Friday, February 27, 2015

Blarney: There They Go Again

Frozen tundra?  Nah, Townhouse apartments:  Ground Zero for bad Blarney

Once again my friends at the Gazette do a front page above the fold story on why Blarney Blowout is going to fizzle and neglect to mention the #1 reason, weather.

For the past two years the downtown bars have not played any role whatsoever in Blarney going bad.

If I were the Select Board, however, I would still pull their liquor permits for Saturday, March 7 just as retroactive punishment for creating the monster they unleashed, and now have no control over.

Start shoveling kids!

"Dismissed" Doesn't Mean Innocent!

Thomas C. Donovan arraigned in Eastern Hampshire District Court (3/10/14).  Your humble reporter standing in background.  MassLive photo by Dave Roback

So the hotshot Boston attorney for Mr. Thomas C. Donovan was being a tad coy when he told my friends at MassLive that the reason he took so long to file a lawsuit against Amherst police is because he wanted to wait until the Blarney Blowout criminal case was concluded against his choir boy client.

Thus giving the impression that the criminal case was "dismissed" and his client was totally innocent.

As any of you who have followed my Eastern Hampshire District Court reports over the past year or so know, the usual method of dealing with UMass students arrested for rowdy behavior is a "diversion" from criminal to civil and the dropping of at least one of the charges.

In the case of Mr. Donovan, who was charged with "failure to disperse" and "disorderly conduct", the Judge, as part of his plea deal, dismissed outright the "disorderly conduct" charge but DID NOT DISMISS the "failure to disperse" charge.

Instead he was put on probation for four months, ordered to pay $200 in restitution and write a letter of apology to APD ... only THEN was the charge of "failure to disperse" dismissed.

Click to enlarge/read

And yes, I have confirmed Donovan wrote the letter of apology to APD, but since this now involves a lawsuit the letter is not a public document.  I also assume he paid the $200 and did the 20 hours of community service.

If he's so innocent, why write a "letter of apology"?

The fact he was recording on his phone at the time he failed to heed a lawfully given order to disperse is irrelevant.  If he were playing a violin, the cops would have told him to stop playing the violin and leave.  

"Not talking to reporters now".  Gee, I wonder why?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

To Serve & Protect

APD Captain Chris Pronovost (left) Chief Scott Livingstone (right) 
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingston and Captain Chris Pronovost appeared before the Joint Capital Planning Committee this morning to present their FY16 equipment needs, which were pretty modest considering their $4.5 million operational budget.

Joint Capital Planning Committee preparing to discuss PD equipment this morning

The usual replacement of three front line patrol vehicles, with an excess of 100,000 miles usage, takes up the bulk of the total request at $105,000.  Next year it will be a tad more expensive as the request will be for one additional vehicle.  The department orders four vehicles on a rotating basis every 4th year.

Front line cruisers are used 24/7, 365 days a year

One of the things you don't want to have happen when you call 911 for a life or death emergency is to have help delayed because of a vehicle breakdown.

 Click to enlarge/read.  FY16 starts July 1st

Amherst police department was one of the first public safety agencies in the state to adopt  "in car video systems" aka dash cams.  Such a system protects both the officer making an arrest or just interacting with citizens and the person being arrested or just interacting with the officer. 

$12,000 will purchase two complete systems, to replace older systems in two cruisers.

Naturally as the Chief was leaving the meeting I asked him about body cams.  He responded that within two years it will probably be standard equipment for his department.

The current crop of cameras somewhat rushed to market are still a tad expensive (decent reliable units around $1,000 each) and like any new technology the cameras will get better and cheaper just within the next two years.

He did point out that officers are in favor of wearing the cameras, so it's not a labor union issue  holding things up.  Obviously body cameras would have come in handy last year at the Blarney Blowout.

Also coming in handy when things reach riotous proportions are "Crowd management tools, Protective Gear" aka riot gear.

The Chief told the JCPC that he was dropping the $9,500 request -- not because they are unneeded -- but because he found leftover money in another account to fund them.

The current generation of riot gear (both bulky and hot in the summer) was purchased back in the mid-1980s before anybody ever heard of Blarney Blowout and the excuse to day-drink and get riotous was called "Hobart Hoedown".

Officers only recently were fitted for the equipment so it will not be available this coming March 7.

Do I think they will need riot gear that day?  Well the weather is forecast to be sunny/clear but COLD so that's a BIG help.

Plus the quad area of Townhouse Apartments -- ground zero for the gestation of riotous behavior -- is currently buried in snow, so that's a BIG help.

And even the recent regrettable publicity about an alleged "First Amendment" violation last year resulting in a federal lawsuit against APD will at least serve to remind everyone of what a lousy day Blarney was ... for EVERYBODY.

Although I do find it fascinating that Cowardly Anon Nitwits post drivel on the mobile app FADE publicly threatening my First Amendment rights:

At least I'm filed under "hot"

Photo is from an "event" I covered at Townhouse back on September 20

United Once More

UN Flag flies above Black Liberation flag this morning

The pretty blue United Nations flag has returned to its perch directly in front of Town Hall after the previous one was stolen during a storm and briefly replaced with a pirate flag.

I'm told the last remaining member of the original committee who brought the request to Amherst Town Meeting in 1972 donated the new flag. 

The Amherst town flag has been missing from the turret on Town Hall for about as long as the UN flag was missing.

The staff broke so it needs to be replaced before it goes back up alongside the state flag and one of the original 29 commemorative American flags (originally installed during that glorious summer of 2001) that have caused such controversy whenever the anniversary of 9/11 comes calling.

Interestingly Town Meeting this spring will no doubt unanimously support a  "citizens petition" to declare June 14 "Race Amity Day".    Of course June 14 is also "Flag Day".  Which I find exceedingly appropriate.

The American flag represents the diversity -- aka "melting pot"  -- of all the immigrants, all the races, creeds, colors, religions or sexual persuasions that built this great country.

And she represents the freedom so many of us take for granted. 

Precisely why the 29 commemorative flags should fly in the downtown this coming 9/11.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blarney Blowback

March 8, 2014 North Pleasant/Fearing Street

So no, I'm not surprised a lawsuit was filed over alleged brutality by enormously outnumbered Amherst police at the Blarney Blowout.  But I am surprised it took this long.

After all, if it is such a strong case why wait almost one full year to file your complaint?

Rule #1:  Hold your phone horizontally Rule #2: Leave when police ask

And I always thought lawyers were not supposed to try their case in the media?  Here these legal beagles posted their "evidence" to the web for the entire world to see, and issued press releases no less.

Specifically timed of course to coincide with the upsurge in media interest as we approach the one year anniversary of that outrageous event.

Interesting how you can clearly see objects detonate near officers busy arresting someone on the ground. And I recognize that dull thud a full can of beer makes when it hits a nearby snowbank, as I had one miss my head by 6" the year before at Townhouse Apartments during the Blarney Blowout.

It's easy to look at a snippet of video and come up with ways you would have calmly handled the situation better.  Hindsight is always a piece of cake.

Or maybe I should say, "keg of beer."

Can You Hear Me Now?

Amilcar Shabazz remotely peering over Maria Geryk's shoulder

The Amherst Regional School Committee is starting to get it when it comes to all things digital. 

Last month they voted unanimously to allow legal notice of meetings with agendas to be posted to the district website rather than the clunky physically post by hand in all four towns. 

And last night the RSC also voted unanimously to allow "remote participation" so lame duck member Amilcar Shabazz could participate and vote in the surprisingly newsworthy meeting. 

Like the posting to the website, it is a blanket vote that will allow any member to use remote participation from now on as long as they give the Chair some advance notice.

Surprisingly for a town dominated by committees, boards, and working groups, remote participation has not been used.  These days Skype, Facetime , or Google+ Hangout is just as good as being there.  Well, almost.

The Jones Library Trustees did use it once, sort of, for Carol Gray four years ago when she was in Egypt.  But it was prior to the Attorney General ruling it okay, so she was not allowed to participate in the meeting or vote, just observe.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Regionalization Train Wreck

Amherst Regional School Committee all 9 members (including one by remote participation)

Even before the Amherst Regional School Committee could get to the official agenda item scheduled for 6:20 to discuss the 3.5 years in the making Regional Agreement Working Group report, RAWG member Michael DeChiara dropped a bombshell during "public comment", telling the committee he would not support the proposal and would be telling his Shutesbury constituents to vote it down.

Michael DeChiara, Maria Geryk (Amilcar Shabazz above her), Michael Morris

All four towns in the Region -- Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury -- must vote yes in order to change the 50+ year old Regional Agreement, to allow for the region to extend from the current 7-12 all the way down to include elementary level pre-K through 6th grades.

When the Regional Committee then started discussing the RAWG proposal Shutesbury representative Stephen Sullivan echoed DeChiara's concerns and clearly said he would vote no.

Parent and Town Meeting member Janet McGowan told the committee the public outreach on Regionalization has been nonexistent

Amherst representatives were also less than impressed:  Lawrence O'Brien said he "had concerns", Rick Hood said it was "not ready", Kathleen Traphagen did not see any "compelling educational case" and the disembodied voice of Amilcar Shabazz (using remote participation) could not have been any more clear:  "Put a stop on the school attorney from doing any more work on this matter.  Moving in this direction now should be Dead On Arrival."

Kathleen Traphagen

Katherine Appy was the lone member of the entire 9 member Regional School Committee to speak in favor of the idea.  The RSC is scheduled to vote on this Regionalization proposal at their next  meeting, March 10.

Since it involves amending the Regional Agreement it will require a supermajority two-thirds vote.  Had the vote been taken at this meeting it certainly looked like it would be 8-1 against. 

Rick Hood said they should continue to move forward with the public forums (March 3 for Amherst ) but the timeline for all four towns to vote an the agreement should be pushed back until spring, 2016.

It has already been 3.5 years for this particular regionalization agreement and some members mentioned previous attempts date back 40 years or more, so what's another year.  

Not overly crowded audience in attendance

Just Say NO

 Amherst Board of Registrars meeting Town Hall 2:45 pm

In a little less than a half-hour the Amherst Board of Registrars came to a vote on whether to accept a challenge filed by Vince O'Connor and Mary Wentworth to the legality of names appearing on the nomination papers of 1st time School Committee candidate Phoebe Hazzard, who set a town record for acquiring the 50 signatures needed for a town wide office.

The vote was unanimous:  No.  In fact there was an undertone of, now go away.  

The challenge was filed 35 minutes after the "two working day" deadline imposed by state law.  The complainants argued a "working day" for Amherst Town Hall is 8.5 hours but one of those days (Thursday) Town Hall is closed to the general public in the mornings, therefor they only had 1.5 working days to file their grievance.

Board member Susan Lowenstein was the most forthright of the three asking Mr. O'Connor somewhat sternly, "Why do you see criminality and fraud?  I'm appalled this is happening!"

To which Mr. O'Connor responded, "I'm appalled the Town Clerk would accept bad signatures."

Another bystander pointed out, "Not a single person has come forward to say they didn't sign those papers.  There's the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law.  I don't see any violations of the spirit of the law."

O'Connor responded, "It encourages people to sit at home, call up their friends for permission and get signatures that way."

Town Clerk Sandra Burgess had wanted this distraction ended quickly, as the ballot for the March 31 election needs to be printed soon.

And The People Shall Lead (Sort Of)

Amherst:  Where even the h is silent

Only three "citizens petitions" were filed yesterday in Town Hall prior to the noon deadline for placement on the upcoming annual spring Town Meeting warrant, which begins April 27.  I say "only" because the barrier to entry is so low, requiring "only" ten valid signatures.

Amherst is a town that prides itself on speaking out about issues great and small.  Town Meeting is supposed to be the ultimate platform for the common man or woman.  Although in our case that commonality seems all too restricted to older, white, upper-income homeowners.

Click to enlarge/read

The petition article to bring paid sick leave to part time town employees was made moot by the Select Board last night, who voted unanimously to support the recommendation of the Personnel Board for part time town employees who work year-round.

The $28,000 required will be added to the  budget that goes before Town Meeting and once passed will go into effect July 1st.

Proclamation articles are advisory and enacted to pretty much to make a feel good statement.  Since nobody can argue -- at least successfully anyway -- against "civility, respect, kindness and friendship" pretty safe bet "Race Amity Day" will pass unanimously by (overwhelmingly white) Amherst Town Meeting.

And what would the annual Amherst Town Meeting be without at least one petition article from Vince O'Connor?  Last year he had five, four of which were voted down or referred back to a committee.

Although his article to double the Community Preservation Act surcharge from 1.5% to 3% did pass handily, adding to the already outrageously high annual property taxes in town.

Apparently Vince has been studying engineering in his spare time and he considers the closed Mill Street Bridge safe enough to reopen for two way traffic.

And these three petitions that came in on the final day will join the other two filed last week: an anti-fracking advisory article and a feel good human rights declaration.  As of this morning all five petitions had the required number of signatures certified for placement on the Town Meeting warrant.

Pro human rights

Anti-fracking resolution

Monday, February 23, 2015

If You Get Permission To Build It

Butterfield Terrace property impacted in oval,  Pokeberry Ridge underlined

A cluster of four properties on Butterfield Terrace, sandwiched between UMass and Amherst town center, could see an increase in housing density IF -- and that's a BIG if -- Town Meeting approves a citizen's petition article requesting a zoning change from the current RN (medium density) to the higher density RG.

Even with the zoning change, which requires a two-thirds Town Meeting vote, any development to increase housing units (up to 18 are possible according to town Planning staff but the petitioner put the number at 14) would still require a Special Permit.

Petitioner Mike Alpert told the Planning Board last week that most people in town don't even know Butterfield Terrace exists and the nearest neighboorhood street, Pokeberry Ridge, is 100 feet higher up, so their "scenic vistas" will not be impacted.

But that didn't stop neighbors from speaking out against the zoning change, citing of course the impact of noise from renters presumed to be, gasp, students.

Half the current housing on Butterfield Terrace is owner occupied.  Units requesting Zoning Change:  35,43,51,61

The petitioner was forthright about wanting the zoning change to allow for development, but did say they could end up owner occupied or senior housing.

 Only one of six housing units on Pokeberry Ridge is a rental

The Planning Board voted 5-1 to recommend the zoning change to Town Meeting.

Planning Board Chair David Webber

Although, with the batting average the Planning Board has had with Town Meeting of late, that recommendation could do more harm than good.

Net Zero Building Approved

Red oval location Crotty Hall, Phillips Street red underline, Gordon Hall above oval

After surprising setbacks at earlier municipal meetings the new Crotty Hall, somewhat a twin to Gordon Hall at the Gateway to UMass/Amherst, received unanimous Site Plan Approval at the 2/18 Planning Board public hearing.

 Rendering from North Pleasant Street

Building Commissioner Rob Morra had determined the 10' side setback bordering Phillips Street was not in compliance (should be 20') with one of the few zoning regulations that can apply to tax-exempt educational institutes protected by the Dover Amendment.

That order was appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals and at their 1/29 meeting a two-hour discussion ensued with neighbors complaining about noise from the current Gordon Hall and the new building possibly stealing a sliver of land from #23 Phillips Street.

Phillips Street is the most notorious street in all of Amherst mainly because it's almost entirely non-owner occupied.  Jim Turner, #23 Phillips Street, and main complainant to this new building is the only owner occupied unit on Phillips Street which directly abuts the proposed Crotty Hall.

Mr. Turner also pointed out that Crotty Hall will be tax-exempt and perhaps the Planning Board could work out a deal for Payment In Lieu Of Taxes that could go toward the forever talked about new fire station in South Amherst.

At the ZBA meeting last month some critics pointed out the  building was not directly under the control of UMass and portrayed it as almost a rogue development.  My usually reliable UMass sources could provide little information at the time because  Political Economy Research Institute is a tad hands-off from UMass proper.

But at the follow up ZBA meeting 2/12 the three member board unanimously overturned the decision of the Building Commissioner on the side setback issue.

And this time with the Planning Board they took no chances and had rookie Deputy Chancellor Robert Feldman show up to tell the PB UMass was "extremely excited" and that the "innovative building fits into their long range plans."

The Planning Board then voted unanimously (5-0 with 2 absent) to approve the Site Plan for Crotty Hall.  To the celebration of the UMass crowd in attendance. 

Baptist Church (rt), Gordon Hall (center) Phillips Street (left)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Debilitating Delay

Carriage Shops (bottom), Kendrick Place (top) both now owned by Archipelego Investments

This morning's Sunday Republican printed the breakdown for the $4,599,962 sale of the Carriage Shops, 233 North Pleasant Street, in the north end of downtown to Archipelego Investments.  The lions share of it ($2,812,300) went to original developer Jerry Gates, aka Carriage Shops LLC.

Glazed Doughnut Shop former location sold for $468,754

Loose Goose Cafe (rt) sold for $432,667 and Bob Ritchie Legal practice building (left) sold for $525,693

At the November 5 Amherst Town Meeting NIMBYs tried to sabotage the One East Pleasant Street 5 story mixed use development by changing the rules about Inclusionary Zoning via Article 5, which would have required 10% of the 80 or so rental units be set aside as "affordable."

The developers would probably have 1) walked away from the deal and/or 2) filed a lawsuit for an illegal taking.  Interestingly Bob Ritchie, who owned one of the outbuildings (sold for $525,693) told Town Meeting that if the poison pill zoning article passed the Carriage Shops would become a "broken tooth on the face of Amherst's downtown."

Now after Planning Board approval for the project and Town Meeting rejecting the Inclusionary Zoning "citizens petition" article a disgruntled nearby housing competitor filed a lawsuit against the town for allowing the badly needed development.  A sour grapes tactic that will cause another six months of delay.

Carriage Shops parking lot was plowed this morning, but no businesses remain

The Carriage Shops were already looking looking long in the tooth when One East Pleasant Street mega-development first started jumping over regulatory hoops last year.

Another six months of deterioration is an assault on our sensibilities. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Rescue Me!

 AFD on Puffer's Pond "beach"

Amherst Fire Department had to cancel an ice rescue drill this morning, not because it was a few degrees below zero -- although certainly a byproduct of the reason:  the ice was too thick.

 Can always use it for a skating rink

Half the department had mobilized at Puffer's Pond this morning -- Engine 3, Engine 4, Rescue 1 staffed by Call and Student Force, who huddled on the beach awaiting the breakthrough in ice that never came.

 Gave up after sawing down 24"

Tomorrow's ice cold exercise is cancelled as well.

Meanwhile the ice should be just fine for today's Business Improvement District Ice Skating Party at Kendrick Park from 1:00 pm until 5:00 pm.  I saw lots of firewood stacked by the rink.

 Kendrick Park this morning

Friday, February 20, 2015

Democracy Delayed

From left:  Sylvia Cuomo, Susan Lowenstein, Sandra Burgess Town Clerk, Joyce Crouch

The Amherst Board of Registrars failed to come to a decision concerning the complaint filed by long-time Amherst Town Meeting members Vince O'connor and Mary Wentworth regarding what appears to be fraudulent signatures on the nomination papers of School Committee candidate Phoebe Hazzard.

Ms. Hazzard had taken out her papers at 3:30 on the deadline day and brought them back an hour-and-a-quarter later with 65 signatures, seven of which were thrown out, leaving 58 certified.

For town wide office such as School Committee, 50 signatures of duly registered voters are required.

Red check means good, N means not registered, S means can't identify signature

The Town Clerk did point out that neither she nor the Board of Registrars are handwriting experts and they are legally bound by the notion of "apparent conformity":  If the registered voter's name matches the address then they have to certify the name, even if it's printed or looks like the same handwriting as the previous surname that also resides in the same household.

After 1.5 hours of sometimes testy testimony the Board decided to meet again on Tuesday to decide whether they will accept the challenge to the signatures and then ascertain if there is any merit to the challenge.

The Town Clerk was adamant that the Town Attorney ruled the challenge was handed in past the "two working day" deadline (by 35 minutes), and therefor the Board of Registrars would be setting a bad precedent by accepting the challenge.

 Vince O'Connor and Mary Wentworth present to the Board of Registrars

O'Connor and Wentworth argued the Town Clerks office was closed to the general public for a half day within that 48 hour deadline, therefor they should have had more time to file their complaint.

O'Connor repeatedly stated he wished for this matter to be handled locally by this board rather than becoming a criminal matter with the DA or an appeal in Northampton Hampshire Superior Court.  To which Board member Susan Lowenstein responded she did not like the words "fraud and criminal intent."

Saying he did not even know candidate Phoebe Hazzard, O'Connor stated he was in the Town Clerk's office when Hazzard first took out her nomination papers and still there when she returned them.  Wentworth added, "To old hands like us, it was a red flag."

Observer Rich Morse, a former prosecutor, said the board "Should not delegate this out to the town attorney.  The fundamental issue here is was there fair access over that two day period to make observations and judgements about the signatures?"

No matter what the Board of Registrars decides on Tuesday, at this point, in a town that reveres grass roots democracy, the campaign process has been tainted.

Town Clerk Handout