Friday, March 27, 2015

Should Everyone Get A Trophy?

Today's Gazette above the fold story (at least they used a question mark)

Well I guess now I know why the Gazette sent a photographer (but not a reporter) to the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting on Tuesday: Today's whiny front page soap opera piece about the supposed poisoned political climate in town.

Had the reporter attended the Regional School Committee meeting readers could have been informed about the one-hour discussion that took place concerning expanded Regionalization -- the most  important educational decision facing the four towns in more than a generation.

All the more important for print coverage since Amherst Media, although contractually obligated to, failed to cover it (too busy covering the town sponsored 3rd annual parking forum I suppose).

And where was the Gazette when former School Committee member Catherine Sanderson was being raked over the coals five years ago for telling it like it is on her blog?

The establishment went so far as to file a letter of complaint with the District Attorney about her outspokenness -- a clear violation of the First Amendment.   Thus sending the unmistakable message that if you question authority, you will be crushed.

Seemingly every year someone dies horribly while hiking in the White Mountains because they choose to set off ill-prepared for the journey.

Amherst politics is not a casual stroll along the bike path, but neither is it an ascent up Mt. Washington.

I would not have it any other way.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back In The Race Again?

Do supporters really need to bring the card in the polling booth?


Lawrence O'Brien says if elected he will not serve.  (See his comment/statement 4:39 PM)

Original Post 11:00 AM

So apparently Lawrence O'Brien changed his mind about changing his mind over the March 31 School Committee election.

 Lawrence O'Brien (right) is current member School Committee

First he was in, having collected the requisite 50 signatures of registered voters, then suddenly within 48 hours of handing in his nomination papers he withdrew within time to have his name NOT appear on the March 31 ballot.

But now he's back in. Joining fellow write-in candidate Victor Nunez-Ortiz and the two old fashioned candidates -- Vira Douangmany and Phoebe Hazzard -- who did things the normal way by collecting 50 signatures prior to the deadline so their names appear on the official ballot.

Well maybe Ms. Hazzard not so much"normal."

Unlike Amherst Housing Authority candidate Emilie Hamilton whose name does appear on the ballot but she has publicly stated she quit because AHA meetings are "too contentious."

Sarah Auerbach was Katherine Appy's campaign manager last year

Geeze, and to think I once considered this election boring. (But I'm still comfortable predicting an awful voter turnout, as in under 10%).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Regionalization: Not Dead Yet

Regional School Committee last night

Unlike the strong skepticism expressed at their meeting two weeks ago, perhaps brought on by the mad rush to seek approval in time for this year's Town Meeting season, last night the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee expressed optimism over the prospect of regionalizing the current grades 7-12 all the way down to preK through 6th grade.

Amherst School Committee member Rick Hood started off the one-hour discussion saying they should "keep working" on the project (after more than three years of committee work culminating with the Regional Agreement Working Group final report) especially if it allows a future "on ramp" for any town, like Shutesbury, who is not yet ready to make the leap.

In order for the educational expansion to happen all four towns via their Town Meeting must approve amending the current 60-year-old Regional Agreement but then one or two could vote not to join at the current time.

 RAWG member Kip Fronsh appeared at Public Comment period to lobby for Regionalization

Mr. Hood cited the $600,000 savings figure saying, "It's a big deal, if it's real."  A sentiment echoed later by other committee members.  Although Shutesbury member Steve Sullivan pointed out that financial projection "was old" and a study should be done for fresher figures.

Governance is still a major stumbling block with members expressing skepticism over a 13 member supersized Regional School Committee (7 from Amherst and 2 from each of the hilltowns).  Rick Hood suggested a RSC of seven member, four from Amherst and one each from Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury.

But other members thought that would be too much work and pressure on a lone town representative to the powerful new committee. 

RSC Chair from Pelham Trevor Baptiste said bringing financial sustainability to the Pelham Elementary School was his main objective but it was "debatable" if the money savings was worth it.  He liked the idea of district wide elections to the new super-committee because it would "reduce factionalism."

Amilcar Shabazz attending his final meeting via "remote participation" said confidently from Rick Hood's Mac computer:  "This can be done."

Committee Chair Baptiste then suggested for RSC meetings over the next year a major bullet point from the Regional Agreement Working Group report be put on the agenda for a 20 minute or so discussion.

And in the near future all three hilltown School Committees be invited in for a discussion. 

Marylou Theilman pointed out from the audience that it had been a good, long-overdue discussion but it was shame Amherst Media was not there to cover it, especially since a major criticism of the project has been the lack of public outreach.

The Chair, who has previously touted his respect for "transparency",  responded that maybe the reason the conversation/discussion went so well is because officials felt more comfortable without the cameras running.

Hmm ... 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

257 & Counting

Town Manager & Select Board get to sit at the head table

The Select Board signed the warrant last night and Amherst police posted copies this morning at all the precincts in town so there's no turning back now.  The 257th annual Amherst Town Meeting starts April 27 and runs for as long as it takes (usually two meetings per week) to get through all 30 articles.

A significant reduction from the 42 articles appearing on the warrant last year, which prompted a much talked about editorial in the Springfield Sunday Republican criticizing the molasses like pace of Amherst Town Meeting.

Click to enlarge/read
That year we finished up on June 2nd. 2013 was even worse with 45 articles on the warrant and a dissolving date of June 10th.

30 is not a new record for least amount but it shares that distinction with 2012 and 2009.  At the opposite end of the spectrum 2008 was the largest over the past ten years with 47 articles.

Our $70 million budget is balanced so not much controversy to be generated there.   Additionally, last night the Finance Director told the Select Board that enough savings had been found in health insurance and long term debt payments to cover the cost of the Town Manager's pet project:  A new Economic Development Director.

Police will see a paltry increase of one position but the beleagured Fire Department got burned with no additional staffing.

8 of the 30 articles are via "citizen petition" (it only takes 10 signatures to get on the warrant) and three of the eight are zoning related so they will require a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting to pass.

 Tedious standing vote

One thing that takes up tremendous time every meeting is the procedural process.  Standing votes and tally votes can require 10 or 15 minutes each, and some nights we can have nearly a half-dozen.

Although not in the budget for this year's annual meeting, Finance Director Sandy Pooler did set aside $25,000 for the Fall Town Meeting to buy electronic voting devices for the entire 240 member body.

Which should help speed things up.

Of course the best solution is to reduce the size of the legislative body by 75% and hope some of the more loquacious members do not survive a competitive election. 


DUI Dishonor Roll

 Drinking six beers and piloting a pickup truck don't mix

In what will probably be the last somewhat quiet weekend (brought on by Spring Break) until UMass graduation in May, Amherst police still managed to arrest two impaired drivers, Brett Fellows, age 42, and Christopher Chilson, age 25.

 Christopher Chilson stands before Judge John Payne

Amherst police had been called to a house on West Street in South Amherst for reports of a breaking & entering in progress.  The reporting party said she and her boyfriend had barricaded themselves in the basement after hearing glass breaking and then footsteps.

Police surrounded the house but found nothing.

Until Mr. Chilson came roaring along in his F350 pickup truck.

Click to enlarge/read

Amherst Police also arrested Brett Fellows, in spite of his refusal to take the Field Sobriety Test.  He also refused the chemical breath test back at police headquarters, which will make it somewhat harder to prosecute the case.

Both individuals had a plea of "not guilty" entered in their behalf and their cases were continued until next month after they each told the Judge they would be hiring a private attorney.

 Brett Fellows arraigned before Judge Payne

Housing Authority Votes Budget

Amherst Housing Authority

The Amherst Housing Authority voted unanimously yesterday to approve a $1,662,631 budget for the upcoming 2016 Fiscal Year which includes a 2% increase in employee pay, although Executive Director Denise LeDuc, whose contract was extended two years, garnered a 1.5% increase to around $88,000 annually.

 Commission member Laura Quinn

During the routine approval of minutes Commission member Laura Quinn criticized the record keeping from the March 2nd meeting as "cryptic". 

When asked to explain by outgoing Chair Paul Bobrowski she pointed out that her suggestion the Executive Director performance review be tied to her contract extension did not make it into the minutes.

The minutes were then amended to reflect her concerns, although not before audience member Alan Root complained they had been "sanitized."

 Alan Root leaning in

The Amherst Housing Authority owns 191 units of housing in Amherst and manages another 36 units.  But their main influence with providing affordable housing comes via a "voucher" program.  The AHA oversees a federally funded Section 8 Rental program where they are authorized to issue up to 413 vouchers, which assists renters based on their income.

Housing Urban Development funding for that voucher program has returned from pre sequestation levels.  In the upcoming fiscal year the AHA will receive $3,077,917 or enough to fund 390 vouchers, 23 less than their maximum.

Currently over 600 people/families are on the waiting list to receive a voucher.

Since the vouchers are based on a recipients income things can change from month to month. If the person loses their job then the amount of the voucher goes up thus making it hard to project overall costs.

Annual HUD funding is based on previous year's spending so if you have too much money left over your funding next year could go down, but if your average voucher goes up too much and the budget is overrun, they have to dip into reserves.  


Sunday, March 22, 2015

If You Can't Stand The Heat

Anytime you pack a room with town officials, board and committee members -- appointed or elected -- you're bound to have a few grumps.

So I didn't really mind so much the venom spewed towards the media by Shelburne Board of Selectmen Chair John Payne -- it was more the ovation he received from the rest of the crowd.

Although I did notice Stan Rosenberg, who organized the Hampshire & Franklin Municipal Conference, calling his speech finale, "fighting words."

What the Attorney General needs to do is put more teeth into the Open Meeting Law.  Make an example of offenders who knowingly violate the law, not by fining the committee or board $1,000 so the taxpayers get stuck paying it.

Fine every individual member of the board $1,000 that must be paid out of their own pocket.  Then you will see a dramatic improvement in compliance.  If that doesn't do it, then try a jail sentence.

Making the job of the media a little easier via a strong Open Meeting Law only brings better enlightenment to the multitudes of citizens who rely on the media for vital information about their local government.  

If you can't deal with transparency then don't volunteer or run for public office.