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.


Gavin Andresen said...

Another sister city...

Why can't we have a Rich Uncle City to bail us out of the budget crisis?

LarryK4 said...

Actually, I believe it was Dick Mudgett who was the lone dissenter who voted against the name change from Solid Waste Committee to the Recycling and Refuse Management Committee and had proposed the name Waste Management Committee. But, as Bill O’Reilly would say “I could be wrong.”

cjhamherst said...

I thought it was Dick Mudgett as well. Perhaps there were two dissenters, one on on either side of the auditorium.

Welcome back, folks.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

The Wayne Huizenga thing was a joke. A little too obscure -- sorry.

Anonymous said...


i.e. the founder of Waste Management, Inc.