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.


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.


LarryK4 said...

I find it hard to believe anyone can acquire 18 write-in votes without asking but hey, he’s Vince; with that formidable persona maybe he should run for Select board.

Yes, I was recently elected to the ARA with 67 write-in votes, but I was also an ARA member for over 10 years (1996-2005) courtesy of but one write-in: The Governor.

And the only other member who was elected by write in (with 50 something votes) was Curt Shumway after he forgot to take out nomination papers for reelection.

The ARA still has $40,000 in an account that can be used to beautify the area around the Boltwood Garage, and I would suggest we leverage that by getting property owners to chip in and match our spending (there I go again with an apt analogy of splitting a bill).

And if the town ever decides to increase parking in the downtown the ARA has the power of imminent domain. And the ARA also ensured the Boltwood Garage was constructed with the possibility of another (relatively cheap to build) parking deck.

Anonymous said...

On 'kinda screwy things'...
The 'spring session' of TM is traditionally the season for the Planning Board to 'clean-up' loose ends and try to keep up with changes in law (usually state) that can impact the legal standing of Amherst's Zoning Bylaw. The 2/3rd majority vote makes getting anything done to zoning very difficult (for good reasons).

There was some frustration with a) the relevance and b) the shell game aspect of Art. 10. So a response of hhhhmmmm is reasonable.

Remember FPCTF is a creation of the SB and when Hubley and Kusner were both on it was clearly a way of trying to circumvent the processes of the Planning Board or at least set the agenda. This issue has been contentious in the past (including legal action). The latest decision upholds the right of TM to zone land as Flood Prone Conservancy. So in that respect the 'shell game' was/is about as much as you could reasonably expect this time around.

This continues to be an SB (with strong TM support) that has an agenda at odds with meaningful transparent process and consistency of treatment for all stakeholders in the community. So, sometimes you get these odd little pantomimes like last Thursday.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, I wanted to run down the depressing numbers for Town Meeting on how FPC Zoning has enriched the Lawyers: the town spending $125,000 to $150,000 and the owners of the Meadow Street Property spending $500,000 to $600,000 but it was simply too depressing.

As Stephanie knows, I even mentioned it earlier at the Select Board meeting when defending my Warrant article on the Open Meeting Law (how we had to provide legal counsel to Town Meeting members called in for depositions, and apparently Vince didn’t like town counsel Alan Seewald and hired his own at town expense).

And of course my blog entry for this weekend (note to Stephanie: you can delete this portion if you wish as God knows you don’t want folks to think we’re in cahoots) discusses this very topic:

Elaine Brighty said...

I can appreciate why you wrote "hmmm..." wondering why the district didn't know all about the regional budget regulation that had changed 3 months earlier.

Learning about a change in a state regulation should be easy. In reality, I'm impressed that the Superintendent and Finance Manager discovered the regulation change before article 16 came up for a vote at Town Meeting!

The state regulations (not the law) about regional school districts did change in January. Before January, we'd read the draft document revising the regulations governing regional districts and then we'd read all the submitted comments from all districts, but this change was added right as the regulations were being approved by the DOE.

The few word change was completely unexpected and none of the professional associations picked up on the "small" change in that one sentence. It wasn't noticed by the Municipalities, Superintendents, nor School Committee Assoc's. The Municipality Association newsletter article on the key changes in the law only noted that unanimity was still required to use a Regional formula instead of the state formula.

I imagine that several other Regional Districts are going to be unpleasantly surprised when they read our Superintendent's email alert to them about this change in the state regulations.

Rereading the regulations last week was being done to double check the sequence of next steps if Article 16 on the assessment formula was voted down. Until Saturday's budget approving votes by Pelham and Shutesbury, there weren't any doubts that the assessment article would pass: the state formula is so skewed that trying to use it would either push Pelham into bankruptcy, or more likely force the FY08 school budget well below this year's budget.

I'm glad, of course, that we learned about this new wrinkle in the regulations before Town Meeting votes on the regional budget. The new requirement for a unanimous vote on the budget itself makes passing regional budgets even more difficult if a region doesn't want to use the state's formula.

Our region is one of the few in the state who might be able to get a unanimous vote on a budget. We've been fortunate as a Reigonal District compared to many others in the state: our regional district has a very cooperative relationship between the four towns. This exists because the towns worked hard to establish and maintain that cooperation and focus on the needs of the schools.

Elaine Brighty

Gavin Andresen said...

About the roundabouts:

It's counterintuitive, but roads that seem more dangerous can actually be safer. There's a good article at Wired that explains why.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Here's what I wonder every time Town Meeting rolls around again -- where are some of the elected members? And could this be the year the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee considers a sort of "sunshine club" to call and ask
these folks if they're OK, and asking them to start showing up?

I realize stuff comes up in everyone's life, and I sure don't want anyone who has a real issue to feel guilty, yet all the Town Meeting members have known about the meeting dates for months. So why are there folks who haven't come to *either* of the first two sessions?

For example (names from the Town website:

1 POWER, MARK 129 Meadow Street
1 RUBECK, STRIDER 1040 N. Pleasant Street, #283
1 WASKIEWICZ, JOSEPH A. 324 Meadow Street
1 WINNE, ROBERT F. 105 Montague Road

2 GALE, KEVIN C. 227 Shutesbury Road
2 MACLEOD, PATRICK D. 228 Henry Street

3 INGRAM, JOHN S. 171 Pine Street
3 MEAD, KIMBERLY MAY 16 Berkshire Terrace
3 ROBERTS, LOUIS ANTHONY 172 Rolling Ridge Road

4 BROCK, STACEY D. 48 Dana Street
4 JENSEN ABIGAIL M. 100 Dana Street
4 SAMONDS, KENNETH W. 86 Dana Street

5 PITKIN, DONALD S. 27 S Prospect Street

6 KLEINHOLZ, LISA 203 Heatherstone Road

7 FORREST, TERRY S. 34 Pomeroy Lane, #5
7 JOY, KEVIN P. 214 Glendale Road

8 NAKAJIMA, ERIC T. 500 West Street, #17
8 PUFFER, JR. STEPHEN P. 318 Spencer Drive (Mr Puffer gets a free pass, given he's been in Town Meeting since forever:-)

9 BODIN, D. JOSEPH 35 Maplewood Drive

10 JACKSON, PHILIP S. 204 Lincoln Avenue
10 ROSENTHAL, BERNICE M. 51 McClellan Street

EX POPE, SONIA CORREA 16 Hitching Post Road
EX ROMERO, CHRYSTEL D. 54 Justice Drive
EX WANG, KATHLEEN 11 Dickinson Street

It doesn't mean all that much to say we have all the seats filled if it's really just that there are names attached to empty chairs:-( Let's hope things pick up when we start the budget May 21...

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Folks interested in the Amherst Redevelopment Authority -- the subject of Article 32 -- are reminded that the ARA is meeting tonight, Monday May 14, at 7 pm in the small meeting room next to the Town Room. In the Town Room at the same time is the "summit" four-boards meeting to discuss the approach to the FY08 budget at Town Meeting given the failure of Amherst's override vote, so clearly Town Hall is the happening place tonight:-)

I believe the current members of the ARA are:

Nancy Gordon
Larry Kelley
Nathan Salwen
Jeanne Traester
Frances Van Treese

LarryK4 said...

Taking after Pat Church and her serving treats to get folks to the Solid Waste Committee meetings (or whatever we changed their name to) I tried to get Mr. Tucker to come up with something cool to serve at the first ARA meeting in years, but he was worried about his budget.

Richard Morse said...

It's time to end the anonymity that has been traditionally associated with Town Meeting service. With regard to Alisa Brewer's roster of no-shows to Town Meeting this spring, I would like to take responsibility for a voting blunder. I voted for Mr. Kevin Joy in Precinct 7 despite his prior 19% attendance record. I hesitated in the booth, and then I circled him in.

Now he has been a no-show for the first two sessions. So that 19% attendance record sinks even further.

We had competitive races in Precinct 7 so some residents ran and lost. They may have actually felt disappointed about that. Mr. Joy defeated some folks who presumably would have found a way to attend at least one of the first two sessions. And unfortunately I helped. Mea culpa.

I don't know why residents are running if they can't attend, especially if they can't attend year after year. In the case of Mr. Joy, I believe that I saw him in recent photos waving "No More Overrides" signs in town. So he has time for that.

The median standard of attendance in Town Meeting is not high. I say, if you can't serve, get out of the way and let others do so.

I believe that the Moderator should be able to intervene in these situations, but he may feel that it is a matter for TMCC. I have never understood why we don't have 200 members on average at the start of the meeting every night, but it has never happened since I've been here. It is one of the great mysteries of the institution, along with those ghostly voices, like tree frogs in the night, that vote "no" whenever the question is called.

Chris Hoffmann said...

Sunshine club: interesting idea. I'd like it if there were an official way to remove a member if they miss a significant number of meetings. Two thirds, three fourths, something in that range.

Though looking at the list I see a fair number of people I know who are not just usually in attendance but active participants. Maybe it's just something about this May; I had to be out of town on Thursday myself!

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Three for three absences -- maybe the budget will bring 'em out?!?

1 POWER, MARK 129 Meadow Street
1 RUBECK, STRIDER 1040 N. Pleasant Street, #283
1 WASKIEWICZ, JOSEPH A. 324 Meadow Street
1 WINNE, ROBERT F. 105 Montague Road

2 GALE, KEVIN C. 227 Shutesbury Road
2 MACLEOD, PATRICK D. 228 Henry Street

3 INGRAM, JOHN S. 171 Pine Street
3 ROBERTS, LOUIS ANTHONY 172 Rolling Ridge Road

4 SAMONDS, KENNETH W. 86 Dana Street

5 PITKIN, DONALD S. 27 S Prospect Street

7 FORREST, TERRY S. 34 Pomeroy Lane, #5
7 JOY, KEVIN P. 214 Glendale Road

8 PUFFER, JR. STEPHEN P. 318 Spencer Drive (Mr Puffer gets a free pass, given he's been in Town Meeting since forever:-)

10 ROSENTHAL, BERNICE M. 51 McClellan Street

EX POPE, SONIA CORREA 16 Hitching Post Road
EX ROMERO, CHRYSTEL D. 54 Justice Drive
EX WANG, KATHLEEN 11 Dickinson Street

Nina Wishengrad said...

Stacy Brock's name appeared as a "no-show" on a previous list of TM meeting members, but in fact she did not win re-election in her district. She moved from her previous address on Dana Street, and not enough people knew her in her new neighborhood. It's too bad -- she was a calm and rational voice last year.