Thursday, May 24, 2007

A matter of priorities

No time for the whole play-by-play, so we’re just hitting the highlights here.

From the Moderator: TMCC election winners: Harry Brooks, Carol Gray, and Judy Simpson. Also: with the close margin for Monday’s tally vote, which had first appeared to be 95 to 98 and later turned out to be 97 to 98, recounts will now be automatic when the count is so close – within 5% or so.

A procedural motion was approved to consider the Elementary and Regional School budgets on June 4th because the Superintendent won’t be available next Thursday. As if we’d get to that part Thursday.

Public Safety. Kay Moran of the Finance Committee moved to appropriate $7,891,970, of which $6,386,180 would come from taxation and $1,505,790 would come from ambulance receipts. She spoke to how tough it was to recommend a budget with so many cuts, particularly the loss of the two police officer positions that were added two years ago, reducing that staff from 50 to 48. She said the new Mutual Aid Agreement with UMass was a good thing, but wouldn’t solve the problem of being understaffed, especially on busy nights when both departments have their hands full at the same time. She said that all five firefighter positions funded with the SAFER grant were expected to be kept, and explained that UMass currently pays about $80,000 for fire services, about $180,000 for ambulance services which are figured on some kind of per student basis, and $160,000 payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) from the State. She said that even before the recently announced administrative changes at UMass, the Finance Committee wasn’t counting on new money there.

The Select Board supported the Finance Committee’s recommendation.

There were also two amendments to the Finance Committee’s recommendation. Stan Gawle recommended $8,042,046, for about an additional $150,000, with that extra money coming from the capital budget. Eva Schiffer recommended $7,991,970, with the extra $100,000 coming from the $100,000 that had been cut from general government on Monday. These amendments came up later, but since I’m trying to streamline this summary, I’m putting them out there now.

The Chief said he had been on the Amherst Police force almost 38 years, and been Chief for the last 8 years. He spoke of his early priorities to have the department accredited, which means that every rule and action is written down so people are held accountable; and to put the department in the forefront of racial profiling awareness, which he also accomplished. He spoke of all the cuts the department has had to bear in the last couple of years, particularly to the valuable community policing programs. He said the loss of two officers would affect the busy 7:00 p.m. – 3:00 a.m. “band-aid” shift that he employs on busy weekends, as well as the day shift, which will likely drop from three to two officers on duty. He said that would leave one officer to respond to nuisance calls and the other dedicated to emergency calls, and said that arrangement could lead to situations where no officer is available to respond to a call. He also addressed the illogical nonsense that keeps being repeated about the force always being a couple members short due to officers being in training or injured, and how that proves they can absorb a staff cut. Um, because if there are fewer officers, that won’t happen anymore? I would love to have this “reasoning” explained. No doubt it would fall into the latter half of the “dazzle them with brilliance or baffle them with _____” option.

In response to questions, the Chief gave special recognition to Rick Fuller, the Police Station’s solo maintenance and custodial person, whose responsibilities had been recommended to be spread among three people, and unsurprisingly requires some overtime; and Carol Hepburn, the Animal Welfare Officer, who has expanded the position dramatically beyond the mandated dog officer duties and refuses to put in for overtime.

The discussion on public safety followed the predictable path. We got the dual perennial complaints about the colleges not paying the Town enough and the Town not utilizing the colleges’ police enough. And this doozy: the threats in Amherst aren’t as bad as they are being portrayed because the main thing the Police do is hassle college and high school students about trivial matters.

On the other side, people spoke to how great and necessary the police are, what tough jobs they have, how quickly they respond and how understaffed the department is.

One member offered suggestions for “thinking outside the box” with how policing happens in the Town and State, and referenced how Maryland uses State Police instead of local police departments, which removes jurisdictional concerns. Another warned of the potential for the Town to be sued – perhaps by him – if something bad happens in the wake of our cutting officers, when YouTube has made us vividly aware of the rampaging student threat.

This is basically a pro forma annual discussion where talk of the importance of the Police Department only needs to happen in order to counter Amherst’s weird hippy-hangover, question authority, oppose anything vaguely military bent. In most towns, Public Safety probably doesn’t need to be justified, and the necessity of police officers probably goes without saying. But this is not most towns.

When we got to the vote, the extra $150K amendment with funds taken from capital was soundly defeated and I voted No. The amendment to add the $100,000 cut from general government, with the reasoning that it was next in line on the Town Manager’s priority list, went to a tally vote, which was defeated, 60 Yes, 133 No. I voted Yes. I didn’t feel strongly about this. Basically, I’m supporting the Finance Committee’s recommendations, but that extra $100K has to go somewhere, and to me, there are only three reasonable options: Public Safety, the regional assessment or reserves. So I would just as soon take it off the table now before people start spending it on their own pet priorities. Alas.

So the Finance Committee’s recommendation of $7,891,970 was the third vote, and it was approved overwhelmingly, and I voted Yes.

Then we got to the highlight of the evening. I don’t think the points I made in the Fussbudget post could have been more vividly illustrated.

Yes, the Public Works budget.

Doug Slaughter of the Finance Committee moved to appropriate $1,690,501. He noted that this was a reduction of 2.7% from FY07 and included five fewer full-time-equivalent staff positions.

Anne Awad of the Select Board said that that body would be recommending that an additional $10,000 be added to that figure to fund line painting.

And that’s really where things got interesting.

There were a few questions about snow and ice and this and that, but then someone asked about the line painting that was clearly being done already.

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring said that all the center lines had been done and that the edge lines were almost done, and that 8-10 crosswalks were getting painted each night. He said little painting was done last year due to a contract snafu with the company that handles the center and edge lines. But now – yep, pretty much taken care of.

Gerry Weiss noted that this was a little embarrassing for the Select Board, and said they were told that there would be no painting without the extra $10,000.

Mr. Mooring, in his exceedingly earnest and honest manner, said that there were probably better places to put that $10,000 than the Public Works budget, and noted that his budget was tight and he could use the money, but that line painting wasn’t his top priority. His top priority was labor.

It wasn’t his top priority. Imagine. The guy who runs the department had a handle on how the line painting thing was going, and had other more pressing needs.

Lesson: If you believe more DPW service is needed, you should look to increase that budget, but not decide how it should be spent. Knowing and prioritizing the departmental needs is what managers are for. If you don’t agree with how they do that, that would be a performance issue, not a budget issue.

This is why I oppose all the Select Board budget recommendations, and similar arbitrary amendments. I think that kind of interference disrespects the process of creating the budget, and the staff whose job it is to know and manage their individual areas of responsibility.

So I object to the Select Board having taken this tack at all, but this particular faux pas wasn’t their fault. At the April 9th Select Board meeting, the members were championing their personal favorite restorations for funding in case the override were to pass. (Only Ms. Greeney had the good sense to not indulge herself that way.) When the subject of line painting was raised, and it was specifically asked if that might be done quickly with unspent snow money, the Town Manager said that he had corresponded by e-mail with Mr. Mooring, and said that between FY07 and FY08 funds, “We have sufficient money to do the line painting.” At the May 14th meeting, where the Board was formulating its 1% budget recommendations and that was inquired about again, Mr. Shaffer said “We need the appropriation to achieve that.” When Mr. Weiss asked for clarification, Mr. Shaffer said “We need the additional funds.”

I don’t really know what to make of that. I do know that Guilford Mooring’s candor cost him ten thousand bucks, and I surely hope that was all it cost him.

Ultimately, the Select Board did not offer its amendment, and the Finance Committee’s recommended appropriation of $1,690,501 passed overwhelmingly.

We adjourned just after 10:00 p.m. I hope somebody bought Guilford a beer.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Budgeting our time

Things got underway late, you know, what with the bomb scare and all.

You didn’t hear about that?

Apparently, at the end of the school day, there was some kind of bomb report/rumor at the Middle School, and such things aren’t taken lightly these days. Emergency people were still checking the building when I arrived a little before 6:30 for the Select Board meeting. Things got cleared up in time for that meeting to start at 6:45, without any ACTV as there was no time to set that up. Kudos to Sean Kinlin and his crew and the Town IT folks and whomever else is part of making the Town Meeting broadcast happen, because they had to cram those arrangements into a much-condensed time last night.

So Town Meeting got underway at 7:50. I don't actually know that the residual effects of that incident contributed to the late start, but I couldn't resist it as a juicy blog intro.

The Moderator started with announcements: TMCC voting was taking place at the rear of the auditorium, members should sign up for the TMCC mailing list (send an e-mail to TMCC@amherstma.gov to do so) and then recognized School Superintendent Jere Hochman for an announcement.

This poor guy. Just when you think the other shoe has dropped, the schools sprout another foot.

So sure enough, Dr. Hochman explains that the infamous change to the State law about all towns in a region now needing to approve the regional schools’ budget rather than the 2/3 majority previously required – mmm yeah, not so sure about that any more. The Department of Education says the rule change wasn’t meant to have the new interpretation. Town Counsel is trying to reach the DoE Counsel, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. Stayed tuned for Wednesday, when we find out that Leverett never officially became part of the region, and that Hadley is staging a hostile takeover bid for the High School. Glad I’m not on the School Committee.

It was then time to start the budget. Except that it wasn’t, because the Select Board wanted to meet with the Moderator somewhere behind the curtain, so we took a ten minute break. As a faithful scribe of Select Board meetings, I had a fleeting notion to go back there to see what that was all about, but frankly, you just don’t pay me enough for that. However, if anyone who was part of that pow-wow would like to fill the rest of us in, we’d be most appreciative.

So the Red Sox game was projected on the auditorium screen instead (YAY!!!) where the Yankees were killing Wakefield, and we were down 0-4 (BOO!!!) It was just that kind of a night.

When the meeting resumed, Gerry Weiss, Select Board Chair, talked about the many hours the Select Board had spent considering the budget details and how their recommendations differ from those of the Finance Committee by a small amount, and that those changes total 7/10ths of 1% of the general fund budget. He said that Town Meeting was facing several choices – to accept the Town Manager’s/Finance Committee’s budget, to accept the budget with the Select Board’s small modifications, to increase the budget as Town Meeting sees fit with such increases contingent on an override, or to have a rancorous debate about making further cuts to one area in order to add that money somewhere else. He urged no further cuts.

Alice Carlozzi, Finance Committee Chair, gave a long statement about the need for a multi-year financial plan and how the FY08 budget will be the foundation of that, and how this will be a transition year. She urged adopting a 1% budget with no use of reserves, with the possible exception of the regional school assessment, once that situation gets clarified. She said that some people doubt that a multi-year plan can succeed, but she believes it can because all parties are working for the good of the town. She said the reserves must be safeguarded for emergencies, to protect the bond rating and so that necessary funds are available when the next inevitable economic downturn happens. She stressed the importance of not reducing the capital spending and said that we had strayed far enough already from the goal of dedicating 10% of the levy for that purpose. She said that the Finance Committee disagrees with the Select Board’s cut to General Government funding and the redistribution of that money to Public Works, Conservation, and Community Services, and said the FinCom also doesn’t support the SB’s and Library’s recommendation that the Libraries keep $19,000 in overdue fines that have previously gone into the general fund. She said the FinCom expects Town Meeting to make amendments and respects its right to do so, but urged restraint.

Brian Morton of the Finance Committee gave a presentation about historic growth and depletion of reserves, and capital spending trends. It was tough for me to pay attention to this and take sufficient notes to summarize it. I hope he and Alice might make their presentations available on the Town web site.

Here’s my inadequate summary: our reserves are at their lowest point in 13 years, supplemental lottery aid is not available to help grow them, appropriating money into them isn’t looking too likely, and all that makes the prospect of taking additional money from them even more dire. They had been allowed to grow significantly during good times, they were vital for cushioning the blow during bad times, and now that we’re no longer in bad times and State aid is increasing we can’t keep using them or the next bad time will be a disaster. He said that recessions tend to happen once every ten years and that we are well into that cycle now and unprepared. He said reserves had once totaled 62% of State aid but were now at 18%, and he talked about Moody’s downgrading the Town’s bond rating if reserves fall below 5% of general fund revenue. He talked about capital spending and how 10% of the levy had been the goal, but we’re now budgeted for only 7% for FY08, an amount he called dangerously low. He talked about how costly it was in financial and service terms the last time capital spending was reduced and delayed in the early 90s, and an override was needed to replace a fire truck. He said that delayed capital spending is an override waiting to happen.

The Moderator said that Town Meeting’s desire to comment and ask questions on each budget line and the body’s ability to amend the different amounts tended to get in the way of each other, and that he wanted to preserve both. He created a new procedure for how budget amendments would work, in order to accomplish that. I won’t summarize the procedure, but it’s available here.

Two members spoke to how they felt the new procedure violated the rules of Town Meeting. It felt more like they were reacting to some kind of perceived bias the new procedure might impart, and I can’t even fathom a way that could happen. We do see this kind of paranoia about the Moderator every so often.

After the various objections had been duly noted, the Finance Committee made its recommendation – $5,855,139 for general government. Kay Moran of the Finance Committee talked about the various departments and responsibilities that fall under this budget category, and rather than summarize it all, I refer you to page 21 of the Finance Committee Report. She noted that the FinCom had voted 7-0 to stick with this recommendation rather than adopting the Select Board’s recommendation to reduce funding to this area by $100,000.

Gerry Weiss said that the SB’s $100,000 cut was recommended in order to use that money to fund other things, which he said would be discussed in more depth eventually. (Read more about that in the Select Board’s recommendations.)

A Town Meeting member said everyone had to live within a 1% budget increase except for the funding to the human service agencies, which was cut from $140,000 last year to a proposed $25,000 this year. He said the most vulnerable among us were taking the biggest hit, and that he wanted them to be treated like everyone else.

This sounds like a good argument, but it is actually specious. The 1% increase didn’t apply at the departmental or line-item level, but to each of the Town, School and Library budget totals. Many departments had cuts large and small, though none as large percentage-wise as the human services cut.

Another member wanted employee benefit costs clarified. Another asked why legal services spending always goes over budget. Town Manager Larry Shaffer said that legal services used to be billed at an hourly rate, but that the RFP for a new Town Counsel seeks fixed rate billing for everything except litigation. He said he was confident this would reduce legal services spending and keep it within budget this year.

Someone else asked what the Human Rights department does, and Mr. Shaffer explained that it has previously instituted the policies of the Human Rights Committee and investigated Human Rights complaints. He said it has now been combined with Human Resources, and while the Human Rights Director would continue with her previous responsibilities, her focus would now be on human rights as they apply to hiring and training within the Town.

A member asked if funding for an Economic Development Director was included. Mr. Shaffer said no, without the override he would have had to cut other Town positions to make room for that now, which he wasn’t willing to do. He said he hopes bring back a new proposal to fund that next year. Another member asked if the Town Manager had the authority to reassign money for that if he wanted to, and Mr. Shaffer said yes.

How many people in the Human Rights/Human Resources Department? Three. Will I.T. spending continue at high levels? Yes. Hwei-Ling Greeney noted that productivity from new technology never seems to result in savings from a decreased workforce, and that cuts to things people care about continue. Why the big reduction in the election budget? Only two elections are scheduled for next year, while there were three this year.

Sy Friedman offered an amendment to the General Government budget, seeking to appropriate $5,950,753, with $95,614 of that amount contingent on an override.

Someone questioned the ability of Town Meeting to make contingent appropriations, but was assured by a FinCom member and the Finance Director that that ability is explicit through Proposition 2 ½, and detailed in this publication.

Mr. Friedman said he would be offering many similar amendments but would only speak about it once. He said he had only opposed two overrides since becoming a Town Meeting member in 1984, and that he did so both times because he thinks an override prior to Town Meeting usurps the body’s budget powers. He didn’t like the three-year plan that went along with the May 1st override because there was no way to enforce new members of TM or the Select Board to stick with that plan next year or the year after, and he didn’t like that it sought to collect more in taxes than was needed in year one and bank the rest. He said he is willing to have an override to keep Town and School services at a more reasonable 3% level, but wants the override vote to occur after TM. He said his amendments provide for that 3% funding.

Gerry Weiss then offered the Select Board’s recommendation that had already been discussed: $5,755,139. He said it was doable, and the Town Manager had agreed to it, and asked Mr. Shaffer to speak to that.

The Town Manager said that with expected reductions in legal services spending and collective bargaining progressing as it is, he said he could live within this budget and was happy to recommend it. With that, Gerry removed his heel from Larry’s instep.

Oh relax. It’s a joke.

Kay Moran reiterated her point about the FinCom sticking with its own recommendation and said its members are skeptical about the Town Manager’s ability to deal with a $100,000 cut to that budget.

A couple of people asked about whether Amherst might join the State’s health insurance program. The Town Manager and Finance Director said that every opportunity for flexibility and savings is being considered, and touched on how ongoing collective bargaining negotiations prevent too much from being said on that, and outlined recent cost-saving changes to the Town’s program.

Someone asked that recurring question about three-year overrides and one-year overrides and what that all means, and whether you revert to the original levy afterwards. John Musante gave a good explanation of the how the three-year plan would have been funded by the $2.5 million dollar override, but I think the direct answer may have gotten lost in all that detail.

In case anyone reading this is still confused by the concept, I would be remiss if I didn’t explain this. The kind of override we’ve been talking about is a permanent increase to the tax levy. If we had approved the $2.5 million override, that amount would be added to the levy and never be removed. The terms “one-year” and “three-year” refer to how long that money is intended to sustain us before another override is needed. A one-year override only raises enough money to get us to next year, and then we’ll either have to make more big cuts or have another override (unless, magic money really does start raining down from the sky, as some are predicting…) and the three-year override was intended to fund its accompanying plan for three years, at which point another override might have been needed – but initiatives to make the plan last beyond three years without an override were a key part of the plan.

Back to Town Meeting…

A member made a stirring plea to the body to think in terms of what the Town wants as a whole, and not just what each of us want as individuals. She said she can’t afford a house in Amherst but was willing to live in an apartment forever if the budgets requiring high taxes are for the greater good of the town she loves.

A member said that if an override were to be held in the summer, much of our electorate is gone during those months, and that would skew the vote. I don’t really know what that means. If that is referring to students, that concept just isn’t supported by the voting data – it’s extraordinary how few people under the age of about 40 are voting at all in Amherst. If it refers to the general non-student population going away on vacation, that is a little questionable to me. Even if a huge percentage of the Town does go away in the summer, it’s not like they’re all gone at the same time. Some tiny subset might be gone for the whole summer, but most people probably go away for a week or two, and those weeks would be spread out. And as Mr. Weiss noted during a Select Board discussion on the topic – people can always vote absentee.

A member said the main difference between the Select Board’s and Finance Committee’s recommendations was how the process of budget creation was viewed. He said that a long time is spent trying to estimate as well as possible what amount would be needed for each budget area. He said that making a $100,000 cut to one area on the rationale that its particular budget is big enough to absorb it, in order to redistribute that money to other areas, was a bad practice. And he said of course the Town Manager said he could live within that budget – what else can he say?

Mr. Weiss disagreed with the characterization of how the Select Board made the recommended cut and said that things change over the course of the budget process and that the Select Board had discussed with the Town Manager where the money they wanted to spend elsewhere could be found. That isn’t quite how I recall the process, but what do I know?

So then the question was called. An angry murmur rippled through the crowd. A couple of people raised points of order about how this procedure didn’t allow for discussion about how that cut money would be redistributed in other parts of the budget, and that people would be voting without that important information. The Moderator said that people certainly could talk about how they wanted such money redistributed.

The voice vote on calling the question was considered too close to call, so it went to a standing vote. A two-thirds majority is needed for that motion. The standing vote was 138 Yes and 54 No. I voted No. It seemed to me that some people were clearly upset by the new procedure, and they sure weren’t going to be any happier if they felt that they got railroaded into a vote without adequate discussion. I didn’t share their concerns about the procedure or the adequacy of the discussion, but I was more than willing to have more discussion if that was what they wanted. But the motion passed, so we came to an immediate vote.

Because of that wacky “vote the higher number first” thing, we started with Mr. Friedman’s amendment for $5,950,753, with the $95K being contingent on an override. That was defeated pretty soundly by voice vote.

Next up: the Finance Committee’s $5,855,139 figure. Too close. Tally vote. Whoa. My notes say that the results had been 95 Yes, 98 No, but the results on the Town site say 97 Yes, 98 No. And in those results, there’s a surprise or two. Or one. The Finance Committee’s recommendation apparently wasn’t quite sustainable. I voted Yes.

So almost by default, that means the Select Board’s recommendation of $5,755,139 prevailed, but to make it official, we voted on that too. On the slight chance and fascinating possibility that it didn’t pass and we had to – what? – start all over again? – I voted No, but only a handful of us spleeny types did.

This session adjourned at 10:15. But now the real fun begins. What happens going forward? Does one simply concede and go along with the rest of the Select Board’s recommendation, or at least $100K’s worth? Do we say: OK, you don’t need that money for General Government – let’s put it in reserves? Will this new-found fortune ultimately fund the continuing saga of the regional assessment? Or was this just the first tweaking of a budget that will morph into something completely unrecognizable? Time will tell.


Trivia, courtesy of my data guru husband:

Last night’s attendance (218) was the highest since 4/27/05, which was the opening session of the 2005 TM. There were 219 there that night, which is the highest total since online records are available back in 2002.

The number voting on the budget question (195) was also the second-highest tally-vote total in history, surpassed only by the 201 votes cast on the failed motion on 6/22/05 to rescind the Plum Brook funding.

Do your own voting and attendance analysis with the inAmherst.com Tally Vote Database which contains up-to-date information on attendance figures and tally vote results through the 5/21/07 meeting.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Fussbudget

Imagine a young person just out of college: first job, shoebox apartment, eating a lot of rice as she tries to make the entry-level salary cover life’s start-up costs. Now imagine her mom, worried and well-intentioned, deciding that the stress of it all is not good for the daughter, so she gives her a gift certificate for the works at a fancy day spa. Now the daughter would love to have these relaxing spa treatments – who wouldn’t, after all? – but more than that, she really could have used that money. If Mom had really wanted to help her out, she would have just given her the gift certificate money to apply to her own priorities as needed.

That’s how I feel about budget amendments at Town Meeting.

This is an illustration, not an etiquette lesson, so never mind that the daughter should just be grateful for the gift.

When someone from the floor of Town Meeting moves to add back funds for X, Y or Z in any of the budget areas, they are not respecting the funding priorities of that area. Sure, the Town Manager would love to be able to open the pool and the schools would love to bring back the Ecobus, but unless such items are next in line on their funding priority lists, insisting on those expenditures amounts to meddling.

“But Town Meeting represents the priorities of the citizens!”

Well, first of all, the whole structure of Town government represents the priorities of the citizens – as a whole, if not as individuals.

And secondly, individuals are always going to get worked up about something sexy like the pool or the Ecobus – there’s no such thing as a rallying cry of support for the boring but vital nitty-gritty elements of administration. That’s why we need the Town Manager, the Superintendent, and the Library Director – it is their job to know the big picture of their departmental priorities better than anyone else in town, and we should respect that.

The big-picture part is key. These people are responsible for serving and balancing the needs and wants of the entire town, and not merely the loudest or the most eloquent Town Meeting members.

I am inclined to defer to the experts. I believe that no one understands the complexities of the Town’s revenues and expenses better than the Finance Director and the Finance Committee. Ditto for the Town Manager, the schools, the Public Transportation Committee, etc. in their respective domains. That labor and knowledge is divided into different areas for very practical purposes – we can’t all know everything about everything. Why do we think the little that we each do know about any given area has more value than the vast amounts of knowledge held by the committee or official dedicated to it?

I expect to be voting for the 1% budget with the Finance Committee’s recommendations.

Bear in mind that the Finance Committee didn’t determine how the money would be spent, only how much was available for spending.

I accept that a 1% budget will be painful and will entail cuts to a lot of important services. To me, there was only one good way to avoid this, and that was with the override and the three-year plan. I feel that taking money from reserves or seeking a smaller override to simply meet this year’s needs perpetuates the cycle of delaying rather than addressing our fiscal problems.

I have heard powerful arguments to justify both, but I am not persuaded. I think working toward a larger override next year is our best short- and long-term option, and I believe that a small override this year dramatically reduces the chances of that passing. There is no guarantee for next year, obviously, but I think we need to take the best steps we can now to help make that happen. A small override this year, on top of last year’s CPA tax increase, feeds the perception that “we’re always voting to raise our taxes.” We must be judicious in going to the voters, and I think we tried this year and failed, and now need to look ahead.

So those are my sentiments going into the budget articles, and my expectations for how I will vote. But you never know. Like they say in sports about the folly of predicting an outcome based on what is known about the teams beforehand: “That’s why they play the game.”

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

With apologies to the Bard

This session was much ado about nothing.

We started with a Special Town Meeting to again fix the Olympia Drive issue regarding which parcel is to be developed for affordable housing and which parcel is to be conservation land. We did this in the fall too, but because the State legislature has to approve it and ran out of time to do so in that session, we needed a new vote in order to submit it to them again. And to be on the safe side, we want to submit it as soon as possible, so that’s why this article was moved from the annual TM warrant to a Special TM warrant. Town Meeting votes don’t become official until the meeting dissolves, so the Olympia Drive decision would have had to languish for weeks as we wend our way through the warrant before it could be sent to the legislature. With the Special, that meeting is now dissolved, and it’s ready to go.

A little information, a couple of questions, and then a unanimous vote to support. Moving right along.

Article 34: Resident alien voting rights. Petitioner Vladimir Morales spoke to the article. He said it seeks to spread democracy in Amherst. Allows friends and neighbors to participate in local issues and local elections. These people are here legally, pay taxes, contribute to society. Town Meeting has approved this five times already. There’s no Constitutional barrier to prevent this from happening. The issue keeps dying in committee at the State legislature. If it fails to succeed in Boston this time, he will be back to try again.

Hwei-Ling Greeney spoke to the Select Board’s unanimous recommendation. She was once a resident alien, and now a citizen. Those holding green cards are making positive contributions in town and on boards and committees already. In the spirit of preventing taxation without representation, she urged support.

Jim Oldham said he was co-sponsoring the article with Morales. Wants a large majority to pass this, and said he would seek a tally vote. It isn’t an extreme or out-of-bounds action for Amherst to take, and has been allowed in the past in the US and is allowed in some states and cities, as well as many other countries. New social and economic realities have people living in places other than where they were born.

A member opposed the article, citing his path to citizenship and the psychological process involved in making that transition. Said the article denies or is na├»ve about that element. Said becoming a citizen isn’t too long or onerous.

Anne Awad spoke of Town Meeting’s past support of this. Said daughter-in-law has found process of obtaining citizenship to be quite long – seven years so far with two more predicted.

The vote is done by tally, and the results are in support, 154 Yes and 22 No.

This is the first time this has come to Town Meeting since I’ve been part of the body. I have long followed it in the newspaper, and rolled my eyes about it as “one of those things” Town Meeting likes to do. All symbolism, no effect. Makes everyone feel good about how progressive they are. Had it come up last year, when I was a newbie TMer with a pre-existing bias, I’m pretty sure I would have voted against it.

So this was my big chance. But I didn’t. Am I getting all soft in my old age?

Besides the symbolic thing, I have a problem with the logic of the concept. So the key argument is that these resident aliens (a simply awful term, but what can you do) face taxation without representation. They pay taxes here (local, State, Federal) own property, have kids in the schools, and are affected by the outcomes of local votes in which they can’t participate. Sounds reasonable. Who wouldn’t want to fix that?

But here’s my thing. People own businesses and other property in town but reside elsewhere. They too are affected by but can’t participate in Amherst voting. How about teachers and town employees who don’t live here? Definitely affected, definitely can’t participate. If you say, “Well, they can vote somewhere, so that’s good enough,” then that negates the guts of why the local voting for the resident aliens is supposed to be so important.

Examples abound of people being compelled by voting outcomes and taxation they have no say in – like residents of one state having to pay another state’s sales tax. The fact is, lines determining who can vote where have to be drawn somewhere, imperfect though they may be. Non-citizens seem like among the most reasonable places to draw a line.

Yet I supported the article. Why?

I don’t oppose the concept. It does occur in other places without apparent negative consequences. If this vote can lead to real action by the State legislature, then it isn’t just symbolic. My contrarian analysis doesn’t rise to the level of opposition, especially when my own logic may well be flawed. This issue is very important to a lot of people and of no real consequence to me. Hey, knock yourself out and good luck – that was my final verdict.

Article 35 – Accountability for WFCR. Petitioner Jeff Lee talked about the need for the station’s accountability to the public. The program changes in January left people feeling deprived, bewildered and dispossessed. WFCR should have a Community Advisory Board, as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting recommends for public licensees of public radio stations and requires for private licensees. The station gets Federal tax support through the CPB, State tax support by being housed at UMass, and Town tax support through benefiting from Town services. The program changes are an erosion of cultural diversity and have had negative economic impact on local musicians and venues. The station has a couple of advisory committees that aren’t about programming or community input. Other stations have Community Advisory Boards and WFCR should also.

Gerry Weiss spoke to the Select Board’s 4-1 recommendation. Their mission statement says they serve as an outlet for the community, and we’re part of the community and this is our chance to offer input. Only with a Community Advisory Board can they live up to their mission. Because it gets tax dollars, it is our business.

A member spoke about how upset she was by the program changes. No one was consulted; there was no way to make our concerns known. They should have a Community Advisory Board and that could lead to people being more generous in their support of the station.

A member moved to dismiss the article. Said the motion wasn’t a judgment of the article’s legitimacy or legality, but a question to the body about whether this is something we should be dealing with now. Said WFCR is a business and should we really be involved in their business decisions? Might TM legislate what can be sold at Hastings? Said the dismissal motion is a procedural question for the body.

Among the arguments for dismissal: the first amendment – a legislative body shouldn’t be able to pressure tax-payer funded institutions; so many other communities and even States are within the listening area – Amherst shouldn’t speak for them; article not what it purports to be – is about meddling with programming while claiming that it isn’t.

Among the arguments against dismissal: it’s been supported by Pelham and Shutesbury; the public airwaves belong to all of us; need transparency, accountability and public access; public broadcasting was supposed to be an alternative to commercial pressures.

There was a standing vote to dismiss: 82 Yes, 90 No. I voted Yes.

A non-member had the audacity to insult the body that just allowed him to address it, saying that he had never seen such a stunning display of ignorance as the vote to dismiss this article. Clearly, he doesn’t get out much. He then went on about who we are as a community and how that is represented on our airwaves, and how everything is nationally syndicated except the voices that introduce the music and those that do local reporting.

Another member said that listeners could vote with their contribution dollars and shouldn’t have TM do that for them, and said that if this really is a legal compliance issue, it should be dealt with by lawyers and courts. Another member had expected to oppose the article but changed his mind because of the necessity of diversity in broadcasting, and not wanting economics to be the only means of exerting influence.

The standing vote was 91 in favor of the motion and 77 opposed. I voted to oppose.

You may want to scroll down a bit to skip my personal rant on this.

How am I annoyed by this topic? Let me count the ways…

1) Town government seeking to impose its will on a wholly independent organization and using its tax support as justification… hmmmm, where have I heard that before? Oh yes, the Survival Center debacle!

2) This idea that one group’s loud dissatisfaction trumps the quiet satisfaction another. Another Survival Center refrain. Why must X conform to your standards?

3) The notion that a mission statement is some kind of official binding oath that can be used against an organization. Yet another Survival Center refrain. A mission statement describes a body’s work to people on the outside, and helps guide the work of people on the inside. External judgment of whether or not it is being adhered to has no relevance.

4) This assumption of moral authority any time the word “diversity” is invoked. Doesn’t matter what the subject is or details are – all is justified by the magical D word.

5) The whole evil money thing. How exactly do you think programming happens? And the station only has X-amount of air time. They need to have some threshold of listenership and support to rationalize one program over another. Some call that elitist; I call it practical.

6) Another moral authority thing: responsibility to the public. Do you mean a responsibility to people who like folk music? Or people who like African music? Why exactly is that a responsibility? And if it is, how far does it go? How about a responsibility to play Japanese music, harp music, disco, big band, French music, Portuguese music, Klezmer? Is it that WFCR has the responsibility to play exactly the shows that were cut, and that those shows just happened to represent an optimally diverse mix? Says who? And what about the people who prefer the new programming – does WFCR have a responsibility to them too?

Switching gears: what the heck is the matter with WFCR? First of all, shouldn’t a Community Advisory Board be a no-brainer? Why wouldn’t that be an ideal way to engage your support base and take the pulse of your listenership? As a member mentioned – wouldn’t a more engaged and satisfied support base lead to more generous contributions? But here’s the real biggie: Why did no one from the station come to speak on its behalf at Town Meeting?!? Let’s see, the issue is that some listeners feel you aren’t responsive to the community. How better to prove their point than to disregard a significant community discussion on the topic? Just because you aren’t obligated by the discussion or the outcome doesn’t mean it wouldn’t behoove you to participate. A little p.r. goes a long way.

And for goodness sake, how could you cut Afropop?? Bring back Georges Collinet!

Alas. Just like with the Survival Center, I support their right to be clueless.

OK, deep breath. Moving on.

Article 36: Seeking smoking restrictions at Village Park Apartments. Speaking for the Select Board, Hwei-Ling Greeney moved to refer this article to the Board of Health. Petitioner Marianne Jakus spoke of her inspirations in bringing this article and all her research on the related health and legal issues. She will pursue other avenues with the Board of Health and possibly report back on any progress in the fall or at a later meeting. The vote to refer was unanimous.

Article 37: Seeking to make it so that one absence from a public hearing wouldn’t preclude a member of an adjudicatory board from participating in the decision. Gerry Weiss said the article had been brought by the Conservation Commission, but that the Select Board feels that because the rule change would affect many boards, there should be more discussion first.

Andy Steinberg said the Finance Committee had supported the original proposal and had no position on the dismissal motion.

The vote to dismiss was overwhelmingly in support, with just one or two Nos.

Article 38 was dismissed because it was the Olympia Drive article that had been moved to the Special Town Meeting warrant we did at the beginning of the evening.

Article 39: Commemorative Flags. Petitioner Larry Kelley made – let’s face it – a stunningly thoughtful and moderate presentation about the first and nearly-final casualties of September 11th, and how they were both gay men, and how broad the diversity was of innocent lives lost on that day. He said that that is what the flag stands for – not militarism or the war in Iraq, but the people of the U.S. He noted the contrast of the Select Board’s unanimous vote to fly the rainbow flag for the anniversary of the gay marriage decision, and how they then unanimously voted to take no position on this proposal to fly the commemorative flags at half-staff every 9/11, and said that the two people he had previously referenced might have found that ironic.

Gerry Weiss said the Select Board would let Town Meeting decide. Anne Awad talked about being on the Board when 9/11 occurred, and all the various flag flying requests the board gets, and all the various tragedies that could be marked. She said that the main Town flag is lowered to half-staff on 9/11 and that it is a somber event. She said the commemorative flags seem more celebratory, and more suitable for Fourth of July. She urged members to oppose the article.

A couple of members spoke to the multitude of tragedies all over the world and throughout history, including those perpetuated by town namesake Lord Jeffery Amherst. One suggested voting against the article in favor of establishing a committee to more broadly honor all such events, and another just wanted it defeated.

A member speaking in support said the red flag stripes denote American blood shed for this country’s freedom. Another suggested that dates for commemorating other tragedies be brought forth as well. Another said that he regarded the article as a call for a day of reflection for a tragic event that affected all of us. Another said that we shouldn’t do what our government has done and link that event to the war.

A member made a motion to refer the article to the Human Rights Commission, not as a way of defeating it, she said, but as a way of reshaping the article in a way that would be less inclined to divide the meeting.

There was a standing vote on the motion to refer. It failed, and I apparently didn’t write down the totals. I voted against referral.

Someone asked what the six holidays are for which the commemorative flags are flown, and if any of those had them at half-staff. The answer to the latter was no, and to the former was: Patriots Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, July 4th, Labor Day and Veterans Day.

There was a tally vote on the article – 41 Yes and 96 No. I voted Yes.

This was the third issue of the night that made my brain hurt, and all for different reasons.

First of all, I love the flag, and I have none of the compunctions about it that many do. My personal patriotism isn’t contingent on who occupies the White House or the state of our foreign policy. I recognize that many don’t feel that way.

You get an article like this, and no matter how thoughtfully it was presented, and how thoughtfully it was both supported and objected to, it becomes bigger than the specific issue at hand. It becomes an issue of all the various ways people feel about the flag and the country. It becomes a mutual provocation. It becomes a test. Its significance gets blown out of all proportion by those on both sides of the vote.

I didn’t really like the article. To me, it felt vaguely like using the 9/11 tragedy to provoke an expected reaction. So for a while, I thought I might oppose it. But I also think that people are terribly intolerant of more traditional and optimistic opinions of the flag, and I’m tired of that. How come being progressive and open-minded only applies to that with which you agree?

So I went back to logic similar to that which I used in supporting the resident alien voting article: it is important to some, and should be of little consequence to others. I don’t need to have commemorative flags at half-staff downtown to mark my 9/11 remembrance, but it doesn’t hurt. If you strip away all the overwrought Amherst stuff that becomes part and parcel of this article, it is really saying, “Should we fly flags downtown every year on 9/11?” And to that, I say – “Sure! Why not?” To me, answers to “why not” were not compelling, but of course, I was in the minority.

By this time, it was after 10:00, and we all expected those sweetest of words: “I move to adjourn until…” Instead, we got “I move to take up Article 40.”

GROAN!

Gerry Weiss explained that the Select Board would be moving to dismiss, so the body approved taking up the article.

Petitioner Larry Kelley said the goal of the article was to put some teeth into the Open Meeting Law by assessing fines for its violation. There were contradictory opinions from his lawyer and Town Counsel as to the legality of the proposal, and that pretty much sealed the deal. The Select Board spoke to its doubts and concerns and the Finance Committee did the same. The vote to dismiss was nearly unanimous, with a couple of requisite objections.

So that was Wednesday – dealt with a technicality, sought legislation that will die at the State House, made a recommendation that can freely be ignored, rejected an article that was doomed to fail from the outset, dismissed a couple of articles and referred one to another body. Fantastic.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Does make you wonder

The theme of Thursday night’s session might have been “Things that are kind of screwy.”

Among the Moderator’s first announcements: the tally vote cards all have Monday’s date on them, and the timer at the lectern that keeps track of each speaker’s time was out for repair. Hmmmm.

After a few other announcements (TMCC election deadline, check your listing in the “They Represent You” guide, no meeting on Monday the 14th, Special TM on Wednesday the 16th ) and moving around a few more articles (11 after 31, 33 after 11) we got down to business.

Article 16 had been shaping up to be a little ugly. This is the article that accepts the Regional School District’s per pupil assessment formula for divvying up the costs among the four member towns. The agreement on this assessment method was the work of a multi-town task force a couple years ago, and was intended to simplify and make more equitable the determination of what each town’s contribution would be to funding the district. Paying an equal cost per pupil from each town was determined to be the most fair method and was certainly simpler than the convoluted State alternatives. The four towns agreed to this by approving it at their 2006 Town Meetings. All the towns have to approve it again. It should be a technicality, but …

Then there’s the matter of the regional school budget. That was to be decided by approval of at least three of the four towns’ Town Meetings. With Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury having already approved the budget at a 3% increase over last year, it appeared that Amherst was stuck – and inconveniently so, as we just failed to pass the override that would have funded a 3% budget. Hand-wringing over a new override scenario, taking money from reserves, or funding the extra $238,000 though new budget cuts was already taking place. Until the idea was hatched to reject Article 16.

It seems that people found two different appeals to this scenario: A) Rejecting the regional assessment agreement would then force a default to the State formula, which is advantageous to Amherst but bad for the other towns, especially Pelham, which is why a new system was sought in the first place. Bottom line for Amherst is it would be cheaper – by about $200,000. B) Rejecting the assessment would force the other towns to reconsider the 3% budget. It would be a tactical move – they need our agreement on the assessment approval and we need them to approve a smaller budget.

So to heck with agreements made in good faith. Some were willing to jettison all the work of the regional agreement regardless of its affect on the other towns, or were willing engage in gamesmanship to ensure that Amherst gets its way. Penny wise and pound foolish on multiple levels, but there you go.

No wonder so many were saying that they didn’t trust Town Meeting and Town government to adhere to the three year plan. But I digress.

So Article 16 was going to be a shoot-out. Never mind that it wasn’t directly addressing the regional school budget – it was going to be the de facto budget debate.

However …

The School Superintendent announced that it had just been learned that the State law about Regional School budget approval for regions using an alternate assessment method (like ours) had been changed in January such that all the towns – not merely the majority – now need to approve the budget in order for it to take effect. Now Amherst would get to have its say directly with the Regional budget, and would not need to deploy what Gerry Weiss termed “the nuclear option” of rejecting the assessment. Surely this was good news!

But wait a minute. This law was changed in January. And you just found out about it Wednesday. Hmmmm.

So that was the new reality under which Article 16 was being considered. Whereas the assessment formula vote had been considered linked to the budget vote, that was no longer the case. As Andy Churchill illustrated – no thanks to a balky overhead projector – if the budget were a pie, the assessment formula only determines how that pie is divided; it has no effect on the pie’s size.

The Regional School Committee Chair and the Finance Committee Chair explained the assessment and its history in great detail. The Select Board majority recommended it.

A member moved to postpone the article until after the budget vote. He read a long list of reasons – new information, too many questions; too much “toxic propaganda” leading up to the discussion; can’t we all just get along?

The Select Board chair emphasized that this was now totally separate from the budget discussion which will come later.

Or now. A non-TM member said that by rejecting the override, voters said they wanted a 1% budget. The Superintendent made the point again – just the assessment formula – not the budget.

The question was called, and that voice vote was just too close to call for some, so a standing vote was requested. 132 yes, 28 no. So close. Whatever. The vote to postpone was then rejected. A member who opposed the override spoke in support of the assessment article and its inherent rationality, with an apt analogy of two couples splitting a dinner bill.

The vote to accept the assessment was overwhelmingly in support with just a handful of Nos. I voted yes.

Next up: Article 8. This was to change the zoning bylaw on farmstands to reflect recent changes in State law. It was about Class 1 farmstands requiring site plan review and Class 2 farmstands requiring a special permit, and how the two classes have different threshold requirements for the percentages of produce sold to be grown on-site or elsewhere in Massachusetts and frankly, it isn’t worth explaining it all (but you’re welcome to read the Planning Board’s report about it,) because it is arcane and because we don’t actually have any of either in Amherst currently.

Yes, apparently it is necessary to pre-regulate something that doesn’t exist, in the name of encouraging it for the future. Hmmmm.

All the relevant boards supported it and spoke to why it is positive: helps farms to directly market their products, supports local economic development, reflects state law.

Zoning bylaw changes require a 2/3 majority. This vote was unanimous.

Article 9 was also about farmstands, but this time it was creating regulation to allow them as accessory uses on a property. Because there were still details to work out, the Planning Board requested that this one be referred back to itself and the Agricultural Commission. And so we did, in unanimous fashion.

Article 10 was an amendment to the zoning bylaw regarding by-right uses in the Flood Prone Conservancy district. It was explained to be a minor amendment seeking to reduce the Town’s legal exposure because State law requires that landowners must have at least one available land use that doesn’t require a special permit. This vulnerability was identified by the former Town Counsel, and the current Town Counsel agreed that this needed to be addressed. The goal was to choose a use that could be made by-right but not expose the FPC’s to unregulated development. Water impoundments – dams and other water flow containment – was selected because that use has many layers of State and Federal regulation before it reaches the local jurisdiction, so it was considered to be a safe option.

So in order to provide a by-right use to a landowner that we don’t want him to have anyway, we do it by giving him one he is unlikely to be able to achieve. Hmmmm.

In response to a question, it was explained that the bylaw targets private landowners because public landowners – often the Town itself – are unlikely to be in the position of suing the Town for insufficient land use options, and entities like the University have broad abilities to do anything they want with the Town only dictating “how,” via site plan review.

One member said he didn’t trust the article because it is purporting to provide a by-right use that he said will effectively be precluded by the State and Federal regulation. He said the situation would be humorous if it weren’t so serious.

This vote also required a 2/3 majority. There were only a dozen or so No votes. I voted yes. If two Town Counsels believe this is a necessary step to keep the town from getting sued, that’s good enough for me.

There was a brief recess to re-set the tables up front by replacing the Planning Board with the Finance Committee.

When we resumed, it was with Article 7, allowing the Town to arrange easements for the Atkins Corner road redesign project.

The double roundabout redesign was explained and illustrated, and the affected property owners have all been contacted and non-monetary compensation – by trading chunks of property made available by moving the road – has been agreed to by nearly all. The DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring explained that the permission for these easements was needed now in order to advance through Mass Highway’s permitting process.

The Select Board supported it because the easements didn’t require spending money, and the redesign would be safer and easier to use. The Public Transportation Committee deferred its position because they had not fully discussed the issues yet. The Finance Committee supported it because the redesign was conducive to appropriate new economic development activity in that area, and would improve public safety. The Historical Commission was not opposed, but had concerns about historic houses in the area. The Public Works Committee recommended the article but took no position on the details of the redesign and encouraged anyone with such concerns vote yes now and deal with the concerns later.

People spoke in favor of and in opposition to the utility of roundabouts. In response to questions, it was explained that approving the easements does not lock us into this redesign plan, and that Massachusetts law gives right of way to traffic inside the roundabout. We learned that the three criteria the redesign had to meet were: 1) not to take Mrs. Ives’ house; 2) not to impact Epsteins’s pond; and 3) to contain the commercial development to the area it’s already in. Mr. Mooring said that moving the road to the east increases the development potential on the west, where Atkins is.

Someone asked who is paying for this. Mr. Mooring said it was and still is supposed to be paid primarily by a Congressional set-aside which would have the Federal government paying most of it, with the State paying some. He said the Town would only have to pay if there were cost overruns.

Only.

A member told of how Bay Road and West Street have been moved as necessary throughout the Town’s history, so this would not be a new concept, and he suggested this would be confusing but people would learn, and it would improve a bad traffic area.

So the best way to straighten the road is to add two circles, and the best way to improve traffic flow is with an element for which people aren’t clear who has the right of way. Hmmmm.

The vote to approve the easements was nearly unanimous.

We now skipped over all the articles that have been scheduled for specific future dates and times, and jumped to Article 32. This was Vince O’Connor’s petition article to abolish the Amherst Redevelopment Authority. He said he is bothered by people getting elected by write-in vote, and hence lacking public scrutiny, to a body of considerable power. He said the board had met infrequently over the last 6-8 years and hadn’t met at all in 2-3 years, though they have now scheduled a meeting for Monday night. He said the board has overlapping authorities with other boards and committees, and that those other bodies could take them over. He said that if Town Meeting doesn’t vote to approve his article, there will at least be discussion about what the Redevelopment Authority is and what it does, and that because it has appeared to fall apart, it should be thoroughly examined if it is to continue. He also said he just learned recently that he had received write-in votes for the ARA, but would have declined the seat if he’d won.

So we are asked to abolish a committee that barely exists, because of fears that it is too powerful. Hmmmm.

The Select Board voted 2-1-1, with 1 absent, to have someone refer this article back to the ARA. Alisa Brewer said the “2” had concerns about the article because the ARA was not a regular board and not required to justify itself to the Select Board or Town Meeting, that Town Counsel had advised that Mass. General Laws state that Redevelopment Authorities dissolve by their own vote to do so, that the body may have potential utility to the Town, and that they wanted to have a report from the ARA itself before making a recommendation.

The Finance Committee moved to defer consideration of the article until after Article 33, and said that they couldn’t offer a recommendation before hearing a report from the ARA.

People had questions about whether the Governor’s appointment to the ARA is vacant (it’s not,) and if that person could individually have unchecked influence (she could not.) A member from the original ARA spoke of its history, remaining loose ends, and potential problems with its dissolution, and recommended knowing more before taking action to abolish it.

The vote to defer Article 32 until after Article 33 was overwhelmingly in support with a couple of scattered Nos. I voted in support.

The meeting adjourned at 9:55 p.m.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Opening night

And so we begin.

Last night, the 248th Annual Town Meeting for Amherst got underway. Astonishingly, all Town Meeting seats are filled except one – a vacancy in Precinct 3. That is 239 regular TMers plus 14 ex-officio, for a total of 253. So our quorum is 127, which we reached easily, though I failed to note the time. What I did note though was how full the auditorium was. That was impressive.

Before we really began, we had to go through all the introductory stuff – the call of the warrant, swearing in new members, handicapped parking, listening devices, non-members sit in the back, how to be recognized, etc. One interesting part was remembering the current and former members who died during the past year. We stood as the Moderator read those names: Ken Mosakowski, William C. Atkins, Charles Jacque, Robert McClung, Leverne Thelen, Aaron Wilson. I hope I didn’t miss any.

After more procedural stuff – League publications, Special TM May 16th, how much time speakers get (5 minutes if you are making the motion, 3 minutes otherwise,) announcement of Town Meeting Coordinating Committee elections (nominations due to the Town Clerk’s office by close of business Friday,) and so forth, we finally got started.

With more procedural stuff.

The Moderator said there was no consent calendar, because nothing on the warrant was sufficiently non-controversial to assume it would pass easily. Indeed.

The Select Board Chair then moved some articles around. Article 16 – the Regional School Assessment – will now be considered early, as the first order of business on Thursday, just in case… In case of what? In case the SB wants to schedule another override to cover the fact that we’re stuck with a 3% budget for the region, as voted by the three other towns. Or in case we want to start fortifying our perimeter to ward off the angry marauders from Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury should Amherst TM, in its infinite wisdom, opt to disregard the regional assessment agreement that was so long in the making.

I’m going to give us the benefit of the doubt and assume that we couldn’t possibly be short-sighted enough to do that. Hold a good thought.

Other stuff from the SB Chair: move the zoning articles 8 -11 to Thursday, right after 16. There was some discussion about whether 11 should or shouldn’t be part of this grouping. It was left in, with the plan to then postpone it to a later date. Someone moved to add Article 7 to Thursday as well. Articles 15 and 17-31 – the budget stuff – was scheduled for May 21st. With all that done, we were really ready to get started.

Article 1: To hear any reports that aren’t available in written form. This is standard procedure, and it passed unanimously, or nearly so. Then we heard those reports.

First up was a report from the Town Manager. This is his first Annual TM in Amherst (he ain’t seen nothing yet…) and he said he’s happy to be here, been a great 9 months so far. He took the opportunity to recognize volunteers and citizens who have performed extraordinarily on behalf of the Town. He cited Alan Root for the beautiful photography he has provided to the Town for publications and for the Master Plan process. A wonderful slide show of his images was playing before and during the meeting. Mr. Shaffer also cited Gail Weston for her great work since replacing Joyce Karpinski in the Town Manager’s office, and praised Health Director Epi Bodhi for acquiring a $300,000 Health Department grant for addressing social justice principles in public health. He said Amherst was one of four grant recipients. The others were our peer communities of New York City, Houston, and Louisville. Impressive!

In a report from the Select Board, Gerry Weiss said that steps were being taken to determine how to proceed with the budget in the wake of the override failure last week. He said the Budget Coordinating Group would meet on the 9th to plan a joint meeting of the Select Board, School Committee, Library Board and Finance Committee on the 14th. The joint meeting will be at 7:00 p.m. and the Select Board will meet at 5:30 to discuss its priorities.

Rob Kusner also announced the dedication of the UMass bike connector, which will be named in honor of a former member of Town Meeting and the Finance Committee, and former chair of the Public Transportation and Bicycle Committee, Art Swift. The dedication ceremony will be at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, May 13th, and the northern end of the connector, where it meets Mass. Ave.

The next report was from the La Paz Centro Sister City Committee. Anne Stanek, the Committee Chair, talked about how humbling and enriching Amherst residents have found their cultural exchange visits to be, and how important support from the committee has been to that area. Scholarships have been established, houses and a community center have been built and more. She said the support is helping to grow a strong economic base there.

Helene Ver Eecke presented the report from the Public Transportation and Bicycle Committee. She talked about the committee’s work to improve service to East Amherst while saving money, by arranging a new route for the #45 Belchertown bus, which will replace the #36 Gatehouse Road bus on July 1st. She said that by paying $11,000 for a “detour” of the #45’s route, Amherst will improve its service to that area at 1/3 of the original route’s cost. She also talked about the new #32 bus, which goes from Puffer’s Pond to Atkins, and is intended to take people to the prime destinations in town on a convenient schedule. She said that route’s new Saturday schedule just started with the opening of the Farmers Market this past weekend, and that it is hoped that this route will help to attract new riders to the system.

That was the end of the reports. Back to the articles.

Article 2 was to transfer money to pay unpaid bills. This was quickly dismissed because we don’t have any unpaid bills.

Article 3 was to approve the maximum property tax exemption for eligible homeowners who are elderly, veterans or blind. The Select Board and Finance Committee both spoke to this being a valuable way of helping people to stay in their homes. It was noted that the program costs the Town about$114,000 in uncollected tax revenues, but that about $26,000 is reimbursed by the State. Responding to questions from the body, the Town Assessor said he wasn’t certain of the percentage of eligible people utilizing the program, but said that it is underused and that the Town does try to promote it with outreach via the Council on Aging, web site information, and by including details of the program with tax bill mailings. He also spoke of the assessor’s discretion to allow participation by active-duty military personnel overseas and of the increased State money for veterans.

The vote to approve the article was unanimous, or nearly so.

Article 4 was to allow the Finance Director to enter into banking relationships for the Town, whereby some benefit might be gained by maintaining certain minimum balances on deposit. It allows flexibility for moving Town money around. In response to a question, the Finance Director said that State law requires that reserve funds be held in savings vehicles with terms not to exceed a year, and that Amherst’s are in CDs of varying terms earning 5-5.5% interest.

The vote to approve this article was unanimous, or nearly so.

Article 5 was to allow the Town to enter into a lease agreement of up to 20 years for a proposed cell phone tower at the dump. (Hey, I’m old-fashioned – I can call it that.) Despite repeated assurances that this was a technical step to begin a long process that will include public hearings and various permitting hurdles, and was not the actual approval of a cell phone tower, that of course was what set people off. We didn’t know! It will wreck our view! Put it someplace else! What about the honeybees?

The DPW Superintendent explained that this was before Town Meeting because the Town Manager can enter into contracts lasting only up to three years without Town Meeting approval. Even if TM were to reject this, the process would go forward, but perhaps with only a three-year lease. The benefits to the Town, besides, presumably, better cell phone signals for some, is the lease fee paid to the Town for the tower itself and for fees from the antennas other companies would pay to locate on it. Maximum revenue projections for the tower would be about $60,000 per year.

There was talk about how many other towers are in town (a lot, but many are hidden and all but the Ruxton tower are on private property;) the ability for the Town to get out of the contract if desired (not so much, but the bigger concern is keeping the telecom company from getting out of it, not us;) and the bad science and good hype that generated the recent bee stories.

After a failed amendment attempt to change the language to shorten the allowable contract term, the article was ultimately approved, and I was among those voting to approve it.

Article 6 was also about cell phones, but it was about banning their hand-held use while driving. Vladimir Morales was the petitioner for this article which sought to recommend that the legislature enact such a ban at the State level. He said it was modeled after a resolution Northampton had passed. He said he had been rear-ended by someone talking on a cell phone, and that phones are dangerous because they distract the driver’s attention. He spoke of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and California all having such bans.

The Select Board was unanimous in its recommendation of the article. The Finance Committee took no position. There was discussion about whether the language was specific enough to apply only to the person actually driving the car, as opposed to passengers who have the ability to drive, and changes were made to ensure that. Less successful was the argument that the new language could be interpreted as no one being allowed to use a hand-held phone while the car was being driven by somebody.

People spoke in opposition to the article, saying that it presumed all cell phone use was frivolous and that legitimate use shouldn’t be prevented, and that this was a slippery slope of over-regulation which could lead to bans on driving while pregnant or while on heart medication. Someone pointed out that it was only to prevent hand-held cell phone use and not hands-free use, and someone else said the distractions of both are equally dangerous and that the ban should be more broadly targeted.

A very wise gentleman emphasized that this was really about asking the legislature to look into the issue, and that they would hash out the nitty-gritty details if they were to pursue it.

The vote to approve the article, with the amended language about drivers, was successful. I was among those voting in support.

Article 12 was about a proposed bylaw from the Shade Tree Committee for preserving the Town’s tree canopy. Due to earlier discussions at the Select Board meeting, Mr. Weiss recommended that the article be referred back to the Shade Tree Committee, with that committee’s blessing.

The vote to approve referring it back to the committee was successful, perhaps unanimous.

Article 13 was to change the name of the Solid Waste Committee to the Recycling and Refuse Management Committee, which had to have Town Meeting approval because TM had originally created the committee. Pat Church, Committee Chair, gave a humorous explanation of why the committee seeks the name change, which is partially to better describe its work, but mostly because people find the name off-putting, and it may be hindering them from attracting committee members. And per chance the proposed name change was not a sufficient lure, Ms. Church tried to tempt potential members with the promise of snacks at meetings and gifts from the Take it or Leave it shed at the dump.

One TMer apparently didn’t get the whole off-putting thing, and amended the motion to instead change the name to the Waste Management Committee. About five people supported that when it came to a vote.

Ultimately, the vote to change the name to the Recycling and Refuse Management Committee was unanimous, except for the lone opposition vote from Wayne Huizenga on the far side of the auditorium.

Who would have thought that the Sister City article would be the longest one of the night?

Sure enough, Article 14 sought to establish a Sister City relationship with Nyeri, Kenya. Anne Awad began by stressing that such a relationship would require no tax support or other Town resources. She described the city and its beauty and vibrancy and how nice the people are and how warmly she was received on her visit. She said she has visited Africa multiple times because her daughter-in-law is from there, and through visiting her family, Ms. Awad has had the kinds of experiences tourists don’t usually have, and by doing cultural exchanges as a Sister City, others could do that as well. She said any participation would be voluntary, and that among the opportunities were pen pal exchanges and teaching exchanges via e-mail. She said it would be a unique and mutually beneficial opportunity for Nyeri and Amherst.

The Select Board support was unanimous and the Finance Committee took no position.

Someone asked about staff time being used for greeting visitors or making arrangements. Ms. Awad said her experience with other Sister City committees has been that staff time is very minimal – arranging a town meeting room, for example – and that the committee and other volunteers do most of the work.

Someone else spoke about the La Paz Centro committee and the necessity of committed volunteers. Someone else spoke about the colonizers of that area having committed genocide, and that a book about it is available at the library.

Then an amendment was proposed to add language specifying that no public funds would be expended and no staff time committed on behalf of the Sister City relationship, and that a Sister City committee would be appointed by the Select Board to undertake all the Sister City activities.

If this seemed like splitting hairs, it was just the beginning.

People quickly seized on the “no money or time” part, saying that it was worth a little of the Town Manager’s time to greet Sister City visitors, or for staff to engage in e-mail exchanges. One person suggested that because the Select Board gets a stipend, they would be precluded from appointing the committee because that would use Town money.

A member wanted to know if the language that established other Sister City relationships had this provision – not because she was pointing out that it has proven unnecessary, or that everything should be consistent, but rather, because this language was suggested for a Sister City in Africa, she thought it seemed racist. A groan rumbled through the auditorium.

The amendment was voted down, and I also voted against it.

Another amendment was proposed, identical except that it removed the offending absolutes of no this, all that.

The vote on that amendment was close – so close that a standing vote was required, though one member unsuccessfully sought the meeting’s first tally vote. I think the outcome was 89 in favor, 70 opposed, but the numbers in my notes don’t quite add up. This amendment was successful, and I voted to support it. While I didn’t think the original motion needed any amending, this one seemed like a compromise. The subsequent vote on the article to establish the Sister City relationship was overwhelmingly in support, with a handful of scattered Nos. I voted in support.

The meeting adjourned just after 10:15 p.m. The next session begins at 7:30 on Thursday, May 10th.


Random Bits

I was kind of rusty at the beginning. I’ve been taking copious notes at some other meetings lately where no participation is required. In the early part of this meeting, I kept forgetting to vote.

What is the deal with the person or persons who always vote against calling the previous question? Always. Do they really think there is more to say? Is it just to be contrary? Are they not actually paying attention, and getting lulled into the call and response of “All in favor say aye – AYE! All opposed say no – NO!” Perhaps they just vote for and against everything.

One of the odder elements of the meeting: the Hamden County reference in the cell phone tower article. How did that happen? How could it have gone this far without being corrected? Someone had noted that in a comment when I put up a link to the warrant on inAmherst.com about a month ago. Funny how you read stuff the way you expect it to be, not how it actually is. I do it all the time – such are the perils of lacking an editor. But you’d think someone would have caught that.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Time flies

Here we are again.

I had hoped to freshen up the blog for a new year of Town Meeting, but that didn’t happen. Alas. Of course, we might well be meeting into July, so there’s still time.

One change though is that this front page will now only provide the beginning of the post, and you’ll have to click on the part that says “Continue reading…” in order to – you know – continue reading. Two benefits of this: the front page won’t be a mile long and should load quicker; and any comments will appear at the end of the post, instead of on a separate page.

OK, so let’s practice…

Very good! Technically, if you clicked on the title of each post before (and still,) you would bring it up on its own page, with the comments at the bottom, but I don’t know if anyone ever did that.

In order to get back to the main page, you can always click on the “Stephanie’s Town Meeting Experience” title at the top, or click on the word “Home” at the very bottom of the page.

Also, the posts now have labels at the bottom, like “Spring 2007.” If you click on that label, you will get all the posts from that TM season. But really, if you are going back and reading my posts about last year’s Town Meetings, you are probably in need of a good hobby.

Why haven’t I incorporated this blog into the inAmherst site? I don’t really have a good answer for that. For now, I’m keeping them separate. Might change. You never know. In the meantime, you are stuck trying to remember or find the singularly awful address I gave this blog way back before I realized anyone was actually going to read it. Sorry.

This year is 180-degrees different from last year. Back then, I knew nothing and no one. Now I probably know more than I want to, or at least enough to be dangerous, and the knowing people thing – well, it’s nice and all, unless you’re writing about them. Not knowing them makes that part easier. Can blog and blogger adapt to more information and less anonymity? Time will tell.

Thanks for coming back. The post on the first meeting will be up as early on Tuesday as I can manage.

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