Hanneke Answers Amherst Forward’s Candidate Questionnaire

Amherst Forward has asked candidates to answer a questionnaire. Below are my long-form responses to the questions. I submitted shortened responses to comply with their request to limit my answers to 300 words.

  1. What would you say are the biggest challenges Amherst faces?

Amherst faces some big challenges. The good news is that the new form of government has begun to address them head on. Yet,  we must keep moving forward on these initiatives. We have a housing crisis that must be addressed (high taxes, lack of affordable housing for families, low housing-supply as compared with demand, public-private partnerships, etc.). We must find 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. And we must re-assess our operating budget and which services we want to provide and at what levels, including a focus on community safety.

 As a Councilor, I voted to fund the renovation and expansion of the Jones Library, the first step in addressing both the four large capital projects in Town in a fiscally responsible manner and a major step in moving our largest public buildings off of fossil fuels. I also voted for a smart revision of the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw, and, in the Community Resources Committee, have voted to support adoption of allowing Accessory Dwelling Units by-right, and a re-definition of mixed-use buildings to help ensure our business districts have public facing businesses at street-level. I have been instrumental in drafting and presenting to the Council for adoption, a Comprehensive Housing Policy that will enable Town staff, boards, committees, and the Council to evaluate measures, spending proposals, and projects in a way that best addresses our housing crisis. Finally, I have voted to support a re-definition of the meaning of community and public safety by supporting the creation of the Community Response for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program, which will result in more appropriate responses to emergency calls from our residents. I am proud to have served on a Council that has begun thoughtfully addressing these challenges and look forward to continuing moving forward on them.

2. What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Town Council that would help it work through these challenges constructively and effectively?

As a Councilor-at-Large on the Town Council, I was able to co-sponsor legislation and other measures with 10 of my 12 fellow Councilors. I have shown my ability to work with people who have different viewpoints in order to accomplish necessary legislative action to protect residents and use Town funds wisely. 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, helped me as I collaborated with my fellow Councilors to respectfully and effectively reach solutions to planning, housing, and funding capital projects. My list of accomplishments over the last term demonstrates this.

 As chair of two different Council committees, I have been able to effectively guide discussions and deliberations to respond to the referrals made to the committees by the Council. I have learned to effectively manage meeting time to accomplish goals, hold discussions, and respect the time of both staff and councilors.

My experience as Vice-Chair of the Charter Commission has been and will continue to be extremely valuable as the Town Council works on zoning, capital projects, racial justice, and community safety measures.

3. Have you ever served on an elected board or committee in Amherst and if so, what were 3 of your most challenging votes?

I have served in three elected positions in Amherst. I was a Town Meeting Member for 7 years. I was elected to the Amherst Charter Commission, a body of 9 members elected to draft a governing document for Amherst. And I am currently a Councilor-at-Large on the inaugural Town Council.

There are votes that I have taken that have had high resident interest and involvement, as well as large stakes for the Town on the outcome, but that after doing my homework, I did not struggle with my decision on whether to vote “Yes” or “No”, as the decision seemed clear to me. Yet these votes might be seen as “challenging” because they received high public recognition or had large consequences for the Town. Then there are the votes that have been about lesser known issues that left me struggling to decide which way to vote because the choice was not clear, both options supported my values and goals, or the communications received from the public differed substantially from my opinions or what I perceived to be the position of the residents, if we were to take a true poll, and I needed to determine what of all of these competing matters should take precedence.

If I have to choose three, I would choose a mix:

First, the very first appointments the Town Council made to the Planning Board. There was a lot of disagreement on whether to appoint a specific individual. From my perspective, the decision was to vote to appoint an individual who disagrees with the planning and zoning vision I espoused during my campaign and on which I was elected, but who — because of those views — would bring necessary viewpoint diversity to the Board, which was also an issue I ran on and what I believe is extremely important for Boards to operate effectively. In the end, I voted to appoint the person with a different vision for planning and zoning because I believe viewpoint diversity promotes better decisions-making, especially when the vision I was elected to represent is already has majority representation on the board.

Second, votes surrounding the public safety budget in 2020 and 2021. The Council was receiving large amounts of public comment urging us to substantially cut the police budget. We were receiving almost no public comment supporting maintaining the police budget or even reducing the budget by a minimal amount. Yet, as a Town Councilor, I believed (and still do believe) that the general public’s positions were not fully reflected in the comments we received, that I had an obligation to the Town’s residents to ensure adequate public safety for all, and that substantially cutting a police budget without having any alternative in place and ready to be deployed would irreparably harm not only public safety in the short term, but also in the long term. My knowledge of municipal finance and the rules surrounding the Council’s ability to modify the Manager’s budget also led me to favor leaving money in the budget so that throughout the year it would be available to be moved between departments. In the end, in 2020 I voted to maintain a level-funded police budget, while also ensuring that open positions would not be filled and a working group would be formed to propose public safety alternatives to policing. I believed this compromise would leave us in the best position to improve public safety for all residents over the coming years. In 2021, with a plan proposed, I voted to again basically level fund the police budget, but also to instruct the manager to find a way to fund a robust implementation of the CRESS program, to ensure that program would have the resources to succeed, but that as implementation is started, public safety in Amherst is not compromised.

Third, a vote I took on the Charter Commission to determine the form of government that would ultimately be proposed by the full commission. The Charter Commission was very much split regarding the best form of government for the Town. There was a slim majority for a Council form of government as the best legislative body for Amherst. Within that slim majority, the members were split on whether they believed a mayor or a manager was the best executive for the Town. Of those that believed Town Meeting continued to be the best form of government, if going to a council, most preferred a Manager system. I believed a Mayor would be best for Amherst. At one point, a Mayor-Manager-Council system was being drafted.  I was tasked with working within that system to assign the duties that the mayor and the manager would have, based on the discussions from prior meetings.  After making a proposal and discussing the document with the Commissioners at an open meeting, I realized that such a system would not be in the best interests of Amherst and would be extremely difficult to implement and govern under, even though it could likely receive both a majority vote of commissioners and a majority vote of the residents. I was left with a choice to pursue a system that I believed was deeply flawed as drafted in order to have a mayor (the executive I preferred), or to forego a mayor in order to be able to propose a charter that I felt was both implementable and governable. I voted for the implementable and governable charter (Council-Manager, what we have now). At times, a compromise is better for the community than standing your ground just because you can.

4. What steps would you take to engage low-income residents, renters, residents of color, and other underrepresented voices?

As a Charter Commissioner, I helped organize the many forums the Commission held throughout the entire process. A number of us 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 also 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 maintained the website with its vast collection of information.

As a Councilor, along with Councilor Bahl-Milne, the Town Manager, and the Communications Director, I have been working with a UMass research group that helps local governments engage residents in new ways, focusing on those who have not engaged in the past. I am hopeful that their research and work in engaging Amherst residents in decision making processes through surveys and online communities will provide the Town and Council with the tool necessary to expand engagement throughout the community and especially with underrepresented voices.

Going forward, I will continue working with my fellow Councilors to recruit and encourage residents of all background to participate in and engage with Town government. Additional methods I would start with include (1) 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; (2) holding regular public forums; and (3) 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.

5. “One Town, One Plan” has been in development and in public discussion for over a decade. The plan is designed to meet the town’s most pressing infrastructure needs in a financially responsible way, and prioritizes the following four projects equally: the Jones Public Library Renovation & Expansion, the Elementary School Building Project, the Department of Public Works Building, and the South Amherst Fire Station. Do you support this plan? Why or why not?

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 them should be delayed further just to avoid an override. Yet, we must attempt to fund as many as possible within the Town’s borrowing capabilities in order to avoid as many debt exclusion overrides as possible.

This year, the Finance Director presented the Council with a plan to fund all four within a short period of time. That plan includes: use of the Town’s rainy-day funds (put away for such a purpose); sound fiscal management that results in large borrowing capacity and low borrowing costs; wise use of state building grants (for schools and libraries); spending limits on projects that result in suitable buildings; and a request to the taxpayers for tax increases to pay for the bond of only one project.

I am proud to support the renovation and expansion of the Jones Library, having voted “yes” to authorize acceptance of the MBLC grant and borrowing of funds within the confines of our yearly Capital budget. You can read my statement at the time of the vote here.

Our students deserve updated, safe, and healthy schools that promote learning instead of hindering it. I eagerly await the Manager’s proposal for a site for a new DPW building. Both our Fire Department and DPW employees are working in buildings that do not allow them to work to their best potential. I hope that in the next two years the Town Council will be able to vote to move both of these projects forward.

6. As a member of the Town Council, how would you engage and communicate with your constituents, including those who have not previously been active in town politics? *

As a Charter Commissioner, I helped organize the many forums the Commission held throughout the entire process. A number of us 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 also 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 maintained the website with its vast collection of information.

As a Councilor, along with Councilor Bahl-Milne, the Town Manager, and the Communications Director, I have been working with a UMass research group that helps local governments engage residents in new ways, focusing on those who have not engaged in the past. I am hopeful that their research and work in engaging Amherst residents in decision making processes through surveys and online communities will provide the Town and Council with the tool necessary to expand engagement throughout the community and especially with underrepresented voices.

Going forward, I will continue working with my fellow Councilors to recruit and encourage residents of all background to participate in and engage with Town government. Additional methods I would start with include (1) 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; (2) holding regular public forums; and (3) 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.

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