessary mea culpa from the moderator for the stresses of Monday night’s meeting. From his explanations, I gather that he got angry feedback regarding his moderator skills, his integrity, his intelligence and the horse he rode in on. PLEASE! Monday was kind of confusing, kind of heated and even kind of messy. But if ever there were a situation where the intentions were good, but the execution didn’t quite work out so well, that was it. Anyone who bothered to get indignant over it being anything more than that should really step back and take a very deep breath. If Harrison Gregg weren’t usually so excellent, then our standards wouldn’t be so high. Cut the man some slack, for goodness sake! Hmmph. Well. So there.

Amidst the self-flagellation was some good and clarifying info about the rule for “voting the higher number first,” which didn’t happen Monday but will happen henceforth. (Talk about arcane!) Next a few more new members got sworn in, and then the best housekeeping detail yet: correcting an erroneous vote from Monday. It seems that the tally vote record showed that John Musante, who is interim Town Manager, voted in Monday’s dispatcher vote, while Select Board member Gerry Weiss, abstained. Big whoop, you say? Well, by tradition, the Town Manager does not vote, and the dispatcher thing was part of the Select Board recommendation, so why would Weiss abstain? Drama! Intrigue! Noooooo. Somehow Gerry Weiss happened to vote with one of John Musante’s tally vote cards. Amusing, and frankly surprising it doesn’t happen more often. These meetings generate a fair amount of paper. I’m personally expecting to screw up my own tally vote by using a card from a previous night. It’ll probably happen.

So we’re finally back to the budget. We’re still on the second half of the divided motion from Monday regarding Public Safety money. The Select Board amends the Finance Committee recommendation, moving to reduce it by about $30,000. Some attention is paid to this being equivalent to not filling a police officer vacancy (of which none exists,) but there is repeated emphasis that we vote to appropriate Public Safety money in general, and not on the specifics of how it gets spent. One person speaks to how vital police are to the community, and another points out for the first time that the key difference between the two budget recommendations is money for Public Safety versus money for human service agencies, and their importance to the community.

And then we get an entirely new proposal from a Town Meeting member. I was wondering if this would happen.

This one seeks to increase public safety spending by about $254,000, with the recommendation to fund that increase by taking $164,000 from Community Services (essentially wiping out the human services and human rights money) and about $90,000 from Planning, Conservation and Inspections (about 10% of that budget.) This would potentially fund five additional police officer positions which were in the earliest preliminary budget proposal from the Town Manager, but which disappeared quickly from all future recommendations once the extent of this year’s fiscal crisis became evident. Passionate talk about public safety, core of the town’s body, underappreciated, underfunded, etc.

It might have had some potential. Until the Police Chief shot it down.

He appreciated the sentiment, but thought such a recommendation should go through the proper channels of the Finance Committee, the Select Board, etc. Hallelujah.

After others questioned the figures that had been presented about past public safety support, and the need for such a proposal to be considered and vetted with time and care, and in the context of the budget as a whole, the amendment was quickly and decisively voted down. I was among those voting to oppose it.

Back to the Select Board’s smaller amount vs. the Finance Committee’s larger amount, and how everybody thinks public safety is vital, and they just made different choices on how to distribute the money. The Finance Committee’s larger amount wins in a tally vote of 102 in support, 75 opposed. I voted in support. That was still a preliminary vote though, with the potential for more discussion of other public safety areas, but there was no further discussion, and we came to a quick vote “to appropriate $8,029,047 for public safety . . .” and with that, we officially approved the original Finance Committee recommendation.

We move on to General Government – this is the guts of how Town Hall works and the business of the town gets done. It includes collecting taxes, paying bills, conducting elections, maintaining town buildings, all the work of the Town Manager’s office, the Town Clerk’s office, Information Technology, etc. Again, we have a Finance Committee recommendation, and a smaller Select Board recommendation ($20,000 less.)

And then it happens again.

Another member offers an entirely new recommendation for this whole area of the operating budget. This time though, the proposal is not to add, but to subtract. The motion is to reduce spending in General Government by $204,000. This would appeal to all those who think government is generally wasteful and has plenty of fluff in its budget. The recommendation would be to cut the Assistant Town Manager’s position, combine the Treasurer and the Collector, take various monies from other places, and a big chunk out of Information Technology.

And this too might have had some support. Until Mr. Musante pointed out that the Assistant Town Manager and Treasurer positions had already been eliminated several years ago. And no one wants to cut I.T.

So we vote on this, which again is a preliminary vote. Because of the whole “larger number first” thing, we have to vote on the Finance Committee proposal versus both of the two lower ones – the Select Board’s being $20,000 lower, and the new one being $204,000 lower. It is a tally vote, and the Finance Committee’s larger amount fails, with 74 supporting, and 98 opposing. I voted to support it.

Now we have just the two smaller numbers before us. More discussion of how very big the big cut is. We then quickly vote on the two remaining motions. This time the Select Board’s recommendation wins overwhelmingly, no tally vote necessary. We immediately have the official appropriating vote, and hence nearly unanimously vote to appropriate the Select Board’s figure of $5,304,392 for General Government. With the FC's figure now gone, I supported the SB’s figure for both of these votes.

After a procedural motion having to do with whether or not we’ll meet Thursday (we won’t,) we adjourned until next Tuesday.

Random bits

Today I sat in the center of the back row on the moderator’s right/audience’s left. I hear very different chatter depending on where I sit.

TMCC voting was tonight, but not everyone knew about it, so there was a bit of confusion. It lead us to adjourn a smidge earlier than usual so people could vote at the end. I, alas, voted before the meeting.

Town Meeting starts at 7:30, but you’d never know it. We don’t typically have a quorum (and hence are unable get started) until 10 or 15 minutes later than that. How about we all try to be prompt, folks? Like this whole thing doesn’t take long enough already?

Much calling the question tonight. Definitely cuts to the chase and keeps things moving. I like that.

Much picking at the budget and offering random cuts, alternatives, etc. I don’t like that at all. I feel strongly that TM is vastly too late in the budget process to be seeking to eliminate positions or change spending policy. I’ll pontificate on this subject in much greater detail soon.

Another day, another $13 million dollars appropriated.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

TMCC candidates

So tonight may be the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee election. My notes from Monday say “next Wednesday,” but as we don’t meet next Wednesday, today is probably the day.

I have thought a lot about how I plan to vote, and this is what I’ve decided.

Myself. Shocking, I know.

Phil Jackson. I have been impressed with his questions during TM, I thought his dispatcher presentation was just fantastic – exactly the kind of thing I would like to see more of, and the fact that he had spent three days observing the communications center shows a real commitment to knowing what he’s talking about and voting on. Bringing that kind of philosophy and imparting that kind of message to others via TMCC would be hugely valuable.

Mary Wentworth. That might be surprising, considering we seem to be diametrically opposed on every issue that I can think of, but I don’t think that matters here. Mary is an active and devoted Town Meeting member and she seems to prepare her arguments and presentations carefully. I could not disagree more strongly with her conclusions, but I respect her efforts. And she gets a ton of bonus points from me for the bus tour, which I understand was her idea to resurrect. I thought that was a brilliant and important concept, and clearly aimed at improving TM by actively educating the members. I think that is what the TMCC is all about.

Jim Scott. I have never met him, but my main impression of him is that he calls the question often. Even before I was on TM, and I only watched from the gallery or on TV, he stood out for that reason. That says to me that he wants to speed things along and we certainly need more of that.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Budget dispatch


If I had to summarize in one word our first night of budget article consideration, that word would be cranky.

Things started ordinarily enough. I chose a seat in the back row of the center section, a couple to the right of the ACTV command table. The meeting got under way with the usual announcements: upcoming meeting dates; the order for the night’s articles – 24, 25, 5, 26; next week’s TM Coordinating Committee election; the introduction of new Town Manager Larry Shaffer, who was sitting in on the meeting last night before he officially comes on board July 1st; the swearing in of a couple new members, and so forth.

But in all that was an innocent throw-away line that only later proved to be a foreshadowing of things to come: Moderator Harrison Gregg said by way of welcome to Mr. Shaffer – “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Indeed.

So we began with Article 24, essentially a housekeeping article distributing FY06 salary adjustments from the General Government catch-all human resources account to the relevant areas of Public Safety, Public Works, Planning, Conservation and Inspections, and Community Services. Except for a little bit of picky grammar discussion, this article passed unanimously and without issue.

Article 25 was another “simple” one – approving the amended Amherst-Pelham Regional School District Agreement, which alters the assessment formula for determining each town’s contribution. After various iterations through the years, the District has determined that a “per pupil” method is the most practical at this point, and to ease the fiscal burden of Amherst’s transition to the new formula, Leverett and Shutesbury have both kicked in one-time contributions of $62,000. After blessedly little discussion, this article passed unanimously. We’re rolling right along.

Now Article 5 – another easy one – it simply appropriates money to pay our annual obligation to the Hamsphire County Retirement System, funding the retirements of past, current and future town, library, and non-teaching school employees. Straightforward enough, but you knew there was a reason this article was removed from the consent calendar back at the first TM session. One member wants to analyze whether or not being a part of the County system is a good deal for Amherst. He wants the article referred back to the Finance Committee for full study and consideration. Various speakers refute the wisdom and practicality of this suggestion. The motion to refer is defeated and the article receives unanimous support.

Now Article 26 commences the real nitty-gritty of the budget. We have two recommendations before us for the Town’s operating budget, both of which evolved from the original Town Manager’s budget recommendation put forth early this year: one from the Finance Committee and one from the Select Board. Both are balanced budgets, but with some variation in the details. The Select Board’s budget differs from the Finance Committee’s primarily in the areas of Public Safety and Community Service. Where the Finance Committee recommends cutting $70,000 dollars from the town’s donations to local human service agencies, the Select Board recommends cutting $5000. Where the Finance Committee recommends adding two dispatchers to Public Safety (about $40,000 each, including benefits) – one funded by ambulance receipts, the other by taxation, the Select Board recommends adding one dispatcher – the one funded by ambulance receipts – and not filling a police officer vacancy (saving about $40,000.) The Select Board also recommends eliminating a part-time clerical worker in the Public Health Department (saving about $15,000,) and adding $20,500 to sidewalk repair and maintenance for Public Works.

So in effect, where the Finance Committee is spending roughly $135,000 on two dispatchers, a police officer and a part-time public health secretary, the Select Board is spending that sum on contributions to human service agencies ($65,000 on top of about $71,000 which both groups agree on,) one dispatcher, and sidewalk repair and maintenance, with about $8000 left over for categories outside of the Town’s operating budget (to be dealt with in other articles.)

We start with "opening statements" from the Finance Committee, the acting Town Manager, and the Select Board. We are to consider and vote on the five functional areas of the operating budget separately (general government, public safety, public works, planning, conservation and inspections and community services,) and then vote on the total bottom line number for operating budget. As this is the heart of where the Finance Committee and Select Board recommendations diverge, the Select Board moves to consider public safety before general government. So the FC makes its public safety recommendation and then the SB moves to amend the FC motion by reducing the appropriation figure with its recommendation. And hence begins the battle of the dispatchers.

The factor to keep in mind here is that TM appropriates money per functional area, but can’t actually dictate how it gets spent within that area. So while we might frame our discussion in terms of how many dispatchers we believe we should support, the fact is that we aren’t really funding dispatchers – we’re funding public safety, and the Town Manager will spend the public safety money however he sees fit. But the TM discussion does serve to advise the Town Manager (and others, depending on the budget area) how we desire the money to be spent, so the discussion is important.

So the moderator, ever conscious of TM’s desire to thoroughly and specifically express its advice on these topics, sought to structure the discussion in a way that allowed full comment on the two key elements of the proposed public safety budgets by separating the motion into two: first how many dispatchers, and then whether or not to eliminate a police officer.

The intentions of this were good, but it may have proved to be the undoing of the evening. It set us on a path of line-item consideration that will be tough to get away from, and it further clouds the notion that we aren’t really specifying how the money gets spent.

But this was our structure, and we embraced it with gusto.

Discussion in favor of two dispatchers centered around (and around and around): How vital are the dispatchers? Very. How awful are their working conditions? Very. How understaffed and overstressed is the department? Very. How much do they need two new dispatchers instead of one? Very.

Discussions favoring adding only one dispatcher focused on: People are expensive. Spending here means cuts in other areas. Adding one instead of two when other areas have had no additions and only cuts seems fair. UMass should help us more with this.

But it was the crankiness that really stood out. Crankiness about the structure of the discussion. Crankiness about not being recognized. Crankiness in response to a member’s – ummm – spirited (and in my opinion, very excellent) presentation in support of the dispatchers. Big-time crankiness between the Chief of Police and the Select Board. And much crankiness from the moderator in trying to explain the voting procedure to a cranky TM assembly.

Ultimately we had a tally vote on the Select Board’s motion to decrease the Finance Committee’s recommended public safety spending regarding the dispatchers. The motion to decrease failed in a vote of 61 in favor, 111 opposed. I voted to oppose.

And so we adjourned until Wednesday, when with luck, we will all return in better humor.

Random Tidbits:

Handicraft update: I have my first confirmed sighting of a woman knitting!

Kudos to Elaine Brighty, School Committee chair, for stating firmly and unequivocally that she will not set school funding up in opposition to public safety funding.

How about all these “ride-alongs” that various official folks apparently are (and are not) doing with the police? How cool is that?

In the "where have you been?" department – I noted several people who were there for their very first session of the year last night. (That’s not counting the folks who were newly sworn in.) So glad you could finally join us!

Couldn’t we arrange to not meet at least when the Red Sox play the Yankees? Red Sox won again last night, 9-5. Great game – or so I heard. Missing it made me cranky.

Continue reading...

Yeah, yeah -- I'm working on it

The recap of last night's meeting still isn't up yet. What can I say? This is a hard one -- my first budget session! I'm working on it . . .

Continue reading...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Getting ready for Monday

It has been my habit to post my pre-TM analysis of the warrant articles, and how I expect to vote on them. I have decided that that really isn’t possible for the budget articles, particularly as this is my first time on the frontlines of this process. I don’t know what to expect as far as how these will be handled – how much alteration and argument will be attempted from the floor, how the various committees will explain and respond to areas in which they disagree. So while I have been working hard to understand the various budget documents and proposals, I will have to wait to detail the “whys” of my votes after the fact.

Let me offer praise and appreciation to the Finance Committee for their terrific Finance Committee Report, Part 2, which is incredibly detailed and well-written. It lets even a newbie like myself have some grasp of the complexities of Amherst's budget situation. Many thanks!

Continue reading...

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Basic blog intro

As the Amherst Bulletin letter might bring in some new visitors, I am re-posting some general info to assist those unfamiliar with blogs.

It is arranged in reverse-chronological order, so the most recent posts are always at the top. You may want to start by scrolling down to the bottom of the page to read the earliest stuff first, or just dive right in at the top.

Text in different colors (except the red post titles) are links.

You can comment on any post. To do so, either click on the link at the bottom of the post that says how many comments it currently has (i.e. "0 comments," "5 comments, " etc.); or, from the "previous posts" section on the right-hand side of the page, click the title of the post you want to comment on, (the most recent ten posts are listed there) and then click the "post a comment" link at the bottom. You can register or choose the “anonymous” option, and then either include your name or not – it’s up to you. (Beware: I can remove any inappropriate comments. So much for free speech, huh? Hey, you can always start your own blog.)

Both of the these options also allow you to read the comments left by others, whether or not you wish to comment yourself.

If you don't want to share your comment with everyone else, or you just want to contact me directly, click on the link below my picture that says "view my complete profile." From there, click on the e-mail link.

Any questions? Let me know. And many thanks for stopping by!

Continue reading...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Your presence is requested

I was looking over TM’s attendance record thus far. There are 242 Town Meeting members – 228 regular and 14 ex officio. We have met four times, over the course of three weeks. And . . .

128 members have been to all four session. (52.9%)
66 members have been to three sessions. (27.3%)
17 members have been to only two sessions. (7.0%)
15 members have been to only one session. (6.2%)
16 members haven’t been to any sessions yet. (6.6%)

Wow! I am shocked and really disappointed by those numbers. Where are these people? If attending is inconvenient or impractical for them, then why are they on Town Meeting at all? Do people care about this? If so, what can we do about it?

Continue reading...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Just learned that today (5/16) is Harrison Gregg’s birthday.

Where oh where would we be without his wise guidance and gentle control? It is no wonder that he is always unopposed for re-election. Who else could fill those shoes and ride herd over this crazy mob?

So best wishes and a very happy birthday to Mr. Moderator!

To send your own personal birthday wishes, his official e-mail address is

Continue reading...

Of PURDs and turtles

Last night’s meeting had none of the high-blood-pressure elements of last Wednesday, thank goodness.

We dealt with only one article – Article 22 – and I’ll quench your suspense right off by telling you that it was defeated. Of course, being Town Meeting, it took us close to two hours to do that. This was the article seeking to rezone property on South East Street from Outlying Residential (R-O) with a Planned Unit Residential Development overlay (PURD) to Low Density Residential (R-LD) with removal of the PURD, for the purpose of preventing a condominium development that is already in the works. Except that it really couldn’t prevent the condo development. And that point was the crux of the evening. Despite the earnest pleas of the petitioners and their supporters, it seemed that most TM members were already swayed by the fact that this development is in process– plans have been filed which effectively freezes the zoning on this property for eight years. So even if TM had been persuaded that a zoning change were desirable, it would have had almost no effect on the current development plans, unless litigation and other issues stall this project beyond its zoning deadlines.

Sure, there were lots of other details bandied about. The Planning Board opposed the article, 6-1. The Select Board supported it, 3-1-1. Supporting arguments focused on the development density being inconsistent with the area, significant drainage issues on the site and how they might affect both the rail trail and the abutting farmland; protection of turtles and frogs in the vernal pool that forms there; how there is no sidewalk or public transportation infrastructure in the area and the traffic is bad. Opponents of the article including the property owner/developer, talked about the zoning freeze; the history of TM’s support for the current zoning; the potential for higher-impact cluster development on this property; the risk of the town being sued if TM changes the zoning at this juncture; the implicit bargain made in the zoning change-conservation land swap in 1992 and the perils of going back on that bargain; general benefits of high-density residential development vs. low-density etc. Most of this stuff was already known and already considered ahead of time.

To me, compelling new points on either side were few: Pro – The town needs access via this land for fire equipment and other heavy machinery to protect conservation land. Con: Pointing out that the land abuts the rail trail and is perfect for the future condo dwellers to bicycle into town, to UMass, etc.; and the development is being aimed at the 55+ set, so low school impact is expected.

That was really it. The tally vote was 78 in favor, 115 opposed, and I was among the opposers. Now we have a week until the budget articles begin.

Tidbits from the meeting:

We did get another refrain of the “No zoning change before the Master Plan!” argument, this time from the developer. I had hoped that if this point were raised this week, it would be more in irony than in actual opposition.

Late in the discussion, a motion was made to dismiss the article, which created a confusing stir about whether dismissal was the same or better or worse than opposing the article outright. From the perspective of the court system and how it interprets dismissal votes on zoning issues, it seemed they were roughly equal. Many thanks to Jeffrey Blaustein, who said that he would vote against dismissal because its effects were ambiguous, and would oppose the article. I think he gave many of us who opposed the article a clear path to follow.

I feared that people might be swayed by the argument that since changing the zoning would have little effect, let’s go ahead and change it. I think that would have been a terrible symbolic vote and precedent, and would have been strong litigation fodder for the development opponents. But that didn’t happen.

Many “Points of Order” tonight. People had a lot of concern about fairness, neutrality and propriety.

Despite my steadfast opposition to this article, the vote felt kind of bad. Pitting our collective neighbors against each other – those who live in the contested area, and the property owner who lives elsewhere in Amherst, necessitated that one side would be unhappy with the results. That’s life, I know, but I do feel bad for the petitioners.

I know you’re just dying to know—this time I sat on the left (moderator’s left, audience’s right) in the middle of the fourth row from the front.

While we toiled away diligently on this, elsewhere in the universe the Red Sox hammered the Orioles. And I missed every inning.

Continue reading...

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friday updates

The voices of reason prevail in this week’s Bulletin. I could provide a bunch of links to each column and letter here, but you might as well just grab a hard copy and read everything on page 4.

Received the second TM packet in the mail today, with its most hearty and impressive Finance Committee Report, Part 2. Also included are the Select Board Budget Recommendations, and some other information. Non-TMers who want to follow along at home can get all this same info and more from the TM section on the town’s website. Much to study and digest!

Thanks to Eva Schiffer for clarifying that the budgets that I had mentioned being available from the Town Manager’s office and School Superintendent’s office are the original budget proposals submitted in January, as a starting point for the deliberation process that takes place in the months prior to TM, and are most useful for following or taking part in those deliberations. They are huge, expensive to produce, and have had many changes made to them by now. The key financial document at this point is the Finance Committee Report, Part 2.

Continue reading...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

More random musings

My head is still pounding from last night, but here are a few follow-up thoughts:

  • Only at Town Meeting might one get the impression that Amherst is under-zoned and under-regulated. This is not exactly a common criticism of our town.
  • Want to know who is preventing a rational rezoning at the intersection of South East and College Streets? And who is stonewalling the PRP improvement? Kudos to Baer Tierkel for his diligence in putting TM on the record for important votes.
  • Still no evidence of a massive knitting contingent. Last night I did see two cross-stitchers though.
  • I haven’t mentioned it in the last gazillion words or so, and first-timers may not wade through enough of my recent blather to find a previous note on this, so here I go again: In the interest of full disclosure, you may care to know that my father is John Coull, Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce. (Though he may prefer to deny that at this point . . . I may be making too many enemies . . .)
  • The TM system gives individual members and ordinary citizens significant power and influence. It is our duty to use that power responsibly. It brings to mind that saying: Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.
  • What if red-green color blindness is really to blame for our goofy tally vote results? Maybe lots of those people who opposed the zoning changes actually intended to support them. (It could be the 2000 Florida elections all over again!) A girl can dream.

Continue reading...

Twilight zoning

Wow. Where to begin?

How about with nominations for sainthood for Paul Bobrowski and Jonathan Tucker?

The ability of both of these men to be calm, composed, unflappable and respectful in the face of unrelenting brain-busting frustration was positively inspiring.

Yes, tonight TM began addressing the zoning articles, and the concerned citizens of Amherst successfully deployed every weapon in their arsenal to delay, confuse, complicate and defeat anything that hinted at change.

Let’s take it from the top.

This time I sat on the right side of the auditorium (moderator’s right, audience’s left) in the middle of the third row from the front.

The meeting is called to order. We have the swearing in of one new member, a series of announcements about the TMCC election and info available on the town web site, various explanations and reminders about procedure, and some info about the process the zoning articles go through before and after Town Meeting deals with them.

Then a procedural motion is made to put article 20 after article 18, making the order of tonight’s articles 18, 20 and 21.

So we commence with Article 18. Paul Bobrowski from the planning board speaks to this article which simply fixes an out-of-date reference in the overview of section 6.0. Unanimous vote to support, nice and quick.

Article 20 – the fun begins. Bobrowski explains with patience, charts and relevant examples the details and intention of this article. It seeks to rationalize the lot requirements for mixed-use buildings with dwelling units located above ground floor businesses in different zoning districts. The intent is both to bring existing non-compliant buildings into complicance, and to be able to “mirror the downtown density” in other appropriate areas. The Select Board is in unanimous agreement with the recommendation. But wait – one TM member wants to separate part of the motion so that it can be voted on separately. That is a privilege of a TM member, when different parts of a motion can be logically separated. Weird, but OK. Now the questions about the charts – mostly concerns that this change will allow for potentially much greater density than both the current rules and the current non-compliant situations. Bobrowski explains that his numbers represent a “theoretical maximum” for the number of units that could be allowed under the change – but there are many other factors that determine maximum units – myriad other aspects of zoning that would only diminish the maximum. This requires frequent repeating and reassurance, as does the notion that no plan is in the pipeline to exploit the zoning change and max out these mixed-use buildings. Let’s separate the motion even further – we can vote on the same zoning changes for each zoning district separately! Nope, sorry – that fails the “logical separation test.” We don’t understand the article – explain it again. OK, here it all is again. And then the introduction of the evening’s fugue theme: we can’t make zoning changes when we are just beginning a Master Plan Process! Better yet – this is too darned confusing – let’s refer it back to the Planning Board. No, let’s keep being obtuse about it! Does this little paragraph determine the town’s entire zoning strategy? Umm, no, actually the zoning bylaw is massively long and complex and detailed. Finally we vote. I vote in support of the article. It passes.

Now for the part that was separated out before. It pertains to raising the building height limit in some districts to 40 feet, from 35 feet. This does not increase the number of stories a building could have, but primarily allows for peaked roofs, church steeples and the infrastructure requirements of modern building (HVAC systems, etc.) But then there’s the threat of greedy landlords tearing down historic buildings so they can build things five feet taller! And yet, somehow, we vote and support this section of the article as well. (Need I note that I too voted in support?)


On to Article 21. But no – not yet! Someone who was absent Monday with a really good excuse is mad that he missed out on information and doesn’t know what’s going on. Our wise and patient moderator explains that in fact, proceedings did not grind to a halt in this member’s absence. Now we can proceed with 21, which deals with rezoning several parcels on South East Street at the College Street intersection from primarily Neighborhood Residence, to primarily Village Center – Business. Bobrowski explains that it rationalizes zoning with property lines, it encourages the kind of mixed-use business and residential Village Center development that both broadens the tax base and makes for nice living, shopping, eating, etc. When development applications come in, the permitting process will take care of getting the sidewalk/drainage type infrastructure upgrades that are desired. The Select Board wants to refer it back to the Planning Board. They have concerns, among them (cue the strings, here comes our theme again) we can’t rezone when we are starting a Master Plan Process! Also, they want to hear not just from the property owners, but also the residents of the rentals; they want to impose “contract zoning’ to require certain infrastructure upgrades from the property owners; they are afraid the zoning would allow for hotels, rooming houses, apartments and other “more intense” residential uses. But most of all, they are obsessed with the notion of the remnants of an historic common that is part of the public way, over which they have jurisdiction. No amount of reassurance from Mr. Bobrowski or Jonathan Tucker, Town Planning Director, can assuage the ambiguous concerns about the historic common. The Finance Committee is in unanimous support of the article. The Public Works Committee takes no position but says something about pending CPAC funds for studying the common situation. Bobrowski rebuts each concern and element of opposition, and we’re ready to vote on referral back to the Planning Board. Too close, so a tally vote is called for, and ultimately the motion to refer back to the Planning Board is defeated. Back to the main motion. The non-planning experts weigh in on their personal whims and fancies for how the parcels should be zoned. Buildings and intersections are referenced that have nothing to do with this article. Rob Kusner of the Select Board talks about a situation in Bellingham that was exactly the same as this one, where they used contract zoning to make the builder of a power plant provide resources for another project in town. Huh?!? Several people point out that this is an excellent opportunity to be pro-business, to encourage a broader tax base, etc. But beware, points out another – some of those new businesses might compete with existing businesses! And lest we forget – the Master Plan Process. Eventually we vote again, and again Baer “Tally Vote!” Tierkel extracts accountability from the members by putting our votes on record. All changes to the zoning bylaw require a 2/3 majority vote, and this one was defeated. I supported it.

It is nearly 10:00 now, and I’m hoping that we’re done for the night, but the moderator keeps us on task and moves on to Article 23. Ugh. The PRP article.

This is the one to fix the Professional Research Park zoning designation to allow these “quiet businesses” to do business with clients on site, if they are primarily by appointment. More excellent explanations from the Planning Board. Surprise support from the Select Board (4-1), unanimous support from the Finance Committee. You would think that this has “no-brainer” written all over it. You would be wrong. Despite all the support, it was not sufficient to garner the 2/3 majority needed, thanks to the novel argument that there is plenty of empty office space around, so no more office space is needed. I hope that same argument doesn’t prevent potential new restaurants. I mean, heck! – we have plenty of places to eat around here – we don’t need any more. Besides new ones might have the nerve to compete with existing ones – no, wait, it’s late, and I’m blurring the various contrarians. So another tally vote fails. And by the way – I supported this one too.

Quite an experience. I had to blog this one tonight, or else I wouldn’t sleep. But wait, how can I go to bed now, when we’re about to begin a Master Plan Process …

Continue reading...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Little orphan article

My thoughts on this article should have been included with my last pre-TM article analysis, but apparently I didn’t quite get to it. And so. . .

Article 23: Seeks to slightly loosen the restrictions on the PRP (Professional Research Park) zoning, fixing previous wording in the bylaw that essentially prevented any kind of business with clients who might need to come to its office. The new wording would allow the ZBA to “grant a Special Permit for a technical or professional office that provides services predominantly by appointment to clients in person on the premises, or, for an administrative business office or similar office that does not provide services to the general public in person on the premises.” This is a step toward encouraging the kind of clean, low-impact business that Amherst claims to want to more of to help broaden the tax base. The only downside I have heard is from people who live near PRPs and are concerned about increased traffic. But the whole PRP designation is about very low-traffic business anyway – we aren’t talking about shopping malls, we’re talking about architectural firms, business consultants, etc. That a small traffic increase may negatively impact a few neighbors so that the whole town can receive the economic benefits seems like a reasonable trade-off to me, and I hope the opposing neighbors will try to consider the situation from that bigger-picture perspective. We will never make progress if we refuse everything that changes the status quo. I think this is a vital fix to the bylaw and I intend to support it.

Comment on the remaining budget part of the warrant will have to wait for more information and study.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Stand and be counted

After a one week hiatus, we’re back in action.

But first, some other business to attend to. Precinct 9 had one TM vacancy, so we 9-ers were to convene a caucus at the back of the auditorium at 7:00, and elect a new member. We had received a letter about this from the Town Clerk’s office last week. The process didn’t go quite as I had expected – I expected nominations, discussion and then voting. But apparently this was deemed an “election,” so while people could say the names of potential candidates, they could not speak about them. I voted for Robert Harris, simply because he was the next-highest vote getter from election day in April. I don’t know who won.

After the caucus, I submitted my nomination (for myself) for Town Meeting Coordinating Committee. Then I chose my seat. This time I opted for the center section, approximately two-thirds of the way back, middle of the row. This proved to be an excellent choice. Otherwise, I might never have learned that copies of the school and town budgets are now available at the superintendent’s office, and town manager’s office respectively. I thought these would be mailed to us in our second packet, but the guts of that will apparently be the second report from the finance committee. So much to learn! Many thanks to Alan Powell, who sat next to me, for sharing that info.

The meeting was called to order and we got down to business. First were various announcements and clarifications. Then the first motions were to change the order of several articles – defer 19 (zoning for drive-throughs) until after 41, because some changes have been made and the planning board needs to hold a public hearing on it before it comes to TM; defer 20 (zoning regarding dimensonal requirement for residences located over businesses) to follow 23, because the planning board wants to provide a written report, instead of reading the report to TM; and defer 22 (rezoning South East Street to prevent condos) until Monday, May 15 to allow interested parties to attend a conservation commission meeting on the subject, set for Wednesday, May 10.

I was a little concerned after all this that we would get into articles that I hadn’t prepared for yet, blog-wise (my pre-meeting analysis of 1-17 is here, and 18-22 is here.) Silly me! Just how quickly did I really expect us to get through this stuff?

So we began with article 13. This sought to establish a task force to analyze the efficiencies (or lack thereof) of the Town’s current committee structure, and make recommendations for improvements. This article originally also had a section that dealt with the Special Municipal Employee situation, but that was removed due to overlap with article 12. I had intended to learn more about this article prior to the meeting, but the week got away from me, so the discussion would have to suffice, and luckily, there was plenty of that. Alan Root, who sponsored this article, spoke to the sheer volume of Amherst committees and how they outnumber those of any other town he could find, and also outnumber those of the state and federal legislatures. He and others spoke to the lack of standards among the committees for filing agendas and minutes of meetings, which affects the ability of citizens to participate. Some people spoke to the idea of a “committee on committees,” and the challenges and benefits of setting standards, determining what committees are necessary, improving the process of recruiting and appointing members. Some felt much of this was stepping on the responsibilities of the Select Board, or that setting recording standards would require more assistance from paid staff. I was persuaded that agendas and minutes are vital elements of committee accountability, but I didn’t feel that a task force was necessary to accomplish this. (How about a letter to the committees from the Select Board informing/reminding them of this requirement? How about follow-up with those committees that aren’t complying?) But I did not feel that a task force would have the ability to determine what committees are necessary or doing good work or where efficiencies could be realized by combining committees, personnel, etc. I opposed the article, but it passed.

Because the votes were so close on this article, it required a standing vote. First, all those in favor stand, and remain standing until the designated “counters” have reported the total to the moderator, and then all those opposed stand, while they are counted and reported. This is a high-pressure situation! No wonder people tend to sit with those whose views they share – it is rather awkward to stand or not stand when those around you are doing the opposite. Even though the tally vote is kind of the most powerful, because your name is attached to your vote, it has none of the “peer pressure” of the standing vote, where you are publicly proclaiming your viewpoint. Very weird feeling, but one I would become much more familiar with as the night went on.

Article 14 sought to reaffirm a past TM vote sending a message to the state legislature that Amherst supports single-payer universal health care. The League of Women Voters sponsored this article, and Diana Stein spoke to the various horrors of our current health care system – too expensive, too much waste, not universal, problems with having coverage tied to employment. Others supported that position with stories of high costs, lack of access for many, comparisons to other countries. As I’ve noted, I have a lot of reservations about a government-based health care system, (as well as “advisory” articles to other bodies,) but I do agree that the current system is a mess and no clear alternatives exist, and so I concede that this may be the best option. I supported the article, as did all but one or two others. Some wanted a tally vote on this, despite its near-unanimous support, as a way of more forcefully backing up their vote with their names. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, because it would have taken a lot of time for no real effect.

Then we get to articles 15 – 17, all opposing genetically engineered crops in various ways. (You can read the warrant if you want the details of each article.) We probably spent an hour and a half on these. If there were 200 people in attendance, that means 300 man hours (people hours – yeah, yeah) were expended on this – all to send another “message” to the powers that be, on a topic that few in attendance were remotely qualified to truly discuss. I don’t know anything about the science or law behind this stuff, and I am inclined to oppose it. Heck, I’m a vegetarian – I don’t want weird animal genes mixed with my veggies, never mind scary chemicals and pesticides. But I am not so naïve as to think it is as simple as that. And when confronted with an entirely one-sided attack, full of scare tactics and negative ad populem triggers – agri-biz controlling the food supply, monopoly by corporate entities, Monsanto suing family farmers – then I feel manipulated, and I actually start sympathizing with the other side. Because there is another side! This was not a balanced and circumspect consideration of a vastly complicated issue – it was an impassioned appeal to reactionism and fear. Some people, bless them, spoke to the complexities of this, to the science, to the benefits. But this was not a forum that leant itself to full consideration of the topic – because, duh! – this was Amherst Town Meeting, not the World Conference of scientists, ethicists and food health and safety experts. A couple of people said they didn’t think this was an appropriate TM topic, and would oppose the articles on that ground. Select Board Member Gerry Weiss said that those who felt that way should abstain, not oppose, which I didn’t agree with at all, since it specifically says on page 3 of the Town Meeting Handbook: “Failure to vote implies acquiescence in the majority opinion.” So the bottom line is that we spent forever on an issue that I felt we weren’t qualified to consider, and the outcome of which was merely symbolic. I opposed all three articles, and all three passed.

I think two of the votes on these articles were standing votes (things got kind of complicated, with various motions to refer two of the articles to the Board of Health thrown in to the mix – we may have stood for those also.) The good thing about the standing votes is standing. The seats get pretty tight and uncomfortable after a while, so the opportunity to stand up and stretch is quite welcome.

And one of the motions to refer gave me my first – but certainly not last– voting mistake. In planning to oppose the motion to refer, I ended up first opposing the motion to call the previous question – whoops! I’ll probably mess that up a dozen more times before I get the hang of all this.

We adjourned just after 10:00. Five articles gave us four advisories to the legislature and one committee to study committees.

Just another night of taking caring of Amherst’s business.

Continue reading...

Friday, May 05, 2006

Lo, the perils of transmogrification

Weird column by Mary Wentworth in the Bulletin this week. Another example of that classic Amherst attitude – “Nothing can change – everything must stay exactly the same.”

According to the column, change has costs. True. Change causes other changes. True. Change offers no guarantees. True also.

But the column portrays all of these with abject pessimism, and that is sad. No wonder people fear change – and seek to frighten others about it – if they can only imagine worst case scenarios.

She cautions that “costs often outweigh benefits,” but I would argue that in smart and thoughtful economic development, they never do. That is not the same as saying there are no costs, or that the costs don’t impact some more than others. There are and they do. Competition, which she portrays as a negative rather than a reality, does weed out the weakest competitors, and for them, the costs are high indeed. But is stifling change in order to protect the marketplace’s weakest competitors rational economic “policy?” And “hidden costs” such as new infrastructure requirements, increased noise, etc. aren’t hidden any more when they are part of the discussion. Careful consideration of all relevant factors is what makes smart growth smart.

More optimism, more-openmindedness, more willingness to look at situations from different perspectives – these will help Amherst find its best future. Fear and loathing rarely foster good outcomes.

Continue reading...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Working my way through the warrant

More pre-TM consideration of the articles. To open a copy of the warrant in another window, right-click here and choose “Open in New Window.” For my pre-TM analysis of articles 1-17, click here, or for a review of the first night of TM and the first 12 articles, click here. As always, I welcome your comments or persuasive arguments.

Article 18 – This deals with a technical correction to the language of the Section 6.0 Overview in the zoning bylaw, fixing an outdated reference to where to find the details for modification to dimensional regulations. I will support this.

Article 19 – This article seeks to add language to the zoning bylaw regulating where drive-through facilities can be located. The language and details of zoning are complicated, and I am new to this, so I will learn much more about this article during its discussion at TM than I can learn on my own. My first instinct on reading this though is that it feels hyper-regulatory. If I understand it correctly, it is primarily dealing with potential drive-throughs that are “accessory to Principal Uses,” as opposed to gas stations and car washes, for which they call drive-throughs “part of the Principal Uses.” So I think we’re talking about the ability to add a drive-through to a business that already exists (perhaps a pharmacy or a bank) or regulating a potential drive-through at a potential business that is otherwise already allowed under zoning. (So it is not about whether you could stick a drive-through donut shop in the middle of a residential neighborhood – it is about whether in the districts where donut shops are already allowed, might they also have drive-throughs. I think.) So if I’m right, then that is why this seems hyper-regulatory to me. If the business is already allowed, then why really is a drive-through contentious? One answer would be downtown, where if every bookstore and tattoo parlor had a drive-through, that would negatively impact the pedestrians on the sidewalk. But then, is adding drive-throughs to bookstores and tattoo parlors and other downtown-type businesses really a big likelihood, such that we would need to legislate them out of pre-existence when common sense would already take care of that? I will need to hear more about this before I can determine my vote.

(And this is another business thing, so . . . my dad, the Chamber, blah blah. Do I really need to cite that all the time, or can we assume that you as the reader already know, will know if you read enough of the blog, or simply don’t care? Some have said I’m in danger of making way too big a deal out of that. But with so much TM talk about conflict of interest, I guess I just want to be transparent. What do you think? Let me know.)

Article 20 – I don’t seem to have the description sheet from the planning board about this article, but according to my notes from the warrant review meeting, this is essentially a technical correction to details in the zoning bylaw to account for the fact that residences located over businesses don’t need to have the same lot dimension requirements as residences in non-business areas. Or something like that. I remember Aaron Hayden saying that as an unintended consequence of the current language, many existing residences over businesses wouldn’t be legal, and they want to fix that. Assuming that discussion shows this to be the general gist of this article, I will support it.

Article 21 – This deals with re-zoning several parcels on South East Street, at the intersection of College Street, from R-N (Neighborhood Residence) to B-VC (Village Center Business) and COM (Commercial,) and portions of two parcels from COM to R-N. This will rationalize and improve the zoning in this area. It will fix several properties that currently include portions with two different zoning designations, and it will allow for “a broader mix of commercial and denser residential uses on these properties,” according to the Planning Board. I think it is a great idea. And all the affected property owners support it. This is an area that is already commercial, with the bank and gas station and other shops on Route 9. Encouraging rational “Village Center” development in this area is good for economic development, good for neighbors who will have walkable access to more goods and services, and good for the property owners who won’t be stuck with outdated residential designations in an area that has grown less appealing for pure residential purposes. This is the kind of positive-outcome business-friendly action that Amherst needs. I will absolutely support this.

Article 22 – This is an effort to rezone a section of South East Street near Mill Lane in order to prevent pending condominium development. While I sympathize with the neighbors who have brought this petition article, I cannot support it. First of all, it is a blatant example of two common and unproductive local attitudes: classic NIMBY-ism, and “nothing can ever change – everything must stay the same.” Secondly, the planning board has pointed out and the petitioners acknowledge that because the developer has already filed plans for this land, its current zoning is “frozen” for eight years from that filing date, and hence he can develop the land, regardless of whether this zoning change is made or not. I will be interested to hear the petitioners’ rationale for pursuing this in light of that reality. The Planning Board said it perfectly in their written report to TM: “. . . this article is clearly an attempt to stop a specific project, rather than a careful consideration of the land use needs of this area or the community, . . . Reaction is not a sound basis for amending the Official Zoning Map.” I will oppose this article.

More soon.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Random musings and tidbits

The actual vote takes real concentration. Not only do you have to remain conscious of whether you support or oppose the article (as opposed to all the discussion around it) and keep track of whether you're voting on the article itself or the motion to "call the previous question," but you also have to make sure you don't vote aye AND no. It is easy to get lulled into the call and response part of "All in favor say Aye." AYE! "All opposed say No." NO! Or maybe that's just me.

Another myth busted: One of the stereotypes I came into TM expecting was lots of women knitting. In fact, I only witnessed one knitter, and he was a young man. So there you go.

A smattering of people got up to leave as soon as we finished the article that crossed the 9:00 hour. I will be interested to see if this is common, or just a coincidence of this particular evening.

Hwei-Ling Greeney sat out the meeting in support of "A Day Without Immigrants."

The biggest laugh of the night came when Harrison Gregg was reading the text of an article that was projected on the screen in front of us, and skipped over the specifics of the long MGL citation with "Yadda yadda yadda . . ."

Continue reading...

And so we begin

The first Yankees game of the season. Johnny Damon’s return to Fenway. Doug Mirabelli’s return to the Red Sox. And the first night of Town Meeting.

So this was it. I arrived, checked in, picked up materials from the back table, and chose my seat. I opted for the middle of the back row on the right hand side. It seemed like a safe bet, and sure enough, no one told me that I was sitting in his or her seat. Good start.

Once the meeting was called to order, there was lots of procedural stuff – swearing in the new members, various congratulations and thank yous, informational notices, review of procedures, etc. We started dealing with the consent calendar at 8:10.

One article (#5) was removed from the consent calendar. Articles 1, 3 and 4 then passed by consent.

We then heard a couple of reports – an update from Robie Hubley on the status of negotiations surrounding saving the Kimball House on North East Street; one from Rob Kusner regarding meetings of a group considering Flood Prone Conservancy recommendations, which are expected to be ready for Fall Town Meeting; and one from Marcie Sclove regarding the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee, its role and upcoming elections to fill four seats.

Article 2 was dismissed. Article 5 was deferred for consideration until before article 26.

Article 6 appeared to be a unanimous vote for reducing the interest rate on deferred property taxes for eligible seniors. I voted yes.

Article 7 recommended increasing the number of TM members needed to remove an item from the consent calendar from one to five. Some wanted the number increased even more. The article passed with a strong majority. I voted yes.

Article 8 about reducing the penalty for failing to shovel sidewalks in order to comply with state law passed nearly unanimously. I voted yes.

Article 9 was about changing open container violations to a ticket and fine instead of an arrest. Interesting discussion here. Most striking to me was how respectful everyone was of the student who sponsored the article (who was not present.) All involved praised his preparation of the article and the manner in which he brought the issue before them. And they all respectfully recommended against it. Sentiment among Town Meeting members seemed to be strongly opposed as well, and sure enough, the article was strongly opposed in the vote. However, some people in my row, and perhaps others, were confused after the fact about whether it was a no or a yes vote that would have the desired outcome of keeping the bylaw language penalty as-is, as opposed to changing it the way the student petitioners preferred. Luckily, the confused folks near me got the outcome they wanted, even if they couldn’t keep track of how to achieve it. I voted no.

Article 10 was dismissed.

Then there was article 11. OK – I admit it. I caved. I went into this meeting feeling pretty convinced that this Tax Incentive Financing for Cushman Market was not too compelling. (My reasons are noted here.) But then the Finance Committee was strongly in support. Everyone who spoke was strongly in support. Even though the market is going to open this Saturday, which says to me that this tax issue was clearly not a deal-maker or breaker for them, and hence not terribly necessary on the town’s part, still there was not a flicker of opposition. And so I caved. My rationalizations: A) Either way, it was a small issue – money wise, principal-wise, it was simply not that big of a deal. B) I didn’t feel strongly enough to try to convince others; and C) My assessment of the situation may be wrong (imagine!) And so I too voted yes. And I am chagrined. My concern now is that people are reacting to the “Amherst is hostile to business” criticism and making essentially a token pro-business vote, but will then oppose real substantive pro-business measures such as the PRP revisions in article 23, or the re-zoning of the parcels at the intersection of South East and College Streets in article 21. (Again, as this is a business-related issue, let me note that my father is John Coull, director of the Chamber.)

Article 12 was to advise the Select Board that TM wants Special Municipal Employee Status reapplied annually to every committee. MGL 268A that references this status and the protections it does and does not offer is quite complex, and I was actually surprised how compelling I found the arguments against the article and for letting the Select Board hearings on the matter determine the outcome without this body offering its opinion. (Just watch – the stronger my convictions, the easier they collapse when challenged. . . but no, this time I was steadfast!) Ultimately, I voted yes, as I had expected I would, because I think this is an unnecessary and micro-managing situation. The system has always worked just fine – in Amherst and around Massachusetts. No one has articulated a downside, short of a couple of second- and third-hand anecdotes about “perceived” conflict of interest. The argument about rescinding the status in order to make the committees more diverse is specious, because as the appointing body, the Select Board already governs the diversity by whom they choose to appoint – they don’t need to keep good people away by making committee membership fraught with liability. Rescinding SME status is just not the right tool for fixing whatever it is that some are concerned is broken within the committees. The article passed.

We actually ended up with a tally vote for article 12, which is the exception. It means that everyone turns in a yes or no card with their name on it, so each individual’s vote is recorded. After seeing my card, (green for yes,) someone came over to chat with me and asked: “Why are you sitting over here? This section is for the naysayers.” And so the seating adventure continues.

We adjourned at 10:00. I got home in time to see the Red Sox finish off the Yankees 7-3.

Continue reading...

Monday, May 01, 2006

My initial take on articles 1-17

To open a copy of the warrant in a new window, right-click here, and choose "Open in New Window."

I can’t know for sure until hearing the discussions around each article, but these are my instincts regarding most of the first half of the warrant. As always, your comments and feedback are welcomed.

Article 1 – 5 are housekeeping articles, and on the consent calendar (except #2, which I believe will be dismissed.) These are simple yes votes.

Article 6 – Reducing the interest rate on deferred property taxes for qualifying seniors. Definitely. A good way to help keep more seniors in their homes.

Article 7 – Increasing the number of votes needed to remove items from the consent calendar from one to five. Yes. This seems most practical.

Article 8 – Changing the penalty for failure to shovel snowy sidewalks in order to be in compliance with state law. Duh. Yes. I wonder why this isn’t on the consent calendar.

Article 9 – Changing an Open Container violation from an arrestable offense to a ticketable offense. This petition was brought by students who think the arrest penalty is too harsh, and they point out that the fines from tickets can help raise revenue. Sounds good, but taking away the ability to arrest from the police is huge in a situation that can get out of control quickly. Also, Chief Scherpa points out that the police can’t force someone to show identification in this kind of situation, so enforcement by ticketing would be untenable. The chief also says that “…the procedure at the District Court has always been to modify the Open Container offense to a civil complaint if the defendant agrees at the time of arraignment to plead “responsible” to the civil claim and pay a fine. With this civil disposition, those arrested can rightfully claim that they have “no criminal record” …” Sorry kids. Gotta oppose this article.

Article 10 – I understand that this isn’t ready yet and will be dismissed.

Article 11 – Tax Incentive Financing for Cushman Market. My inclination is to oppose this, but I could be persuaded otherwise. My reasons for opposition are 1) my general Darwinian outlook on business; 2) a concern that this, while not precedent-setting per se, as TIFs have been used before, will encourage more “Oh yeah, well why not help me?” appeals to the town; 3) while the proposal suggests that such help now results in higher tax collection potential in the future, the fact is that countless new businesses never make it to “the future” so the town may never realize those gains; 4) it does not appear that the business owner’s plans are contingent on this TIF, so it doesn’t really seem necessary. I’ll be interested to see what the Finance Committee’s recommendation is on this, as well as hearing the petitioner speak to the article. And as this is a business-related article, let me state in the interest of full disclosure – my father is John Coull, director of the Chamber of Commerce.

Article 12 – Reinstating Special Municipal Employee Status for members of town boards and committees. Nothing that I have read in the papers, seen on the Select Board meetings, or have heard described by Select Board members has persuaded me that rescinding this status was necessary or beneficial. I strongly support this article.

Article 13 – Resolution to improve town committees, boards and commissions. This seeks to reinstate the Special Municipal Employee Status for six months, and create a task force to study other ways of improving committees. I don’t know enough about this article yet. I don’t know why it restores SME status just for 6 months – perhaps to allow for the task force recommendations. The idea of a committee to study committees is a little off-putting to me. If this doesn’t come up for a vote tonight, then I shall contact the article’s sponsor Alan Root for more information. If it does come up for vote tonight, then I will have to make up my mind based on the presentation and discussion.

Article 14 – Supporting Universal Health Care. This article has given me the most headaches so far, which is funny, since I still haven’t determined if there is an actual practical outcome from these “advisory” articles. But I have labored over it nonetheless. There are SO MANY reasons why I fear and doubt a single-payer government-based health care system that I would run out of space detailing them all. And yet the current health care situation is such an expensive and elaborate mess, and no other alternatives seem viable or practical, or themselves suffer from similar or worse problems, such that this may really be our best hope. I will have to support this.

Articles 15 – 17 – These articles request various legislation and a moratorium related to Genetically Engineered Foods. Unlike Article 14, I have not labored over this. I cannot possibly expect to educate myself sufficiently on the complexities of food science to the degree that I would be qualified to offer an informed opinion on this topic. I expect to oppose all of them because I think they are inappropriate questions to be dealt with in this venue.

Continue reading...