Saturday, April 30, 2016

Where Have All The People Gone?

Amherst Town Common last year with Extravaganja
 Amherst Town Common this year without Extravaganja

Friday, April 29, 2016

The High Cost Of Education

Wildwood Elementary School, built 1972, 108,000 square feet

The first of four major building projects will come up for a vote this fall where a debt exclusion override will require a two-thirds vote of support from Town Meeting and then ballot approval by town voters at the  November 8th Presidential election, which always has a huge turnout.

School officials and concerned parents will get a preliminary glimpse, however, of how those votes will go by watching the fate of Article 38 coming up on the Annual Town Meeting that starts May 2nd.

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Fort River School, built 1973, 108,000 square feet

If Town Meeting approves the $40,000 to go back and restudy the costs of renovating Fort River and Wildwood Elementary schools rather than simply supporting the new $66 million mega school it will certainly send a message of distrust about the way the building project has been handled thus far.

 Crocker Farm School, built 1974 but renovated 2002 to a total of 90,800 square feet

And if you don't trust officials trying to sell you a $33 million building Override by raising your taxes for the next 30 years, that alone becomes reason to vote no.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Forklift ablaze backlot of Leader Home Center

A forklift caught fire INSIDE a lumber yard at Leader Home Center on College Street but employees managed to get it safely outside the building, and AFD quickly snuffed it out.

Catastrophe avoided.  Barely.

Coming Full Circle

Paul Bockelman Mass Municipal Association Director of Finance

For Paul Bockelman winning the position of Amherst Town Manager would be something of a coming home, having spent four formative years here in the free wheeling 1970s as a student at Hampshire College.

But our downtown was a lot different back then.  Faces of Earth shortened their name to Faces and moved to Northampton, our hardware and grocery stores are long gone and book & music stores are no longer as ubiquitous as spring dandelions.

There's no doubt, however, his MMA background provides the financial and business savvy to be a strong ally of the downtown revitalization movement.

Although wading into the rough and tumble Amherst town politics, a little Mixed Martial Arts training probably wouldn't hurt.

And his experience as a long time School Committee member would come in handy dealing with our Elementary and Regional School budgets that consume the lion's share of town spending every year.

All in all a pretty complete package.

When asked about diversity Bockelman replied, "Think about who is not in the room."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What's In A Name?

Mill River Recreation area 4/17/16

Well the pavilion rental form filled out by "Corey Smith" is not overly helpful identifying the large group of college aged youth responsible for the Mill River Recreation area debacle last week, where North Amherst neighbors continuously complained about blaring music, overflow parking, public alcohol consumption and a major mess left behind.

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Leisure Services & Supplemental Education Commission will be reviewing their pavilion rental program at a meeting tonight.

Requiring a damage deposit would be helpful. 

DUI Dishonor Roll

MADD: Over 50% of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license

The gorgeous spring weather last weekend led to the usual increase in party behavior around town -- particularly in North Amherst -- and even more unfortunate, an increase in impaired drivers on our roadways.

 Carl Howard, age 43, stands before Judge Estes

APD arrested two and UMPD arrested one.  All of them first time offenders and all of them took the telling legally admissible chemical breath test, and failed.

 Chandler Burnham, age 21, arraigned before Judge Estes
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Mothers Against Drunk Driving is pushing a proposal in Massachusetts that would require interlock devices on cars for first time offenders.  One way of helping ensure they don't become 2nd time offenders.

Or killers. 

Brian Bevilacqua, age 21.  All three had their cases continued to next month

Stuck In The Middle

Bill Fraser, City Manager Montpelier VT

In spite of pronouncing the h in Am_erst in his closing statement Town Manager finalist Bill Fraser, the 2nd of 3 candidates to be publicly interviewed by our Executive branch, put on a strong performance last night demonstrating an important understanding of how vital a vibrant downtown is to our little college town.

Plus he has experience with affordable housing, reusing a retired school building, and dealing with state government -- all of which would come in handy almost immediately.

Except his city manager contract with Montpelier, VT was renewed for a year and requires a three month notice to be released from it.

So the earliest he could start in Amherst would be August, still enough time to get a feel for the town before the floodgates reopen in September with the return of our #1 demographic, college aged youth.

With 30+ years experience in city government Mr. Fraser would be giving us the last -- and hopefully best -- years of his long career.  Whereas the previous candidate, Maria Capriola, is still in the ascending stage.

A tough choice.  And there's still one more candidate to go.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Three Strikes

 Sean Young, 25, stands before Judge Thomas Estes (case continued to 5/4)

Amherst police arrested Sean Young, age 25, in the early Saturday morning hours for Disorderly Conduct, Assault & Battery on a police officer and Resisting Arrest.

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The police officer was coming to the aid of a woman Mr. Young was punching with a closed fist. 

Not cool dude.  Not cool at all.

Cable Contract Controversy

CAC this morning, Peter Hechenbleikner (right)

Actual sit down negotiations between the town and Comcast begin next week in a closed session that will involve two members of the Cable Advisory Committee, their attorney/consultant Peter Epstein and Temporary Town Manager Peter Hechenbleikner, who expects only two Comcast representatives to appear on the other side of the table.

The CAC is only advisory to the Select Board but they have been doing the heavy lifting for the past year on the ten year contract renewal worth around $6 million annually to Comcast and $300,000 (5%) to the town for Amherst Media.

The major sticking point is going to be the one time capital request for new equipment and infrastructure improvements. 

The CAC is requesting $2.2 million and Comcast already counter offered with $450,000 -- the same amount given ten years ago and succinctly described by CAC Chair Dee Shabazz as "insulting."

Northampton just announced the renewal of their contract with Comcast and the one time capital amount went from $400,000 ten years ago to $750,000 now.

A Woman's Touch

Maria Capriola (left) and Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer

UPDATE: 5/5/16:  Maria Capriola was appointed our new Town Manager

Town Manager finalist Maria Capriola will be a hard act to follow over the next two days by the other two male counterparts -- Bill Fraser, Paul Bockelman -- and it has nothing to do with gender.

She came off as friendly but firm, bright -- but not in an overly academic sort of way -- poised and articulate. Most surprising, however, was how experienced she is at the tender age of 36.

Amherst is already used to females in a leadership roll, from the current ultra organized Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer to previous superstar, and probably someday  mayoral contender, Stephanie O'Keeffe.

Even going back to the nightmare years circa early/mid 2000s, then Chair Anne Awad ruled with an iron hand.

The main advantage Ms. Capriola has is her experience in Mansfield CT, a "college town," where the property tax base shifted from 90/10 residential/commercial to 75/25 with the construction of a downtown literally from the ground up.

Amherst's current taxbase is 90% residential, and badly in need of commercial development.

Charter Commission Outreach

9 member Amherst Charter Commission met at Police Station last night

In their 3rd meeting in a 3rd different location -- "the nomadic Charter Commission" quipped Chair Andy Churchill -- the nine Commissioners first discussed the Town Meeting request for $30,000 towards overhead expenses and came to the conclusion the amount was more than justifiable.

Although they will most likely come back to Town Meeting in the fall to change the wording of the article to allow broader interpretation of what services the money can buy.

Currently the article restricts spending to a consultant and the Commission will have plenty of other expenses like mailing, printing, and advertising.

 Motion states "for engaging consulting services
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The rest of the meeting was taken up with discussion of the fast approaching initial Public Hearing scheduled for May 12 at the Amherst Regional Middle School auditorium, which is also the same venue for Amherst Town Meeting.

Audience member Maurianne Adams, an unsuccessful candidate for the Commission, summed up the outreach strategy to a series of related open-ended questions:   "What do you value in Amherst?"  What would you change?  What would you not change?"; What are the major problems now facing Amherst and who would you want addressing them?"

The Commission seemed happy to let that be their guide.

Chair Andy Churchill will also prepare a brief three to five minute introduction outlining the mission of the Charter Commission (which will also appear on their webpage) since the hope is to attract a broader swath of the town rather than the "usual suspects" who live and breath town government. 

A Facebook page will allow for timely postings and public comments while the main webpage located on the town website will act as the "mother ship."  The entire Commission can be reached by email at:

The first public notice for the May 12th hearing will appear in local newspapers this Friday and Commission members hope for lots of sharing on social media.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Townehouse Transformation

Townehouse west quad 2:30 PM Satruday

The final glorious spring weekend before UMass finals went well, with fewer large gatherings compared to last week where the Mill River Recreation area was trashed and the usual spots -- Hobart Lane and Townehouse Apartments -- swelled with college aged youth like an old fashioned beach party.

 Townehouse west quad 4:45 PM

Only Townehouse Apartments quad area grew large and loud on Saturday with a peak crowd of perhaps 1,500, a little less than last week.

A handful of Amherst police stood by most of the day to observe and interact with students coming and going but pretty much allowed the students to have fun.

UMass Community Liaison Eric Beal and APD's Neighborhood Liaison Officer Bill Laramee has spent plenty of time during the week interacting with students at the usual hot spots.

Townehouse west quad 6:30 PM

At one point late in the day a Townehouse security guard reported a bottle was thrown at him by someone who disappeared back into the crowd, but fortunately the incident did not escalate.

And, unlike last week, nobody set any furniture on fire in the middle of the quad.

 Townehouse west quad Sunday morning 7:00 AM

Friday, April 22, 2016

And The Winner Will Be?

Amherst, founded 1759, is in the final stages of choosing new Town Manager

Final Chance

Court is in session:  Select Board, Temporary Town Manger, Town attorney

Acting as Liquor Commissioners the Amherst Select Board last night had to balance two sometimes competing interests:  the ability of a small business to survive in an ever increasing competitive market and the protection of public safety i.e. keeping underage patrons from procuring alcohol.

Obviously the latter takes precedence.

After an hour of testimony, including that of Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Detective Brian Daley, and then another painstaking hour of discussion, they unanimously voted to suspend the liquor license of Panda East for a total of 55 days, May 4th through June 27.

Fifty days for the two new incidents and 5 days that were given in "abeyance" for the original incident in January.

 Detective Brian Daley and Chief Livingstone give sworn testimony to Select Board

Thus the Select Board softened the blow somewhat by allowing the suspension to run out during the late spring into summer, a slower time of year in our little college town.  Although they will be dry during busy commencement weekend.

At one point the specter of outright revocation was raised, and then another suggestion by Doug Slaughter of seven full months (June 1st to the end of the year) was briefly discussed.

Even after the number of days under discussion for suspension came down to a month or two, Mr. Slaughter suggested the start of the penalty be September 1st rather than the slow summer months.

Attorney Kristi Bodin attacked the most egregious incident where a 17-year-old female was allegedly served two Scorpion Bowls and required hospitalization for alcohol OD by stating all the evidence was hearsay and they were being denied the basic right to cross examine witnesses.

Ms. Bodin also pointed out after the January incident where Panda East was sanctioned for serving 17 underage patrons the recipe for Scorpion Bowls was reduced to one shot of alcohol.  And it's hard to imagine two shots could put someone into a stupor requiring hospitalization.

 Attorney Kristi Bodin, Amy Wu manager Panda East

The young women did tell investigators she went to a UMass dorm room after being at Panda East so it's quite possible -- in fact likely -- more alcohol was then consumed, pushing her over the edge.  

But the second incident where a 20-year-old used a fake Rhode Island license to successfully acquire alcohol was pretty much beyond reproach and even acknowledged by Attorney Bodin that her client "dropped the ball."

Although interestingly the night of the second incident APD was doing a sting operation using four 20-year-old UMPD cadets and all four were denied service after being carded.

In her closing argument, like any good defense attorney who is cornered, Attorney Bodin threw herself on the mercy of the "court" saying her client desperately wants to stay in business.

After the last incident in January she has been trying to change the image of the business back to a restaurant rather than a drinking establishment.

And after these most recent incidents Ms. Wu purchased a $5,000 electronic scanning machine to detect fake I.D.s  Although Temporary Town Manger Peter Hechenbleikner pointed out you still need to use commons sense since a real license can be used by the wrong party.

In addition to pulling their liquor license for 55 days the Select Board also gave Ms. Wu until that June 27 end date to have the liquor license transferred over to her name from that of current absentee owner Isaac Chow.

The Select Board also told the Town Manager to come up with a 11" by 17" sign to be prominently posted in the front entry of the eatery displaying the dates their liquor license is suspended. 

So does the punishment fit the crime?  Well, yes and no.

Since the Select Board let them off easy for the first incident back in January by only immediately pulling the license for two days -- a Monday and Tuesday no less -- this 55 day sanction seems rather stern.

But I have to wonder if one of the downtown bars involved with the infamous Blarney Blowout were involved rather than an iconic restaurant would the punishment have been a tad more severe?

Either way, it's getting harder and harder for small businesses to survive in the downtown.

And after the slew of publicity this incident has now generated combined with the real threat of revocation for another incident -- with APD on the watch -- I think Panda East has, finally, learned a hard lesson.

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd ..."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Empire Strikes Back

Amherst Media is main beneficiary of Comcast ten year contract

Comcast, the mega media giant who owns the sole cable franchise for Amherst, responded to the town's 10 year renewal RFP with an in-your-face comeback.

While the 5% cut of $6.2 million in annual revenues ($317,000 to Amherst Media for local access this year) is pretty much a given, the only real negotiation will be over the one-time equipment upgrades.

The town requested $2.2 million and Comcast responded with $450,000 -- the exact same amount they provided ten years ago.  Ouch!

And they hired their own consultant to counter the two "ascertainment hearings" the town held to get feedback on Comcast services.

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So yes, this is going to get interesting.

And if not resolved by mid-October, the town's 7,000 subscribers could see their televisions go dark.

Although our Temporary Town Manager assured the state oversight authority that the town expects to come to a deal before deadline.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

DUI Dishonor Roll

Amherst -- at least the part not under UMass -- was pretty safe over the long weekend with APD not taking a single impaired driver off the road.  Maybe everybody is using Uber these days.

 Luke O'Malley, age 20, stands before Judge O'Grady

UMass police did arrest one student for impaired driving, in a parking lot.  One that was loaded with a couple thousand tailgaters.  O'Malley had his case continued until next month so he could hire his own private attorney.

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UMass Stadium 6:45 PM  More at parking lot tailgate than in the stadium

Party House of the Weekend

287 Grantwood Drive

In spite of the perfect weather that prompted large outdoor gatherings of alcohol fueled events over the long holiday weekend the individual party house scene was pretty tame, only one.  Although APD had a total of 20 arraignments in Eastern Hampshire District Court on Tuesday, mostly alcohol related.

 5 young ladies stand before Judge O'Grady but are not arraigned

Judge O'Grady insisted the Assistant District Attorney deal with all the students who did not have a record prior to arraignment in order to keep their records squeaky clean.  But the deals he made for all five residents who were arrested at 287 Grantwood Drive was the usual plea deal:

Pay the town's $300 Noise Bylaw fine, take the UMass "Brains at Risk" program, and stay out of trouble for the next four months and the original arraignment will not even take place although all of them have to return to District Court on August 19th. 

When Products Compete

William Fraser long time City Manager Montpelier Vermont

While it has now become somewhat of a joke the correct pronunciation of Amherst minus the h actually served a purpose a generation or so ago before social media and a t-shirt slogan let the cat out of the bag.

My Irish mother pointed out to me that it was a simple way of telling townies from outsiders, from folks who had roots in our little town (even back then a "college town") and folks who may not care as deeply as we do.

Last night the Select Board held an interesting public discussion of questions they will ask the three Town Manger wannabes next week.

 Amherst Select Board reading interview questions for 3 Town Manager finalists

Interesting because they were in open public session and did not want to divulge the actual questions since the three candidates could simply watch the Select Board meeting over the next few days on Amherst Media and prepare themselves for the questions.

But one word from one question was divulged --"outsider" -- because Connie Kruger wanted it changed to "newcomer."  Fair enough.  All three candidates are on level ground because, unlike Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek, none of them are townies.

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Mr. Fraser will by carrying additional baggage, however, since some people will see his recent actions as playing one community -- that he has served for 21 years -- against another.

Others will simply note he would be coming to our awesome community with a 50% raise, so more power to him.