Friday, June 23, 2006

Wrapping up - Random Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wrapping up - Voting

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

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

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

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

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Wrapping up - Attendance & Vote Totals

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

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

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Wrapping up - Attendance Extremes

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

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

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

For complete attendance records, click here.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The End

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

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

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

Special TM dissolved. Back to the Annual TM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Random Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Tally ho!

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

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

Here’s some breakdown regarding the main motion:

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks to my husband for his wicked Excel skills.

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

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Déjà vu all over again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite ridiculous arguments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, we called it a night.

Random Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Meanwhile, back at the middle school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Back to normal

It would appear that the technical difficulties have been fixed. Everything seems to be working correctly again on the site. Thanks for your patience.

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Technical difficulties

The Blogger hosting site has been a real mess today. It is loading soooo sloooowly, often with errors on the page, and the ability to read or leave comments has been almost entirely shut down since early afternoon. "They" are having hardware problems and are working to get them fixed.

I apologize for the inconvenience. Hey, the site is free -- what can I say?

Please try again later if it isn't working for you.

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Enter the enterprise funds

In the “Good heavens – is this thing still going on?” department, TM is starting to resemble a public radio fund drive. You know that feeling when you turn on the radio and it's like – “Ugh, still?” That’s how this is feeling right about now.

Hmmm – maybe we should start pitching the folks watching on ACTV – “We still need to raise $4.7 million dollars by the end of this Town Meeting. Call now with your pledge of support and we’ll send you an autographed copy of the Finance Committee Report and a one-year membership for the Cherry Hill Golf Course!”

Maybe not.

We are called to order first for another Special Town Meeting, which this time we actually conduct, instead of immediately adjourning until later. First though, our interim moderator makes a few announcements and explains how he will run the meeting, the most significant difference from usual being that when recognizing people to speak, he won’t use any names. He says this is because he doesn’t know as many names as our regular moderator, and he doesn’t want to embarrass himself by forgetting the names he does know. Recognition will be by eye contact and pointing. And just in case you think he’s going to be some kind of pushover on rules – like when you had a substitute teacher in social studies – beware: he will bang the gavel when your time is up, and you’ll be expected to finish your sentence and be done.

The Special Town Meeting concerns the acquisition of a parcel of land in Pelham that is part of the watershed area for Hawley Reservoir, one of Amherst’s water supplies. The land is for sale and can be acquired by the town for $220,000, which would come from our Water Fund surplus. Various people speak in support of the motion from the Select Board, the Finance Committee and the Conservation Department. The land could be developed if we don’t buy it. It contains streams that drain directly into the reservoir, and that’s worth protecting. There’s potential for grants and donations to help offset the cost, but we do have this money available in the Water Fund reserves, and that is its purpose. The area would not be closed to the public, but recreation is not encouraged – no trails, etc. Timber production on the land can help bring in off-setting revenues. We make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to Pelham for other such parcels, and this one would be expected to cost $4000 per year in payments, which also comes from the Water Fund. The Kestrel Trust, an organization that preserves open space, is supporting the acquisition process. This is the last unprotected watershed parcel so such requests to TM won’t keep happening

A member opposes the acquisition primarily on the grounds that just because the Water Fund is an enterprise fund, doesn’t mean it isn’t real town money. If this proposed acquisition were considered under the same financial strictures as the rest of our budget items this year, he predicts it would be opposed, but because of the accounting technicality of the enterprise fund, we treat it differently.

Another member explains that the reason we treat enterprise fund money differently is because it is different – the funds come from user fees, which encompass not just property owners, but also those who are property tax exempt, i.e., UMass, who ends up paying about 50% of the town water fees. She emphasizes that major capital expenditures like this one are the purpose of the fund’s reserves.

The motion to appropriate $220,000 from the Water Fund surplus to acquire this property passes nearly unanimously. I vote in support.

The Special TM is dissolved, and we’re back to the regular TM, right where we left off – still muddling through the operating budget and the endless subsections of Article 26.

Indeed, the first subsection we deal with is – ta-da! – the Water Fund. This is to appropriate $3,722,592 for the Water Fund’s FY07 operating costs, with $3,529,777 to be from its own revenues, and $192,815 to come from its surplus.

The Finance Committee explains the revenue structure: we have a two-tiered system in which the largest consumers (again, UMass) pay the most. And because of effective conservation efforts (by, yet again, UMass,) less consumption means less revenue, so we need to increase the fees to raise the money needed to fund all the water operations, so rates per 100 cubic feet of water will go up 40 cents to $2.40 for tier 1 users and to $2.50 for tier 2 users. These are still lower than ¾ of the other towns in Massachusetts, and are significantly cheaper than in Northampton ($3.37) and Hadley ($3.72.) Costs involved in water treatment issues aren’t just personnel—chemicals and lab testing costs have increased, various filter materials need to be replaced, and the Village Park water tower needs repainting and is extra costly because of lead paint issues.

The Select Board is unanimously in favor of the recommendation, and has much praise for the water department.

The same member who opposed acquiring the watershed protection land symbolically opposes this article with a recommendation to reduce the appropriation by $1. He wants to make the point that the SB recently removed what had been a costlier third tier in the fee structure that had UMass paying more, and since the water fees are one of the few ways we can get money from UMass, it was unwise to reduce their fee.

A member of the town’s water study committee praises UMass’ conservation efforts and said that despite increased enrollment, their water consumption had decreased significantly.

The preliminary vote is on the higher number – the FC recommendation – and it passes nearly unanimously.

There is a little more discussion on the topic of the need for UMass to contribute more to the town, and explanation of how and why the third tier of water fees was removed. A SB member explained that SB representatives meet with the UMass Chancellor regularly, and the high rate had been an ongoing concern, and one that was hampering the university’s efforts to invest in conservation measures. They also increased their contribution to our fire and ambulance funds because of the water rate reduction.

We then have the appropriation vote, which again is nearly unanimous, and we’re on to the next enterprise fund.

Now if ever there were a budget proposal that should not be accompanied by a photo essay of how the system works, it would have to be the Sewer Fund.

And yet, with the rousing introduction of “I took pictures of what comes into the plant and what goes out!” that’s exactly what we got. If you really want the details, you can catch the ACTV replay. I’m just going to say that while the presentation was really not even relevant to the budget discussion, I found it informative and funny and delivered with such enthusiasm and careful language that it may end up as my highlight moment of Town Meeting.

The vote to appropriate $3,232,035 to the Sewer Fund, with $3,020,200 from revenues and $211,835 from the Fund’s surplus, passed nearly unanimously.

The Solid Waste Fund was next. Perhaps because we were now afraid of where exactly that discussion might lead us, we needed only the briefest explanation from the Finance Committee and we were ready to vote. We voted unanimously to appropriate $473,497 to the Solid Waste Fund, with $440,000 coming from revenues and $33497 from the Fund’s surplus.

Every session seems to have its dramatic hot button issue. Tonight it was the Transportation Fund.

The Finance Committee recommended spending $829,199 for this budget. The Select Board recommended $920,199. The FC recommended discontinuing a couple of low-ridership bus routes and instead using that money to fund the remainder of our PVTA assessment (which last year was funded by taxation, outside of the Transportation enterprise fund.) The SB recommended keeping the bus routes and making up the difference in paying for those as well as the PVTA assessment with increased parking fees.

As with most discussions so far regarding funding cuts, this one quickly departed from the economic rationality of the situation and devolved into moral tsk-tsking and tales of personal woe. (This is a depressingly effective tactic. Has it failed yet? I’ll have to think about that.) Some folks on both sides of the issue attempted to bring it back to fiscal stuff, but they couldn’t counter the fact that it had been redefined as a referendum on public transportation and you were either for it or against it.

There were a lot of interesting elements of this discussion and I might parse through my thoughts on it more in the next day or so, but I’m just not up for that now, so I shall conclude. We ended up with a preliminary tally vote on the larger SB measure, which passed 84 in favor, 70 opposed, and I was opposed. We then had the appropriation vote on that amount – $920,199 – and I voted for it, because there was no other option. Many voted “no” that time, but I think that was symbolic. I have no idea what would have happened if somehow the appropriation vote failed.

Random Bits

So whadya think – the Cherry Hill video retrospective or the sewage treatment plant photo montage?

All these years I thought I was among the childless tax payers helping to subsidize the school system without adding any strain. Turns out I’m actually repaying debt I incurred back in the day as one of these freeloading school kids from UMass family housing. Those were some pricy Cuisenaire rods . . . (Do they still use those?)

I’m really intrigued by the constant refrain of needing to get more money from UMass. It sounds good to me too. But I wonder – might a truly comprehensive analysis of all the financial plusses and minuses possibly come out with us owing them? Then what?

It must be a good sign that “nearly unanimously” and “near unanimous’ are becoming my most over-used phrases.

Kudos to Jim Pistrang for being willing to fill in for the moderator, and for doing that so ably.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Debt$, librarie$ and $chool$

Last night we actually made pretty good progress. Better than I had anticipated, anyway. Such is the upside of low expectations.

We started with Debt Service: Nice and easy. Making payments on money we have borrowed is not exactly discretionary spending. Hearkens again to last Friday’s Dilbert (and now I’ve linked to it, so you’ll actually know what I’m talking about . . . The exponent really makes it.) Not so fast. In a valiant but futile last-ditch effort to stymie the Plum Brook soccer fields, one member challenged the technicalities of funding this portion of the debt with Community Preservation Act funds. But it was pointed out that this project has long been recognized as allowable under CPAC monies, and so this effort was in vain. The amendment was defeated. Oddly, there was no further discussion on debt service and we were able to vote on the Finance Committee’s recommended appropriation of $1,797,573, which passed overwhelmingly. And I supported it.

Library Services: Definitely inspires more passions than debt service. This sought to approve the library budget as a whole, and the amount to be appropritated through taxation. The Library Board and Select Board were in agreement with the Finance Committee recommendation. (Once again, all the details of all these recommendation are available in the Finance Committee Report, Part 2, if you want them.) Of course, everyone loves the libraries, so a motion by a TM member to amend the appropriation upward by $10,000 got plenty of supportive discussion. Reading is important. Really important for kids. Especially if you want them to learn. That line of reasoning probably would have prevented us from closing the libraries and selling off all the books in order to balance the budget, but it was not sufficient to persuade the body to restore funding to prevent cutting hours at the branch locations to 5 half-days each week from 6. The motion for that extra money failed in a tally vote of 53 supporting, 104 opposed, and I voted to oppose. A tally vote with such a lopsided outcome? Yeah, it was just that kind of a night. The appropriation vote quickly followed, and nearly unanimously we approved the $2,033,196 budget, and appropriated $1,446,695 from taxation. I voted in support.

Onward to the schools. This had been shaping up to be the Battle Royal of the 247th annual Town Meeting, where everyone who’s angry about their property taxes would rant, and everyone with children would tell sob stories, and everyone who has ever been to school would compare their experience with school today. We would put our fingers all over the budget proposal – 2nd graders need more art! Caring communities start kids on physics in 3rd grade! Let’s charge desk rental fees! We would dredge up the public safety debate, the genetically engineered crops debate and the human services funding debate, all to make indignant points about too much spending or not enough.

But none of that happened.

Thanks to the united front presented by the Finance Committee, the School Committee and the majority of the Select Board, there wasn’t much to say. If they all agree, how could we disagree?

It wasn’t quite as simple as that, but nearly so. For the elementary schools budget, a couple of people spoke against the recommendation. One member parent who has a lot of issues with the school system and School Committee, and believes they prioritize bureaucracy over children’s needs, made an unsuccessful effort to get the recommendation referred back to the School Committee. Another member felt that other avenues for cost savings hadn’t been pursued. An ex-officio member who believes the student enrollment trends have not supported the increases in administration and staffing warned of worsening future budget situations. The director of the Hitchcock Center urged the school committee to reconsider cuts to its award-winning science program, the ECOBUS. Various people spoke to how terrible it is to eliminate teachers, or inquired about different costs and decisions about cuts.

The School Committee countered or explained all the concerns. And in another near-unanimous vote, we approved the Finance Committee’s recommendation of $19,264,119.

Discussion on the regional school district monies – approving its total budget, and appropriating Amherst’s share – was about the same. Well, except for when it wasn’t, but back to that shortly. Actual discussion about this issue was almost entirely limited to the recommendations by the FC, SB and SC, who again were in agreement. Everyone recognizes that this was a bad budget year and no one wanted to make the cuts that are being made, but that was how it had to go. We came to the vote quickly, and it was again nearly unanimous to approve the regional budget of $26,704,016, and to appropriate Amherst’s share of $11,904,067. I supported the FC recommendations for both of the school budget votes.

But back to where discussion on this topic went awry.

There is a small group seemingly bent on provoking the moderator. In every choice he makes of whom to recognize, they see favoritism, sexism, criticism and every other ism. They obsess over perceived procedural flaws. Some are in a perpetual state of high dudgeon, while others relish their role as “the gotcha gang.” They are aggravated and determined to aggravate. And so they did.

The meltdown was over allowing extra speaking time for the School Committee chair/vice-chair of the regional SC. Complaints of unfairness. The moderator blows his top. Various members blow their tops. Is it because we’re all tired and have had about enough after more than 20 hours of TM so far? Apparently not, because if that were the case we surely wouldn’t have prolonged things further by demanding a quorum count at such a late hour over a non-issue, right? But we did. (The nerve of so many people not showing up at all or leaving early such that a quorum would be in question may be fodder for a future post, but I digress.) Ultimately, we have a quorum, we give the speaker more time, and the result is near unanimous approval of the budget recommendation.

There. Happy?

We closed with the election of Jim Pistrang as temporary moderator to fill in during Harrison Gregg’s absence. In light of what had just transpired, his willingness to serve in that capacity could only be considered heroic. Or insane.

And so we adjourned until Wednesday.

Random Bits:

We learned that the library charges late fees for books only on the honor system, so as not to discourage borrowing and reading, but they will enforce dollar-a-day fees on videos and DVDs. Oddly, that makes late returns to Blockbuster a “better deal.”

Speaking of lending books and videos for free, isn’t that competing with various local businesses? Surely someone is mad about that. (Stop it Stephanie! Don’t encourage them!)

Reports of much knitting this time. The most surprising ancillary activity though was a crossword puzzle. Some people clearly have much better ability to walk and chew gum at the same time than I do.

This was the eighth session of Town Meeting, and the 5th Red Sox –Yankees game that has conflicted with TM so far. An explanation, perhaps, of why attendance has been so poor?

Suffice it to say, I move around a lot. With that, I officially end my increasingly uninteresting seating report. While I’m at it, no more about knitting and no more about baseball either. Tomorrow is a brand new day.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Comics and economics

Comic life: Did you catch Dilbert in Friday's Gazette? Cracked me up. It made me me think of our sidewalk shoveling penalty article and the one for appropriating money to the County retirement system.

Bulletin must-read: Once again the Bulletin is full of TM-er mentions and letters. What an active/activist bunch we are! Truly illuminating though is a column by a non-TM-er, Gerald Friedman, writing about the real economics behind our current budget situation. Good stuff! Can we draft this guy to run for Town Meeting?

Blog tweak: This thing is getting quite long, so I have changed the settings that control how many posts are available on the main page. It is now set to show only the most recent 20 posts. If you want to read earlier posts, click on the archives of previous months, listed on the right side of the page, below the "Previous Posts" links. As always, let me know if you have suggestions for improving how the site works.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

You asked, so here goes

I got an e-mail from a member of the Select Board, seeking my thoughts on the transportation fund budget recommendation. As I have inadvertently previously annoyed this SB member with my blog, I thought that was particularly charitable and open-minded of this person to solicit my views. And since this blog is all about sharing how and why I vote on the various TM topics, it seems appropriate to share my response here. Just to clarify, the part where I talk about the “policy making” SB isn’t because I’m taunting, but rather because the question asked of me was to specifically consider the recommendation in light of the fact that as an enterprise fund, its spending is at the discretion of the “elected, policy-making” Select Board, as “Keepers of the Public Way.” So without the opening and closing greetings and chit-chat, this is what I e-mailed in response.

. . .

But you wanted my thoughts on the transportation fund budget, so here goes:

Being new to Town Meeting, there are many things I am trying to learn and understand. On subjects where I don’t already have a strong opinion or particular knowledge, I have to seek other input and rely on those whose opinions I have respected or found myself persuaded by in the past. I am new to TM, but I am not new to Amherst and I’ve always paid attention to town issues and government.

So here, like many situations, I would expect to go along with the Finance Committee recommendation. Is that because I blindly follow their recommendation on everything? No. It is because they are the body that I believe to be the most circumspect, and to have the most big-picture, balance-all-the-competing-factors perspective on the town’s fiscal situation.

What are my alternatives? Well, I could offer my own opinion on the floor of TM. Maybe I have a great idea for how that $84K should be spent. That would be totally inconsistent with how I think general policy and budget creation should occur. (My recent blog post titled “In my humble opinion” explores that in great detail.) So ditto on accepting some else’s last-minute idea. That leaves the Select Board recommendation.

First I’ll assume that the Transportation Committee supports the SB recommendation. While I have the highest respect for the expertise of the various committees, the question here isn’t one of overall transportation policy, but of how these particular elements fit into the big fiscal picture. So for me, the Finance Committee’s expertise in fiscal policy trumps the Transportation Committee’s expertise here.

So then that leaves me with the Finance Committee vs. the “policy making” Select Board. It is my opinion that the Select Board misinterprets its “policy making” role. To me, policy is something that is made and shaped and guided on a large scale. Policies are broad statements of purpose, goals and tradition and they guide decision making. Policy is not something that is determined or changed on a case-by-case basis. It is bigger than that.

What I see from the Select Board under the guise of “policy making” is members offering up their own opinions on each topic and recommendation that comes before them, and then acting on those opinions. To me, that isn’t “policy making” -- that’s micromanaging and second-guessing. Policy is what you would consult or fall back on to avoid having personal whims and biases determine outcomes.

Town policy shouldn’t lurch and lean and change course depending on who sits on the Select Board at any given moment – never mind which members are present at each meeting. But those are exactly the consequences of decision-making based foremost on individual opinions. It is the very opposite of a process-driven, big-picture view.

So in the SB’s transportation recommendation I find a) opposition to the carefully considered FC recommendation; b) raising parking fees despite it frustrating businesses and consumers; c) the necessity of going outside of the enterprise fund monies and using tax monies in order to pay the rest of the PVTA assessment and fees; and d) all this for the “benefit” of maintaining sparsely-used bus routes.

Absent other compelling information or interpretation, I have to oppose the Select Board’s amendment.

Speaking of “carefully considered,” the Public Works committee’s recommendation against sidewalk maintenance money the other night did not highlight the SB’s diligence in decision making. I don’t mean to be excessively critical and perhaps that was an exceptional situation, but all of these kinds of things factor in to the credibility of the different recommendations.

So you probably wanted me to give you a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” and instead I’ve given you an essay, no doubt an aggravating one at that. Hey – you asked . . .

And I think it’s great that you did.


Me again, back to the regular post. I welcome persuasive arguments or the pointing out of errors in my facts or logic. Do feel free to weigh in.

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