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.”


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.


Anonymous said...

"Why did no one from [WFCR] come to speak on its behalf at Town Meeting?!?"

Yeah, that seemed downright insulting.

Given that all the article really asked did was ask that we "call upon the Select Board to urge the Town Manager to present Amherst's Town Meeting's position to the University"(whew!), that lack of interest just proved to me just how little practical effect Town Meeting's vote could ever have on WFCR.

Mary E.Carey said...

Incredibly thoughtful, Stephanie. It's so interesting reading your on the one hand this, on the other hand that analysis of the articles. This was quite an interesting bunch of questions to consider. I was SO happy Nicky got to witness this of all Town Meeting sessions. He seemed quite exhilarated afterward. (No one must EVER tell him I said so.)

Anonymous said...

Only one thing that evening was a genuine ado. The entire assembly singing Happy birthday, dear Mr. Moderator.

dick bentley said...

Can't share your world-weary cynicism over the 5/16 meeting. Town meeting passed a resolution to give resident non-citizens the right to vote in town elections. We have passed these resolutions over and over and over again. These resolutions have been ignored over and over and over again by by our "elected representatives".

Save your cynicism for Stan Rosenberg, Ellen Story and their colleagues.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I just followed the link in the Amherst Bulletin and listened to the message Rob Kusner left on Andy Churchill's phone machine. I think he should not be permitted to remain in office. This follows the shirt throwing, and the incident with the motorist whom he pulled over and represented himself to as a town official.

Anonymous said...

Off topic from Town Meeting, regarding the latest Rob Kusner incident, I'm in agreement with the previous comments. He should be made to resign. It's completely obvious.

Anonymous said...

Another great summary of TM, Stephanie. Nice work. About article 35, I was conflicted but in the end voted to support the article. Two reasons: first, it was simply a request (admitedly a strongly-worded request, but a request none-the-less) that the University appoint a citizens advisory panel. WFCR management can, and probably will, ignore it, which might explain why they didn't bother to address TM in the first place. And second, I have made requests/comments essentially every year while making my annual contribution, and these have never been answered by anyone. They've taken my money and ignored my expressed opinion, not even bothering to send an e-mail or anything. I have to admit I'm not a big donor. Just a membership level. So several years ago I stopped supporting WFCR and sent donations to WAMC intead because I was listening to them more often anyway. I sent a note to WFCR telling them why I did this, and again, nothing. No response. No acknowledgement at all. After a couple years I resumed donations to WFCR because it feels like the right thing to do, to support my local NPR station even though they don't care what I think. So, on article 35 I voted to encourage the University to save WFCR from itself. Will the University act? Maybe not, but no harm in asking!

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous x 2. Kusner has continued to show lack of respect for his position and his constituents. It's time to ask him to leave. The threat against Mr. Churchill was unacceptable behavior. Thanks to the MP3 file and the Bulletin, it's clear that (contrary to Mr. Kusner's claim) it was not taken out of context. How would this be accomplished?

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

There’s something a wee bit unpersuasive about *anonymous* calls for resignation.

Besides, it would cost $14,000 for an election to replace him. Voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on his antics soon enough.

Larry Kelley said...

Keep in mind that Rob Kusner won by default. Everybody assumed the Charter would pass so the mainstream folks on either side did not bother to run a qualified candidate for Select Board.

Amherst does not have a recall provision. Harry Brooks was the odd (Select) man out 15 years ago and drove folks crazy so Town Meeting created a committee to come up with a recall provision. But when it finally came back to Town Meeting it did not pass. So today, a Select Board member can do most anything shy of a felony and not be “forced” to resign. Or Town Meeting member for that matter (Kenton Tharp for instance).

Yeah, BIG changes are coming very soon. Thank God!

Anonymous said...

Even if we were to institute a recall provision, I know that we could not repeal the presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence is one of the cornerstones of our American system of justice. The existence and operation of such principles in our country is one of the reasons I voted for Mr. Kelley's flag resolution.

The presumption of innocence and the burden of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) are important because they protect every person, even Town Meeting members in the Town of Amherst, from false or unproven accusations.