The Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) contacted Town Council candidates indicating it wanted to “publicly endorse candidates whose platforms and goals…best meet the needs of our students, families, community, schools and staff.” In order to do so, they asked candidates to complete a survey. I have sent the following responses to the APEA.
Town and School Finances:
- Recently the school budget was cut by a million dollars, and the Elementary Tech and Art positions were cut from full time to .8. As you know great schools are important to our community. What would you do to support our schools?
- Do you support the Fair Share amendment?
- What changes or distributions would you make to the current town budget?
- In comparison to Massachusetts towns with similar socio-economic status and high educational ratings, what do you consider a Living Wage in Amherst?
Four questions relate to my position on school and town finances. First, I am seeking election to the Town Council. As a Councilor, I am tasked with voting an overall dollar amount to allocate to the Amherst Public Schools for operations and another overall dollar amount to allocate to the Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools for operations. I also vote on the assessment method for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools and separate capital requests for the Amherst Public Schools. For operating budgets, I believe my role is to allocate a sufficient amount of funding that permits the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee to provide a high-quality education for the students enrolled in each of the Districts. It is the School Committee’s job to ensure that the funding provided is allocated appropriately to achieve this goal.
In more general terms, budgeting is about tradeoffs. There are many constraints on our budgets – including legal limits to how much we can raise taxes, the residents’ desire for many, many services, and the need to use these funds for both our operating needs and our capital needs.
The annual operating budget to the Town must be for the benefit of all residents. These municipal funds are intended to allow the Town to maintain high-quality services that its residents both need and want. Sometimes we focus too much on “maintaining level services” and not enough on what the trade-off of starting with that focus means, which is that nearly all of the increase in revenue each year is subsumed by increased salaries, thereby rarely allowing enough money to begin new programs or hire new people. We should consider using zero-based budgeting every few years. This is an approach to budgeting that involves developing a new budget from scratch (i.e., starting from “zero”), versus starting with the previous year’s budget and adjusting it as needed. This would allow the Town to assess what funding is actually necessary to provide suitable services, contrasted with a budget that would provide above adequate or below adequate services. If done right, the Town, the Council, and the Manager would be able to finally discuss the funding of each department intelligently, instead of always starting from a “level-services” outlook, without regard to whether “level-services” is actually what we want or need for each program, and then determine appropriate funding levels based on those conversations.
In addition, we cannot continue to ignore the detrimental effect on our municipal finances that the large swaths of non-taxable land have. This is not just a problem created by the presence of three institutions of higher learning in our Town. It was also created by our own municipal government purchasing so much land in Town for open space, agricultural preservation, and recreation. We have to at least acknowledge that part of our inability to raise enough operating money is of our own doing and the choices we have made in constraining land use. I support diversifying the tax base by growing businesses, especially innovation hubs, like the Eruptor Lab.
Since the non-taxable land owned by the three institutions of higher learning does contribute to this issue, as a Council, we must prioritize the negotiation of strategic partnership agreements with these institutions, using it as one of the ways we evaluate the Manager’s performance. If given the opportunity to influence these agreements, I would like to see:
- Fair compensation for ambulance and fire services provided to each of the campuses, and in particular the UMass campus;
- Fair compensation for K-12 education services provided to students living in tax-exempt housing;
- Cooperation and collaboration between police departments, or if an institution doesn’t have its own police force, fair compensation for the public safety services provided to the institution;
- Cooperation agreements for public works services, such as public street and sidewalk paving and clearing;
- Payments equal to the occupancy fee that would be imposed under the local bylaw if Hotel UMass were privately owned and operated; and
- Agreements regarding evening and weekend use of institutional parking lots by residents.
- What actions should the town council take to work toward building an anti-racist community?
- In what specific ways will you build racial equity for residents in Amherst?
- Are you willing to participate in anti-racism training within your first 6 months?
Three questions relate to my positions on racial equity in Amherst. In my first term on the Council, I have continually promoted equity and social justice. I co-sponsored with Councilors De Angelis and Schoen the Wage and Tip Theft Bylaw and the Responsible Employer and Tax Relief Agreement Bylaw, successfully enacting important wage protections for workers and tax-supported projects in Amherst.
I voted to support the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, which will provide necessary additional meeting space for the ESL tutoring program, a dedicated teen space, and additional computers for accessing the internet and computer programs. All of these additional benefits support equity and social justice, especially for those that are new in town, whose primary language is not English, who do not have the funds to hang out after school in a business, and who do not have access to broadband, or even a computer, in their home.
With the rise of the use of facial recognition technology and the knowledge that the technology disproportionately mis-identifies non-white individuals, I co-sponsored with Councilor De Angelis a Surveillance Technology Oversight and Facial Recognition Ban bylaw. When the Commonwealth enacted its own ban on the use of facial recognition technology, we declared success on that portion of our legislation and continue to pursue the surveillance technology oversight portion of the bylaw. This legislation would require transparency from the Town on the use of all technology that surveils the public, so that residents would finally know what is in use by the Town and how the Town uses the data gleaned from the technology. Since this technology has the potential to be mis-used on various populations, it is an important means of combating inequity in our Town.
I also co-sponsored the Resolution in Support of CRESS and the Resolution in Support of H.R. 40 / S. 40 Bills in Congress (national reparations bills). I have been a consistent supporter of re-evaluating the meaning of community safety and how the Town approaches community safety.
In addition, an important part of equity and social justice is climate justice. In the past three years, I have repeatedly supported projects that will move Amherst towards a more sustainable future. I voted to adopt aggressive Climate Action Goals, and voted in support of the Jones Library renovation and expansion project that will eliminate on-site fossil fuels in one of Amherst’s largest public buildings. Finally, in 2021, I have attended multiple anti-racism training programs.
- What is your view on the role of law enforcement in our community?
- What if any policing reform actions do you feel are necessary for the safety of the entire community, including individuals with mental disabilities and people of color?
Two questions relate to community safety. Keeping every resident in Amherst safe is one of the primary roles of municipal government. In light of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the nationwide demand to reform the provision of safety services, especially by police departments, Amherst is re-evaluating what is means to provide safety services, both by the Police Department and others.
As a Councilor, I supported the steps taken to change the way the Town ensures the safety of its residents. I support the creation of the CRESS program. As a Town, we need to do better by our residents who are experiencing crisis situations and residents who do not want armed officers responding to non-violent, non-criminal situations, especially our BIPOC residents. I support the adequate funding of the CRESS program over at least 18 months (fiscal years 2022 and 2023). It will ensure that the Town has sufficient data and information to determine how many calls can be appropriately transitioned away from police response and into CRESS response, thereby determining an appropriate level of armed policing into the future. It is essential to the successful transformation of what community safety means in Amherst.
However, community safety isn’t only about the provision of police and mental health services. It also includes fire and EMT services. Our fire department is stretched to a breaking point due to inadequate staffing. We must find a way to add 10 new fire department personnel over the next 5 years. That is the number of additional fire personnel our Chief states we need just to ensure adequate staffing on a daily basis without unduly burdening current staff with forced additional shifts.
School Committee Candidate Specific Questions:
- The School Committee supervises the superintendent. If elected to serve on the SC, how will you communicate to families and staff about the goals for the budget and allocation of resources to meet these goals?
- How do you envision the school committee and APEA building a collaborative relationship to improve the quality of our schools?
- How will you work to develop a positive working relationship with the APEA?
- What three goals will you pursue to help the Amherst Schools in the coming academic year?
Four questions appear to be specifically addressed to candidates seeking election to the School Committee. I am not seeking election to the School Committee. Therefore, I am not responding to them.
- You’re going to have to make hard decisions in your position to support your constituents. Tell us about a time when you took an unpopular stance in a leadership role and how you dealt with the outcome.
Since becoming a Councilor, there have been votes 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.
One set of examples are the 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.
- What concerns do you have for low income families and how will you seek to address these concerns?
My biggest concern is the availability of affordable housing for residents. Amherst has a housing crisis. We do not have enough housing available for those who want to live here. Our housing, both rental prices and purchase prices, is too expensive for a large swath of our residents or potential residents to be able to afford without being burdened. And we do not provide the variety of housing types that our residents desire. The Council has begun addressing this crisis by adopting a Comprehensive Housing Policy. The Goals, which I support, are as follows:
- Goal I: Promote Greater Pathways to Homeownership and Integrated Communities through Increased Supply of a Diversity of Housing Types
- Goal II: Increase the Supply and Variety of Affordable and Market Rate Rental Housing
- Goal III: Create, Update, and Maintain Safe, Secure, and Environmentally Healthy Housing
- Goal IV: Address Climate Sustainability and Resiliency of Housing Stock, Location, and Construction
- Goal V: Align and Leverage Municipal Funding and Other Resources to Support Affordable Housing
If re-elected, I intend to propose legislation and other measures that will address each of these Goals.
In fact, I have already done so. I was the primary drafter and co-sponsor of the Resolution in Support of S. 868, An Act Empowering Cities and Towns to Impose a Fee on Certain Real Estate Transactions to Support Affordable Housing, and S. 1853, An Act Providing for Climate Change Adaptation Infrastructure and Affordable Housing Investments in the Commonwealth. This legislation, if enacted, will provide funds to our Affordable Housing Trust for their work in creating, supporting, and developing deed-restricted affordable housing, both rented and owned, in Amherst (Goal V). It will also provide the opportunity for Amherst to receive grants from the state to retrofit existing housing stock to address climate sustainability and resiliency (Goal IV). I also was an original sponsor of the Resolution in Support of Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases and Eviction Sealing to Promote Housing Opportunity and Mobility. This legislation would directly address Goals I, II, and III, allowing people to maintain security in the homes they are in and permitting them greater opportunity to obtain alternate housing.
In addition, in the past three years,I voted to support Valley CDC’s 132 Northampton Road studio apartment project, purchase land on Belchertown Road for more affordable housing, and update our Inclusionary Zoning bylaw to require all projects adding 10 or more units to include affordable housing.
Finally, I support many zoning initiatives that are intended to help with housing in Amherst, particularly revisions to the Accessory Dwelling Unit bylaw, the creation of a bylaw for 3-family dwellings so they are not lumped in with apartments, and revising the zoning bylaw to allow duplexes and triplexes by-right to the same extent that single-family homes are allowed by-right. I also support stricter inspection requirements for obtaining a rental registration permit in Amherst.
- How will you reach out to your constituents, particularly those who are underrepresented in town leadership?
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.