Progressive Coalition of Amherst Candidate Questionnaire – Town Council

The mission of Progressive Coalition of Amherst (PCA) is to improve the lives of all community members by supporting progressive and diverse candidates for public office in Amherst. If you are interested in being considered for an endorsement by PCA, please complete this questionnaire.

Both broadly (and with specific examples when possible), please explain your understanding and positions on the following issues, along with your intended actions if elected:

1. Public health, safety, and emergency services

Amherst needs a stronger Public Health and Social Services Department that can attract and keep qualified professionals to oversee the health and well being of our town. Amherst relies too much on contracting out and thus does not have the necessary control over quality of service. The new CRESS initiative is rethinking and reshaping our ideas of what public safety is and how it should be preserved in a more equitable society. The committee is working with our existing excellent police and fire departments to plan for more just and more effective practices that meet the needs of all members of the community.

We must move forward on constructing the fire department building that is needed to hold 21st century machines and equipment and meet the demands of our first responders.

Working with UMass the Town has been able to provide the testing and vaccinations needed to keep COVID at bay. More outreach into all neighborhoods is necessary to raise our vaccination percentage. I strongly support the recent actions of the Health Commission and Schools to require vaccination with the fully approved vaccines for all those who are eligible. Keeping a strong front, using media for rapid communication, and firm action are necessary to see us through this health emergency.

The Town Council has been very active in working to set up goals and actions to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and increase renewable non polluting energy. Hotter weather and more violent storms clearly show that working to limit climate change is necessary for health and life on this planet.

2. Capital spending, borrowing and local property taxes

As a member of the Finance Committee, I can attest that the finances of the Town of Amherst are sound as a result of careful planning and spending, leading to building up of strong reserve funds over the past few years. Thus we will be able to undertake considerable borrowing for major capital projects in the near future at very low interest rates. More must be done to diversify our tax revenues to decrease the impact on local homeowners. However, this should not be used as an excuse to encourage the destruction of the historic and cultural ambience of our small New England college town.

More appropriate mixed use buildings that include the shops and experiences needed in our town, attainable and affordable housing that meets the needs of families, young professionals, and senior citizens, not just college students renting by the bed, are what we need to maintain a proactive relationship with UMass. But we must not allow our downtown to be swallowed up by the university. UMass must build more student housing on its own campus through public/private deals.

We can increase our tax revenues and prevent the over-reliance on property taxes in our neighborhoods by building new mixed use buildings, small apartments, townhouses, duplexes, and attainable and affordable owner occupied homes for a wider group of people¬≠, Town workers, families and seniors. Buildings must be in scale and keeping with our town’s buildings, not look like they belong in an office park in anywhere USA.

3. Operating budget and use of municipal funds

Amherst attracts many high qualified workers, but has trouble retaining some due to salary competition. Because the cost of our housing is high and our salaries not always competitive enough, we need to explore some kind of housing incentive to make Amherst a more desirable place for town workers to put down roots and stay long term. I applaud the conservative spending pattern that has allowed us now to be in a very good borrowing position for our major capital projects, but think that we must from now on put maintenance funds in the budget and do a better job of maintaining the buildings we have.

One of the strong points of Amherst’s use of municipal funds is the very proactive and successful work of the Town in seeking and getting grants to supplement town spending. Good examples are the creation of two new parks in the past few years–Groff Park and Kendrick Park. Our DPW deserves high marks for its creative work on the parks and I look forward to their reclamation and renovation of the North Common. I also look forward to the day we open a new, safe, DPW that supports the workers who serve the public.

However, municipal funds must be also be used for the less glamorous task of fixing our crumbling and dangerous sidewalks. The Town is doing a good job in creating new sidewalks to increase public safety in various parts of town, but the sidewalks in downtown neighborhoods, traversed by many many people, are in great need of repair. All walkers, and especially older walkers, deserve to be able to take a stroll without risking a fall. We talk about a bikeable walkable town, but that cannot be achieved until local roads and sidewalks are repaired.

4. Downtown development and zoning policies

Downtown Amherst is not the UMass campus. Misguided policies assume that all new tax revenue is equal–lT IS NOT. Our town benefits from a good relationship between the University and its students; we appreciate the youth, energy and altruism they bring as well as their patronage of our local restaurants and businesses. But it is in the interests of the students as well of our year-round residents for there to be a small New England town with a rich cultural history like Amherst to complement their life on campus. A strong downtown must be a place for families and seniors as well as students. We need builders who are committed to more than making a quick profit by selling their buildings to out of state corporations. Serving on the CRC {Community Resources Committee) I can tell you the pace of zoning resolutions has been fast and furious; it’s almost impossible to keep up with the changes, exhausting those on the Planning board, Planning Department, CRC and those stalwart community members who attend and comment so intelligently at meetings.
The aim seems to be to replace ALL buildings on North Pleasant Street, not just the old and run down, but also the quintessential quirky and charming ones that remind us of who we have been and still are. Replacing them with uninspired “Lego buildings” crowding the sidewalk that include little open space for use of residents or to be shared by passers by, is destroying the downtown. Using public and private money to build a park and then saying that the builders need not include any open green space in their projects because of that park is a shell game. Where is the housing for families whose children would use the park? Where is the housing, perhaps coops or condos, for seniors who want to downsize and share the ambience of a New England college town?

Downtown builders should take a look at the Mill District where every effort is being made to create community for its residents and other townspeople through a play ground, community space and events of all kinds– art shows, farmers’ markets, holiday celebrations, all bringing people together from all over town.

5. Town government’s focus and priorities

Under this first Amherst Town Council many of the priorities are admirable, but the push to rezone and build in order to get more taxes to help pay for the four major capital projects is distorting its impact. Often this results in a distain for and smug criticism of those people who live in the downtown neighborhoods of Amherst, as if it were a crime to have lawns, trees, and gardens. While touting fighting climate change and supporting renewable energy, these critics ignore the climate soothing effect of this “urban forest” which lowers the temperature in the adjacent more paved over downtown-increasingly important in this time of climate change. The demand is for more and more density in our downtown neighborhood, replacing year round renters and homeowners with transient students. Trial ballots have been sent up for plans to use footnote M to remove land requirements and filling up back yards with not just with one ADU (accessory dwelling unit) but with multiple houses. Or by rulings that create incentives for speculators to buy up small family homes , flip them to rental housing charging students high rents per bed, and reducing their expenses for maintenance. Doing this drives out the long term homeowners, prevents new families from being able to afford to buy a home, exploits students in dangerous housing, and destroys the neighborhoods that are the backbone of Amherst. Who are these residents that some people want to displace? A bunch of rich NIMBY’S? Let’s take a look.

The Town voter book listing of the occupations of some of the residents in Precinct 1O are as follows: engineer, homemaker, physician, bus driver, musician, businessman, repairman, landscaper architect, nurse, music educator, programmer, acupunc urist, clinical social worker, writer, scientist, carpenter, reporter, landlord, grad student, social worker, attorney, physicist, librarian, educator, data scientist, minister, farmer, statistician, planner, M.D., CNM, publisher, sales, financial advisor, research forester, social worker, public relations, consultant, marketing consultant, stamp maker, mechanic, geographer, human services, student advisor, athletic department intern, clergy, guidance councilor, therapist, veterinarian, translator, luthier, jeweler, historian, kitchen worker, researcher, writing coach, psychologist, dean, machinist.

Sprinkled in with these professions are many students, grad students, teachers, professors, and retired people. Isn’t this mix what makes Amherst Amherst? Then why the campaign to drive them from their back yards, gardens, and front porches to be replaced through footnote M with impersonal small and large rental units achieved by filling in the brooks and wetlands, cutting down the trees, and paving it over?

Another problem is the apparent desire to let developers off the hook not only for providing adequate green space for tenants but to also free them from the requirement of providing parking for their tenants in the downtown BG. It’s magical thinking to reduce the required parking spaces because of a fiction that young people no longer need/want cars when our own eyes show us how many cars are crammed into paved backyards of houses where they live. A parking garage, even if paid for private benefactors will not solve the problem of people wanting to park their cars for free (or cheaply) where they live. The parking garage should not be built for the residents in the new downtown apartments, but for town workers and out of towners and visitors here to spend time and money for pleasure and enlightenment.

6. Equity and social justice

I believe in a just and inclusive Amherst where all people of good will feel welcome and valued. The CRESS program that is now being developed promises, working with our strong police department, to create a more balanced approach to public well being and safety.

I strongly support a Reparations Program that addresses past injustices that have suppressed BIPOC homeownership through intimidation and red-lining by finding a way to partially redresses that harm through a program that enables more African Heritage Amherst residents to become first time homeowners.

In addition, I also join with Amherst Media in urging that the Town pursue efforts to increase access to affordable Internet to all the Town neighborhoods.

Although the Town Council plays a small role in supporting and overseeing the public school system, I join with others in wholeheartedly supporting plans for a new, modern, energy efficient, and safe school in the near future. I also urge the school committee to use all their creativity in keeping the schools open safely during COVID to prevent further harm to our young people.

The Jones Library when renovated and enlarged will be able to better serve all people in Amherst by continuing to provide free internet, safe spaces for children and teens to explore books and media, ESL tutoring for those working on their English, space for public meetings, and a quiet and bright reading room where all can read, do research and work on their own projects. The Library is the major cultural and educational institution open to all the people of Amherst and surrounding communities.

I look forward to the time when the Civil war stones are permanently placed in the protected ground floor public meeting room of the Jones Library where all can see them.

7. Housing and affordability

The Town of Amherst must continue to keep adding attainable and affordable housing to help meet the housing shortage and allow people who want to live in Amherst to do so. However, we can never meet the demand for student housing resulting from UMass’ not providing dorms for thousands of its students. We must make it clear that the Town of Amherst is not about to become part of the campus of the University, but will maintain its independence. The University must play a much much bigger role in providing safe and supervised housing for its students and providing more affordable and suitable housing for its graduate student families on limited income. We must make a major change in providing attainable home ownership opportunities for a wider group of people to create strong families and a strong town. We need to explore the development of more coops and condos, owner occupied duplexes, and small town houses. I am proud of being one of the proponents of lnclusionary Zoning and to have joined with others to help bring this to a successful vote in the Town Council.

8. What do you see as the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Town Council and its procedures?

The simple answer to the question about a weakness of the Town Council is Factionalism. When I can predict a vote with a high degree of accuracy even before the discussion has taken place, that means that often discussion is just a public gesture, not a true information seeking with open minds. You may have noticed, that with those of us who are called independents, you can never be quite sure just how each individual will vote on individual items in the end. We each have our individual lenses through which we view the issues.

Group Think often leads to bad decision making because it prevents deep inquiry. Too strong a desire for consensus, often leads to bad decisions.

I’ll reserve comment on the strengths of the Town Council when I see if we survive the Zoning changes. The wrong decisions here will alter the Town irrevocably for the worse. I fear the will to achieve an agenda at all cost, the will to power, may succeed.

9. What would be your top priorities if elected? What steps would you take to accomplish your goals?

It is important to preserve the character and charm of our town while expanding attainable and affordable housing choices to increase diverse neighborhoods for young people, families, and seniors by increasing the number of owner occupied duplexes and townhouses. My top priority is to spark the creation of a “garden city” complex of one, two and three family homes with a mix of rental units with small private spaces and large shared green spaces and commons fostering a healthy inclusive community. This could be possible with land donated by one of the Town’s major educational institutions and the use of Federal and state money to keeps the costs attainable and affordable at many levels. I am championing this form of housing, sadly lacking in Amherst, but successfully created in the 1920’s and still going strong in Sunnyside Gardens in Long Island City Queens, NYC where we lived as renters, then as first time homeowners for 16 years, because it would strengthen Amherst. The creation of attainable and affordable housing for Town workers, down sizing seniors, and new families desperate to be able to become homeowners is essential to maintain the vitality of our town and schools and to allow families the economic benefit of home ownership.

Another top priority is to increase the support and accessibility of the arts in downtown
Amherst. Much as I look forward to the Renovated Jones Library and the promise of more space for children and teens, and a wonderfully enlarged reading room with skylights on the second floor, we still need more public spaces for people to gather to perform and enjoy music and theatre. We could have an incredible synergy with the Renovated Jones Library, our wonderful Amherst Cinema, the planned new Drake Live Music and Performance Venue, and the shopping/experience hub envisioned for Amherst Works. We should explore putting the possible privately funded parking garage on Amity Street-where all can find it– on the town lot enlarged by some arrangement with the Peoples Bank to include part of their lot.

This is a much more visible and accessible location for a garage than the CVS lot–one that an out of towner visiting Amherst could find. Amherst needs to be the place people want to come for fun, food, and culture.

10. Describe an effort to bring about change in which you played a major role, including the overall goal, the process, and outcome.

In Sunnyside Gardens I helped stop the paving over of front yards and the destruction of the common courtyards by working with the community and the NYC Planning Board to create the Planned Community Preservation District ( more recently changed into a historic district).

The process was to educate, organize, and publicize our goals widely through the press, take swift neighborhood action, work with allies in the City government, and speak up at hearings. [A similar efforts in Precinct 10 in Town Meeting time resulted in the creation of rental registration process through the Town of Amherst which has stopped, or at least slowed down the exploitive conversion of family houses into multi student houses which often has led to rapid deterioration and neglect of the housing stock by the owners and loud and raucous “party houses.” This happened before my active involvement in Amherst Town politics, but it serves as a model and reminder of what this community can do].

Here in Amherst, I have been attempting to follow and influence the myriad of new zoning proposals by active membership of CRC (Community Resources Committee), attending meetings of the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Design Review Board, and the Affordable Housing Trust meetings when possible. Just keeping up with the changes and initiatives seems to be a full time job! I have tried to slow down the pace of zoning changes by being one of the sponsors of the Temporary Moratorium on Building Permits on Construction of Residential Buildings. This bought us a little time, but not enough, as the measures under discussion change, often in unpredictable directions, with every meeting.

I work to try to preserve the civil, green, and community minded neighborhoods of District 3 by attending local events, having frequent communication with many many individuals who alert me to what is happening in the neighborhood, making swift connection with the Town Manager and relevant Department Heads, maintaining open communication with the residents, and following up as necessary. My frequent newsletters–Pamograms –discuss local topics.

In doing the work of a local Town Councilor, I rely on the many talented hardworking and
creative people in my District to inform and guide me, and when required, I speak up and fight for their rights. Can we save this neighborhood from being densified to death?

The answer is not in yet, but the sounds of children at play in the houses around my back yard, and yes, the quiet laughter, and sometimes louder party sounds from the large house of students on my left, suggest that if we hold firm, we will endure.