Mandi Responds to the Amherst Forward Candidate Questionnaire

As with previous years, I will be posting my responses to any candidate questionnaires I receive and respond to. The first one up this campaign season is the Amherst Forward questionnaire.

Role. Amherst has a 13-person Town Council that hires and works with a professional Town Manager (and, through the Manager, Town staff). What do you see as the role of a Town Councilor in this system? 

Individually, each Councilor has a limited role in hiring and working with the Town Manager. Collectively, the Council oversees the Manager through setting Policy Goals and Budget Guidelines. The Policy Goals focus staff work priorities. The Budget Guidelines set the Council’s parameters for the Manager’s proposed budget (which necessarily includes parameters for the Library, Elementary School, and Regional School Budgets, too). Each Councilor should contribute meaningfully to the drafting, revising, and adopting of these documents, and should ensure that the Budget Guidelines properly prioritize the Council Policy Goals.

In addition, as a legislator, it is appropriate and necessary for Councilors to propose legislation that will benefit the Town. This includes legislation that addresses gaps in Town services (waste hauling), solves problems that have cropped up in neighborhoods (rental registration and nuisance bylaw), or governs staff actions (surveillance technology).

Relevant experience. (Incumbent) In addition to serving on the Council/as a School Committee member, what other experiences – including lived, professional, civic, and volunteer – shape your approach to serving on the Council/School Committee?

In addition to the nearly five years of experience I have as a Town Councilor, my professional, civic, volunteer, and lived experiences have all contributed to my governing approach.

Most of my adult life has been spent living in rental housing in Amherst and Somerville, MA, Boulder, CO, and Cleveland Heights, OH, all towns that have large college student and employee populations. Boulder has shaped my views on waste hauling, climate action, transportation networks, and rental housing programs. Having experienced renting housing in these different college and college-adjacent towns allows me to offer different perspectives and evaluate programs.

Professionally, four years as a litigator required finding compromises between parties to settle matters to the mutual agreement of all, where each party believed the outcome beneficial to them. That experience continues to guide my work on the Council. I know being a successful Councilor requires compromise, working with others you don’t always agree with, and putting aside differences to get things done.

My volunteer service as a Court Appointed Special Advocate shapes how I work with, think about, and advocate for those individuals who are generally left out of government deliberations.  The training I received in recognizing and navigating cultural differences in a system that isn’t always tolerant has allowed me to ask the right questions and consider the needs of all, not just those who know how to navigate the system.

Civically, my service on the Amherst Charter Commission shaped how I approach transparency in government. I oversaw publishing all written public comments on the Charter Commission webpage, as well as all drafts of the charter. In addition, I sent a regular newsletter out about the Commission’s work to subscribers and was the administrator of the Commission’s Facebook page. I saw how outreach and transparency results in better outcomes.

Collaborative decision-making. Individual Councilors represent their constituents in decision-making, but to be effective, they need to collaborate to get to a majority. Give an example of when you had to collaborate with others to solve a problem. What lessons learned would you apply as a Town Councilor (or have you applied if you currently serve as a Town Councilor)?

Effective collaboration requires open minds, thorough discussion, and compromise from both sides. Groups cannot effectively collaborate if people believe themselves in a battle to be won. Effective collaboration requires identifying the final goal and always remembering that everyone is working towards that goal. Two examples of effective collaboration come to mind.

This term, the Community Resources Committee, which I chair, has focused on addressing rental housing and quality of life issues in Town by working to revise the Residential Rental and Nuisance House bylaws. The Committee members began the process with different opinions on both the cause of the problems and the appropriate and necessary solutions. Through 16 months of conversation, Committee members were able to fully discuss their views, propose solutions, and work together to reach a recommendation that received unanimous support. We worked through our differences in what each of us thought the bylaw should address, how to enforce it, and what issues should be considered violations. Give and take from all was necessary. As the Committee continues discussions for revising the Nuisance House bylaw, we have approached the issue from different perspectives. We need to be open to ideas, not judgmental of others’ perspectives or views, and respectful of our work. It is important to keep in mind that we all have the same goal in mind – ensuring that all residents can live respectfully, peacefully, and cooperatively in their neighborhoods.

Another example is my collaboration with Councilors Miller and Bahl-Milne on the Resolution Concerning the Safety of the Amherst Pelham Regional High School Athletic Complex. The resolution originally presented to the Council was not something I could support. When it was delayed to a future meeting, Councilor Bahl-Milne approached me for advice and also approached sponsor Councilor Miller about revising it. To her credit, Councilor Miller was willing to work with us. We each approached the collaboration to revise the resolution with an open mind and a final goal of a resolution all of us could support. We considered each other’s proposed changes carefully, finding places where we could compromise on the language to reach agreement. In the end, the revised resolution passed the Council with 10 votes in support.

Key town needs. What do you see as the top 3 key areas the Town needs to make progress in? How would you plan to help progress happen in those areas?

We must address our housing crisis. We must find a fiscally responsible means of funding the remaining two major capital projects amidst rising construction costs and interest rates, and a desire to have all projects completed as soon as possible. And we must continue to address climate change.

The good news is that the Council and Town have begun to address them head on. As a Councilor, I voted to fund the Jones Library and the Elementary School Building projects, the first steps in addressing the four large capital projects in Town in a fiscally responsible manner and a major step in moving our public buildings off fossil fuels. I also voted for a smart revision of the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw, supported allowing Accessory Dwelling Units by-right, and proposed a series of zoning bylaw revisions designed to create more opportunities for building duplexes, triplexes, town houses and infill development.

Our housing is too expensive for many residents and potential residents to afford without being burdened. And we do not provide the variety of housing types that our residents desire. Councilor De Angelis and I proposed a set of zoning revisions designed to provide more pathways to homeownership and increase the diversity of housing types in Town. Unfortunately, we needed to withdraw the proposal, but if re-elected, I plan to propose new legislation that learns from the legislative efforts and continues to address the Goals of the Comprehensive Housing Policy.

The Council also needs to identify surplus property that can be used for affordable housing, support funding affordable housing developments, monitor and provide funding for the development of the old VFW site for shelter opportunities, and advocate for passage of state legislation I co-sponsored with Councilor Devlin-Gauthier to impose a property transfer fee to help fund affordable housing development.

To move forward the remaining building projects, the Finance Director has presented the Council with a funding plan that includes use of the Town’s Capital Stabilization Fund for the Fire Station; sound fiscal management that results in large borrowing capacity and low borrowing costs; and spending limits on projects that result in suitable buildings. I will continue to support this funding plan and urge the Manager to prioritize finding a location for the DPW building and consider alternate locations for the Fire Station, so that we can move forward without waiting for the DPW project to be complete.

On climate action, the Council must continue prioritizing reducing carbon emissions by electrifying Amherst’s buildings and vehicle fleet. It must continue to support the Jones Library Expansion and Renovation Project, which leverages state and municipal funds to remove fossil fuel use from a major public building. And it must continue closely evaluating yearly capital expenditures to ensure the Town is purchasing electric vehicle technology where available and capable for its intended purposes.

I was the primary drafter and co-sponsor of a Resolution in support of state legislation that would provide the opportunity for Amherst to receive grants from the state to retrofit existing housing stock to address climate sustainability and resiliency, by providing additional state and municipal funds to help move our housing stock onto more efficient and carbon neutral systems. The Council must continue to advocate for bills such as these at the state house.

The Council can also support the Manager’s proposed use of American Rescue Plan funds for projects that would help meet our Climate Action Goals. This includes supporting the installation of a solar canopy on the Amherst Regional High School parking lots.

The Council can also find ways to promote and/or fund retrofitting for heat pumps existing housing stock in multi-unit buildings, but in doing so, we need to ensure that if money is spent in this manner, the utility bill savings from such conversions are proportionately passed on to the tenants, not just used to increase the profits of the owners.

Council accomplishments. What do you see as the biggest accomplishments of the Council in this term? This can include the way the Council functioned, its governance, and/or specific initiatives or needs the Council moved forward. For incumbents, what was your role in that success?

The Council’s most meaningful accomplishments this term are the revision of the Residential Rental bylaw (out of committee, but awaiting a Council vote) and funding the Elementary School Building Project. Voting for funding the Elementary School Building project was necessary for better learning and working environments in the schools, reducing the use of fossil fuels in Town to help meet our Climate Action Goals, and providing a hub in East Amherst for community activities. The Community Resources Committee’s proposed revisions to the Residential Rental bylaw, if successful at the Council, will drastically improve the rental housing conditions in Amherst by requiring Town inspection prior to renting a dwelling. Through the Committee’s outreach to off-campus college students, property owners and neighborhood residents, it was able to address both property owner concerns of regulatory overreach and tenant concerns of unsafe and unhealthy rental housing.

Council shortcomings. Where did the Council fall short this term? How do you think it could have done better?  This can include the way the Council functions, its governance, and/or specific initiatives.

The Council fell short this term in addressing the housing crisis. For housing, the Council talks a lot about the need for more attainable housing in Amherst. However, it tends to leave the specifics up to others, including showing a willingness to wait for other’s proposals, instead of actively proposing solutions. The Council needs to find better ways to deliberate on these issues, choose steps to take, and then ensure those steps are taken. Right now, it struggles choosing steps to take because of the wide variety of options available, the diverse views on which options are acceptable or most effective, and still learning how to navigate these conversations within a 13-member body.

Motivation to serve.  In 500 characters or less, what is your biggest motivation to serve as a Town Councilor/on the School Committee?

I believe community service is important. I am motivated to serve on the Council because I want to help improve Amherst. I am running for re-election because I have enjoyed the challenge of governing in Amherst and have more I want to accomplish. Amherst is a great Town, but there are always things that can be improved. As a legislator, I will propose legislation to address the residents’ needs and ensure that the community’s priorities remain at the forefront of municipal decision-making.