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.


Anonymous said...

Gee, Stephanie let me guess the Select Board member who emailed you: Perhaps the (bad hair) guy who manages to mention buses or Flood Prone Conservancy in almost every speech before TM. The guy who actually posed in an Amherst Bulletin political ad hugging not one but two trees…I give you Professor Rob Kusner, the man of many sweat shirts.

For one-quarter the amount he wants to squander on the sparsely used outreach bus routes (that actually come down towards my business) we could buy all those users high-end bicycles and they could get to where they need to get to and get some exercise at the same time.


Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Let's be mature and polite about this. It is ideas and issues we disagree about -- there's no need to personalize criticism.

Being respectful is so important -- we all want and are working toward our own idea of what's best for Amherst. No one has bad intentions, just different views. As they say, let's disagree without being disagreeable.

I'll assume that Rob doesn't particularly care about your opinion of his hair, but if I'm wrong and he would prefer I remove your comment, I will. You are perilously close to crossing the line.

You reallly ought to start your own blog, Larry. You clearly have much to vent about.

Anonymous said...

Is this just for the PVTA out reach buses?

If you look at the PVTA map and schedules it appears that the out reach routes do not accomplish much. For example, Route 45 goes to Belchertown - I assume that Belchertown splits the cost of this route. Route 32 goes down west street and then to the South Amherst common. But, there is already a bus route(38)that connects UMass to Hampshire that travels the same route down west street. So, even if you eliminated these route people would still be able to get around Amherst they would just have to walk/bike a little further. Also, in the zoning articles there was discussions of how we should center development downtown. One way to do that is to not encourage people to live on the outer reaches of Amherst.


Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

I am told there is no tax money involved in the SB plan, contrary to my post.

Apparently, the SB plan would pay the rest of the PVTA assessment with the additional increases in parking fees. Last year's increase paid for the low-ridership bus routes, and would again, while additional increases would fund the PVTA assessment. In contrast, the FC plan would end those bus routes, and transfer the money that would have paid for them to instead pay for the PVTA assessment, which had previously been paid for by taxation.

It comes down to higher parking fees and bus routes used by few vs. not increasing parking fees and eliminating the bus routes. I think.

I like Hwei-Ling Greeney's quote from her "minority report" on the SB recommendations: "I fear that the Town is using parking as a cash cow and we are milking it to death."

Steve Dunn said...

I think you have a very reasonable position and you explained if beautifully. In particular, I like your assessment of the difference between setting policy and micro-managing. I was happy to see turnover in the Amherst SB in recent years. I felt the "old" SB was sort of unimaginative and too stuck in the status quo. But rather than bring forward-thinking "policy" to TM, this SB is bent on imposing their individual personal whims. Maybe time is a problem, but it would sure be nice if the SB and FC came to TM with a single budget proposal that they agree on (i.e., compromise on). However, if compromise is not possible, I cannot say whose fault that is. Well intentioned people can simply disagree, and I think both the SB and the FC have wonderful well intentioned people serving. We're fortunate in that regard!

In my opinion, Larry clearly crossed the line of respectful dialogue. Let him with perfect hair cast the first stone?

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve,

“Clearly crossed the line”? Well, don’t ya think if Mr. Kusner agreed, that he would have emailed Stephanie and said, “Remove that malicious quote by mean old Mr. Kelley (with graying hair)?

Funny thing is, the first time I commented about his hair and it made the light of print (when I thought it was “off the record”) was a little over a year ago in an interview with a Gazette reporter weeks before the epic Charter Vote, where TM survived by a nostril hair. Mr. Kusner actually seemed amused.

Yeah, the “SB and the FC have wonderful well intentioned people serving.” But remember, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.


Nathan Williams said...

Chris: regarding the 32 versus the 38, the 38 has a fatal flaw - as part of the five-college shuttle subsystem, it only runs during the school year, and even then it has severely reduced service during school vacations such as winter break and spring break.

Because of this, a commuting worker can't depend on it for a non-academic-year job, and a local can't use it to visit, say, Larry's business or the Moan and Dove year-round.

If the 38 were year-round, it would be quite a bit more valuable than the 32.

Anonymous said...

By the same token, 32 is not used by Moan and Dove patrons because there are so few buses. Maybe, the Town should set up parking meters in front of the Moan and Dove and Larry's club tp apy for more routes.

And for bicyclists we could tax bicycle store sales to pay for more sidewalks.