Tuesday, May 02, 2006

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.


Chris Hoffmann said...

Hi Stephanie,

I just discovered your blog and have been following along. Though I was against the charter, I've been hoping those who were for it would now take part in our TM/SB government(I hardly think its structure or all of its current members are perfect!) I'm glad to see that happening.

And I think I saw you on the left of the auditorium (as seen by the speaker). In fact, that side tends to be the more "radical" side of the audience. You really can see a difference in many of the tally votes! I sit on the right, but that's more because I sit with Harrison's wife than as a political statement.

And don't be embarassed by your wrong vote. I also found myself voting AYE to decriminalize to open container law. Oops. Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it!

Chris Hoffmann (pct 7)

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Technically, I haven't mistakenly voted yet, though I did vote counter to my instincts on Article 11. But an accidental vote is just one of the many experiences that await me at TM. And this seating thing seems to get more and more complicated. I may have to start moving to different seats for each article.

Thanks very much for stopping by and commenting!

Clare Bertrand said...

So, thanks for offering the honest "confused voting" info. I had the same exact experience and in fact my neighbors were yelling at me (not literally) but I felt rather silly.
I'm really enjoying my first tm experience too, although everything it seems is conspiring to sabotauge me. thanks, Clare