Amherst Forward’s General Election Candidate Questionnaire
Amherst Forward recently sent all candidates for Town Council appearing on the November ballot a new questionnaire. This one, unlike the first, asked open-ended questions (yeah!). It also had a fairly generous response limit (1300 characters), unlike some other questionnaires the candidates have received. Below are my responses.
The new Town Council will need to work through many issues, old and new. What are the key dilemmas you believe the new Council will face?
The new Town Council will face many dilemmas, the first of which is how to organize and govern itself. What the Town Council decides when setting its public comment policy, voting procedures, minute publication, etc., will set precedents for all other Town Councils. It will be extremely important to set policies that encourage openness, transparency, timeliness, and resident engagement. Other key dilemmas the Town Council will face include dealing with planning and any potential zoning changes that might be needed, Amherst’s housing troubles (high taxes, lack of affordable housing for families, low housing-supply as compared with demand, public-private partnerships, etc.), and finding a fiscally responsible means of funding the upcoming major capital projects amidst rising construction costs, rising interest rates, the possibility of not receiving grant money to share the costs with state-wide taxpayers, and a desire to have all of them completed in the nearest term possible.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
My experience as Vice-Chair of the Charter Commission will be extremely valuable as the Town Council works through how to organize itself in a manner that encourages openness, transparency, timeliness, and resident engagement. I was one of the Commissioners, along with some Commissioners who ultimately voted against the Charter and a few residents, that organized the many forums the Commission held throughout the entire process. We worked together in a collaborative manner to organize and run the forums in a variety of locations and at a variety of times to reach as many residents as possible. I was the Commissioner who wrote the updates between meetings that residents could subscribe to so that information was sent to them, without having to go in search of it themselves, and who maintained the website with its vast collection of information.
My experience as a Town Meeting Member for 7 years, as President of the Pioneer Valley Symphony for 3 years (member of the Board for 6), as a Court Appointed Special Advocate at Friends of Children, and as a former attorney, will enable to me to collaborate with all Councilors to respectfully and effectively work towards solutions to planning, housing, and funding capital projects.
The Town faces many challenges with inadequate and outdated public buildings and infrastructure. What are your priorities for capital improvements? If everything cannot be done at once, how would you prioritize them?
Amherst’s neglect of its major capital infrastructure over the past decades means that several capital projects (schools, library, public works, and fire station) are equally necessary. None of these projects should be delayed further. A few years ago, when the timing of these projects was presented to Town Meeting, former Finance Director Sandy Pooler indicated that all four could be done simultaneously due to a number of factors: (1) end of payments on prior bonds; (2) use of the Town’s rainy-day funds (put away for such a purpose); (3) sound fiscal management that resulted in large borrowing capacity (over $90 million at the Finance Committee’s last report) and low borrowing costs; (4) wise use of state building grants (for schools and libraries); and (5) requests to the taxpayers for tax increases to pay for the bonds of two of those projects.
While some of these elements have changed in the intervening years, I still support attempts to fund these projects without pushing any of them back unnecessarily. Each project is important. But, given the possibility of receiving state funds for some of them (which we should pursue), doing them all may require that the Town wait until such funds are received before pursuing some of them, in order to make all of them a reality.
Many of the Town’s competing needs and goals involve zoning, land use, and development. The Charter requires the Council to adopt a Master Plan to frame these issues, and to consider any proposed zoning changes in light of that plan. The Planning Board adopted a Master Plan in 2010 (https://www.amherstma.gov/526/Master-Plan) that can serve as a starting point. What key elements of that plan would you support as a member of the Council? What would you change or add?
I support the Master Plan’s overall goals of addressing the issues of growth and development while preserving and enhancing Amherst’s community life. There are too many specific elements of the current Master Plan for me to list as supporting, but some specific goals and objectives stated in the Master Plan that I particularly support are (this is not exhaustive, due to response limitations):
- guiding new housing growth to areas that minimize the impact on Amherst’s open space;
- creating dynamic downtown and village centers that are walkable, attractive and efficient;
- identifying an inventory of key locations for business development;
- encouraging a greater mix of housing types, sizes, and prices to serve a wider range of income levels and special populations;
- promoting infill development;
- encouraging new development in an environmentally sound manner;
- public-private partnerships for student housing;
- strengthening, diversifying and growing the economic base; and
- preserving and protecting our cultural, open space and recreation resources.
The Master Plan is quite comprehensive and was created through the engagement of over 1,000 residents. At this time, there are no specific elements I would change or add.
Resident engagement is a key feature of the Charter. As a member of the Council, how would you engage and communicate with your constituents, including those who have not previously been active in town politics? How would you engage constituents in understanding issues before the Council and the choices and trade-offs they represent? What steps would you take to engage low-income residents, renters, residents of color, and other underrepresented voices?
I will work to recruit and encourage residents of all background to participate in and engage with Town government. Methods I would start with include (1) working towards fully funding the Community Participation Officer position, then ensuring the person appointed puts a priority on involving under-represented residents in Town government; (2) establishing partnerships with apartment complexes, non-profits, PGOs, schools, unions, and businesses to host forums and feedback sessions in locations and at times that are more likely to draw non-traditional participants in our government; (3) holding regular public forums; and (4) proposing the Council adopt a policy of regular email updates, with brief summaries of what happened at the last meeting and what’s coming up, that residents can subscribe to so that the information goes directly to residents, instead of residents having to search for it on their own. All of these methods, and others, need to be used regularly. The Council must engage residents at the beginning and throughout any decision-making process, all the way until the end, which will allow ample time for residents to express their opinions and comment on the decisions and for the Councilors to communicate the trade-offs they are facing when deciding issues.
In 2016 and again in 2017, a majority of Amherst voters supported an override to fund the new co-located elementary school building, yet our legislature at the time, Town Meeting, did not provide the two-thirds vote needed to approve the funding, so the proposal failed. How did you vote, either as a Town Meeting member or a voter, on the proposal to fund the co-located school building? Since you are running for Town Council, not School Committee, how would you approach your role on a vote for funding if a school construction proposal is brought to the Council and supported by the School Committee, the Town Manager, and the voters?
I voted in support of the co-located elementary school project at the ballot box (both times). And, as a Town Meeting Member, I voted for authorizing the bond to fund the project (both times). My vote in Town Meeting reflected my belief that once the Town’s residents approved raising their taxes to pay for the project as proposed, it was my duty as a legislator to make the project happen, if fiscally responsible. I viewed the override vote by the voters as a vote approving the merits of the project, leaving only the fiscal decision to the legislators.
If faced with the same situation in the future, where the voters have agreed to an override to move a project along, I will find a way to responsibly fund that project, even if I personally don’t agree with the plan. Councilors are elected by the people, and there are certain situations where they absolutely should respect the will of the people—authorizing a bond to fund a project proposed by elected officials and approved by the voters is one of them.
I also believe fully that it is the responsibility of the School Committee to propose school policies and educational plans. Councilors are not elected to second guess other Town officials elected by the people to make those decisions.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
UMass, Amherst College and Hampshire College are three of the largest employers in Town and house a large fraction of Amherst’s population. We must be partners, working towards a vibrant, healthy Town.
Our officials need to openly and effectively communicate with each other and work together to achieve mutually beneficial goals, like the UMass off-campus housing office has with the Amherst Police Department. We need to recognize that we should be partners, not competitors, when it comes to cultural attractions, visitors, and services such as parking and public safety.
The Town should take advantage of the wealth of resources that the institutions of higher learning have, particularly the expertise of the professors. We should explore opening up committee appointments to non-residents, as long as the individuals work in Town, which would provide the benefit of permitting more professors to be appointed to committees where their expertise can be leveraged.
At the same time, the Town must advocate for what it needs from these institutions. We need to be clear in our expectations of what makes a good partner. This may include seeking greater PILOT payments for general operations, investments in capital projects where appropriate, or sharing of resources such as parking lots.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
I am committed to open, transparent and inclusive government. I will work to make sure that the new Council adopts policies that promote these goals. I am also committed to a Council that deliberates for the time necessary to understand the issues prior to making decisions. We need a thoughtful Town Council that works to plan for the future through actions that take a comprehensive approach to planning, housing, and capital projects. I will work to do that, while putting a priority on listening to resident concerns, feedback, opinions, and ideas from the beginning of any decision-making process to the end.