Mandi responds to Amherst Indy Blog

The Amherst Indy sent a set of questions to Town Council candidates and will be publishing the responses on their blog. Here are my responses:

Personal Statement: (up to 500 words, describing candidacy and explaining why they are running for office, and outlining their priorities should they be elected) 

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. 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.

Most of my adult life has been spent living in rental housing in towns in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Ohio that have large college student and employee populations. Boulder, CO, has shaped my views on waste hauling, climate action, transportation networks, and rental housing 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.

If re-elected, my top legislative priority would be housing. We must address our housing crisis. 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. Our housing crisis (high tax bills, lack of affordable housing for families, low housing-supply as compared with demand, lack of public-private partnerships, etc.) causes many spill-over detrimental effects in Town. It is why families cannot afford to live here and our schools are suffering from declining enrollment. It perpetuates inequality and hampers the presence of a more diverse Town. It causes town-gown strain.

The Council and Town have begun addressing this crisis. As a Councilor, I voted for the Comprehensive Housing Policy, a smart revision of the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw, allowing Accessory Dwelling Units by-right, and revising the Residential Rental bylaw to require town inspections of all rental units. I have supported funding for purchasing land for and constructing affordable housing projects.

This term, I co-sponsored 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. Options include net-zero and green building requirements for both new buildings and retrofits; guiding new housing growth to areas that minimize the impact on Amherst’s open space; and collaboration and partnerships for student housing in appropriate locations.

Other top priorities are finding 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 moving Amherst towards being a carbon neutral Town by 2050.

Questions For Town Council Candidates (250 word limit for each question)
1. What would be your top three priorities as a member of the town council?

We must address our housing crisis; responsibly fund 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 continue to address the climate crisis.

As a Councilor, I voted to fund the Jones Library and the Elementary School Building projects, the first steps in addressing our outdated infrastructure 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, proposed zoning revisions designed to provide more pathways to homeownership and increase the diversity of housing types in Town, and proposed state legislation that would increase the funds available for affordable housing.

To move forward the remaining building projects, I support 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 urging 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 and closely evaluating yearly capital expenditures to ensure the Town is purchasing electric vehicle technology where available and capable.

2. Should the town pay, or be at risk for, any more than the $15.8 million (+ $9 million in debt service) that has been authorized thus far for the Jones Library demolition and renovation project? And if so, is there an upper limit to what the town should additionally provide?

As a Councilor, I voted to fund the Jones Library Building Project. It is a major step in moving our public buildings off fossil fuels and addressing social and racial inequity. It will provide necessary additional meeting space for the ESL tutoring program, a dedicated teen space, a new Humanities Center, and additional computers for accessing the internet and computer programs. Because of the project’s extraordinary program, we are leveraging the town’s investment by almost two-to-one with additional state, federal, and private funding. In November 2021, 65% of voters approved the project. It is my understanding that a technicality in state law requires the Council to vote an increased borrowing amount, but that the Town’s share will not increase. As with any vote, I will consider the facts carefully, including information on how the Town’s costs for this project compare to the costs to the Town if the project were pivoted to a repair-only project. Original repair-only estimates indicated that repairs alone would cost the town about the same amount as the full expansion, but the Town would lose the climate action and social and racial equity benefits offered by the expansion. I have not seen evidence that a repair-only option has not suffered from the same inflation as the far superior renovation and expansion project we have chosen.

3. Last year saw several proposals sponsored by elected officials to limit public comment at government meetings. What is the best way to guarantee that the public will be heard by their representatives? Do you think the current arrangements for public comment offer too much, just enough, or not enough opportunities for public comment at government meetings?

The Council offers many opportunities for residents to comment on matters and engage with them, many of which did not exist in the prior form of government. For example, Engage Amherst has been used to seek out opinions and keep residents updated. The Community Resources Committee worked with UMass and Amherst Inspection Services to ensure students and rental property owners were aware of its work on residential rental permitting, the rental survey, and the listening sessions it held. Further, the Council holds multiple public forums a year, has an online public comment form for residents to submit comments that are then published, and offers virtual and in-person public comment at all regular meetings.

There is no shortage of ways for members of the public to offer input and comment on matters the Council is considering. In fact, many residents submit identical comments through multiple methods. Let’s be clear: just because the Council does not act in accordance with someone’s request does not mean they haven’t been heard. The Council can sincerely hear and listen to comments without agreeing, especially when views in our Town are so diverse.

Further, there is a delicate balance to be had during Council meetings, which are the only time available for the Council to complete the people’s business. Putting outside parameters on public comment during these meetings is a reasonable means of achieving a balance of offering opportunities for public input and ensuring that the Council’s business can be completed in a timely manner.

4 .Do you think there is an affordable housing crisis in Amherst? What do you think the council ought to be doing with regard to housing policy?

Addressing Amherst’s housing crisis is one of my top priorities. To address the affordability crisis, we need to keep three goals of the Comprehensive Housing Policy at the forefront of discussions: promoting a variety of pathways to homeownership, increasing the supply and variety of housing types; and finding resources to support affordable housing.

As a Councilor, I co-sponsored resolutions supporting state legislation to provide funds for creating, supporting, and developing deed-restricted affordable housing, to levy a fee on transfers of property to support affordable housing, and to seal eviction records so residents can better maintain housing security.

I have also co-sponsored legislation that would allow Amherst to impose a fee on property transfers to provide funds for affordable housing in Amherst. If enacted at the state level, I will sponsor the local bylaw to enable it.

The Master Plan provides a good framework for some of the zoning changes Amherst should consider:

  • guiding new housing growth to areas that minimize the impact on Amherst’s open space;
  • encouraging a greater mix of housing types, sizes, and prices to serve a wider range of income levels and special populations;
  • promoting infill development; and
  • public-private partnerships for student housing.

This term, I co-sponsored legislation designed to provide more pathways to homeownership and increase the diversity of housing types in Town. If re-elected, I will continue to address these Goals.

5 .Should the public have the means to contest a Town Council decision beyond the current voter veto provision of the Town Charter?

Members of the public already have two other means of contesting a Town Council decision. First, under the Charter, they can gather signatures and file a group petition seeking a reconsideration or revote. If enough signatures are gathered, the Council must act on the group petition. Second, as with any representative democracy, every two years, the voters elect the entire Town Council, which is the primary way for voters to ensure that they are electing representatives that act in the best interests of the public. If voters are dissatisfied with decisions the Council has made, they may replace the Councilors at these biennial elections.