Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Story Of The Year

'Twas a story that played out over too many months, too many Regional School Committee executive sessions and a final payout of way too many tax dollars -- $309,000 -- before it came to an ignominious end.

The precipitous fall of School Superintendent Maria Geryk, the highest paid town employee, is a cautionary tale that serves to remind us of the old maxim about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Mike Morris, Maria Geryk, Amherst School Committee at Town Meeting May, 2016

Sure, there were grumblings over her entire tenure about failed academic programs, a seemingly revolving door for school principals, the high average cost per student driving our taxes skyhigh  and the steady stream of students choosing charter schools over our hometown offerings.

But over the course of five years nothing seriously challenged her throne until Ms. Geryk made one fatal monumental error in judgment:  issuing a "stay away order" to a single mother simply trying to get the public school system do something about the somewhat racially charged bullying of her 7-year-old daughter.

A story I first broke on April 14th and published over a dozen follow ups over the next four months. 

But that first story was my highest read (20,000+) and most commented story (210) of the year and it set off a slow rumble leading to a major earthquake whose aftershocks will be felt for a very long time.

For instance the failure of the $67 million Mega School can be directly attributed to Maria Geryk's insistence on having it her way even though the vast majority of parents and teachers preferred a different academic model to solving the physical problems with Wildwood and Fort River Elementary schools.

And after almost four years of deliberations the attempt to e-x-p-a--n-d  regionalization from the current 7-12 system all the way down to K-6 went front burner to back burner to dead & buried as well as the idea of merging the Regional Middle School students into the Regional High School thus freeing up that building for other productive uses.

Now the schools are searching for a another Superintendent and a couple of Principals.  And of course I will get the blame for bringing down Maria Geryk and creating a "toxic" atmosphere that no sane bureaucrat will wish to endure even for the overly generous salary the position guarantees.

Eric Nakajima was appointed to Amherst School Committee by Select Board and School Committee vote

But the recent appointment of Eric Nakajima to the Amherst School Committee and his quick election as Chair of the Regional School Committee to replace Laura Kent, a rookie who couldn't handle the pressure,  offers the best hope we've seen in a l-o-n-g while.

2017 promises to be an interesting year -- hopefully not in the Chinese curse sort of way.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Amherst Coated In White

Sunrise to the east
 Town Center 
UMass our #1 industry (quieter than usual)
Click photos to enlarge
Amherst College (still under construction)
The Notch deep South Amherst
Hampshire College
The Lord Jeff
Courtyard Marriott in Hadley (close enough)
Sundown to the west

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Runner Up Story Of The Year

A new Town Manager, a water ban to prevent the recurrence of the great 1980 UMass shut down, and an almost unheard of handgun murder at Southpoint Apartments all made my short list for top local story of the year, but not quite #1.

And perhaps I'm a little too attached to the story that comes in at #2, especially since I predicted one year ago around this time that it would be the #1 story of 2016.  Oh well, close enough for the internet I guess.

 9 member elected Charter Commission sworn in by Town Clerk April 5, 2016

In fact if the Charter Commission had not, finally, come to a (straw) vote on December 19 to ditch Town Meeting their doings over the past nine months would not even have made my top ten list. 

The previous Charter Commission came within a whisker of updating our antiquated local government from Selectboard/Town Meeting/Manager to Mayor/Council/Manager.   Their straw vote to ditch Town Meeting, however, came a little earlier in the process.

Our current Charter Commission has to produce a draft version of their proposal by July, 2017 and it will go to the voters at the March, 2018 annual election.  This recent vote to terminate Town Meeting was a h-u-g-e step in the right direction. 

Now they just need to avoid the fatal mistake made by the previous Commission keeping an unelected Town Manager with more authority than the Mayor, who was more figurehead than actual leader. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Pot Delayed Is, well, Pot Delayed

It is still legal to grow your own pot and share with friends and family

So apparently only two State Senators can upend the will of the voters and enact a six month delay on the commercial sale of marijuana in our fair state, moving the original deadline (six months) from one year from now to 1.5 years from now.

The measure passed in Amherst almost as overwhelmingly as the town supported Hillary Clinton for President.

Originally municipalities had until January 1st, 2018 to line up their ducks for granting permits for recreational sales, or at that point any facility that had approval to sell medical marijuana could then start selling it to anybody over the age of 21 with no medical approval required.

Now that drop-dead deadline has been pushed back to July 1st, 2018.  The measure still requires the approval of Governor Baker but since he's an opponent of recreational sales I'm sure he will be happy to sign the delay.

In an unusual meeting this morning the Select Board met to call a Special Town Meeting to revote  the $67 million Mega School.

 Select Board met this morning and can place anything they want on town ballot

Chair Alisa Brewer also confirmed the SB would soon discuss the idea of placing on the Spring ballot a referendum question allowing Amherst to limit the number of permits for recreational sales to either 20% of the liquor licenses issued, or the same number of medical marijuana dispensary permits issued.

Either measure would limit the number of recreational pot facilities to three or less.  And it's a safe bet UMass will be arguing for less.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Cost Of Delay

The Mill District

After innumerable public meetings before a bevy of boards and committees leading up to the all important Zoning Board of Appeals Comprehensive Permit hearings, Beacon Communities representatives must feel like one of those purported abductees taken aboard an alien vessel for a close up examination including pokes and prods of every pore.

At the outset the ZBA scheduled three dates for examining the mixed use $45 million proposal, with January 5th being the final one at which they would vote on the measure which requires a two thirds vote to pass.

But at last week's Select Board meeting Town Manager Paul Bockelman told the SB an additional meeting would be required and the next one on the ZBA calender was January 19.

Chair Alisa Brewer somewhat bristled at the news wondering why the extra meeting was necessary and why it was scheduled two weeks from the 3rd one rather than only one week which is the way the Select Board handles important hearings.

Turns out the ZBA has not yet posted the date for that final meeting as they are trying to come up with a night that works for all concerned but it would be sooner than January 19.

Since the 130 unit development is providing 26 units of desperately needed subsidized housing Beacon is seeking tax credits and financing from the state to make the project work and need to have all approvals in place by mid February.

Beacon will also be seeking Select Board approval for a property tax reduction on those 26 below market rate units under the "Affordable Housing Property Tax Incentive" passed by Town Meeting two years ago, an important legacy legislation championed by the late Town Manager, John Musante.

Click to enlarge/read

The usual NIMBYs have attacked the project with the usual complaints about being too big and leading to the destruction of the historic character of their neighborhood like Godzilla stomping through Tokyo.

More ominously they brought in a hired gun attorney to the last ZBA hearing, which of course brings up the prospects of a nuisance lawsuit hoping to delay the project, causing Beacon Communities untenable financial losses.

The same desperate strategy unsuccessfully used against One East Pleasant Street 18 months ago.

But NIMBYs never learn -- especially in Amherst. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Plethora Of Pot

Pot is now legal to grow in Massachusetts

The Amherst Select Board, keepers of the public way, is greatly concerned about the implementation of recreational pot which is already legal to grow and share as long as you don't charge for it (wink, wink). 

In their official letter to our good friend Senate President Stan Rosenberg and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo they outline four requests:

(1) Allow a local municipality an easy way (Town Meeting) to delay recreation sales.

(2) Allow a local municipality an easy way (Town Meeting) to limit the number and location of recreational pot establishments.

(3) Rethink the "home grown" provision so Amherst is not overrun by free recreational pot.

(4) Rethink the 2% maximum local option sales tax on retailers.

The current law allows Amherst to limit the number of recreational pot permits to (a) either no more than the number of medical permits issued or (b) 20% the number of alcohol sales permits.

 55 University Drive received Special Permit from ZBA on June 30th

The Select Board issued four "Letters of Support" for medical marijuana businesses already and two of them have gained the necessary Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

But ZBA Chair Mark Parent strongly suggested he would not approve any more than two based on market projections for medical marijuana in Amherst.

169 Meadow Street, N. Amherst received Special Permit July 21st

And Alisa Brewer pegged the number of recreational pot permits that could be issued based on 20% of alcohol permits at three.

Either provision requires a referendum vote at our local election and either provision can be added to the ballot with a simple majority vote of the Select Board.

So at the very least the Select Board should place the limiting provision on the upcoming end of March local election ballot and if they want the least number of recreational permits, tie it to the number of Medical permits issued which may very well end up being only two. 

And to limit it even further simply grant the two medical facilities those two recreation permits, which the state already seems to condone.

Since the revenue to the town is based on a percent of sales (2%) the tax revenues to the town stays the same if it's 2 facilities satisfying the market or 22.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

DUI Dishonor Roll

Drunk Driving costs the United States 132 Billion per year

So let's hope this coming Christmas weekend is a drunk free one at least when it comes to driving.  Unlike last weekend where Amherst police took these two drivers off the road.

And since both volunteered for the Breathalyzer test and failed the best they can hope for is the standard 24D plea deal disposition (or I suppose be declared innocent by a jury of their peers).

 Richard Huntoon, age 39
Click to enlarge/read
Jason Howard, age 21

Targeting The BIG Ones

Townehouse Apartments East Quad 4:30 PM Saturday 10/30/16

Townehouse Apartments East Quad 4:00 PM 4/24/16

If the Campus & Community Coalition has anything to say about it l-a-r-g-e rowdy outdoor parties will go the way of the party houses that plagued our neighborhoods for too many years: silent.

Connie Kruger told fellow Select Board members at their last meeting because the town's Rental Permit Bylaw and a some zoning tweaks have dramatically reduced individual party houses the CCC will be focusing more on preventing the large day drinks that formerly seemed to occur only once a season but lately seem to occur any nice weekend in spring and fall.

 Hobart Lane 3:30 PM Saturday 4/30/16
 Townehouse west quad 4:45 PM 4/23/16

One of the weapons they have always had at their disposal but never used is the ability to fine not just the tenants responsible for hosting the large party but the owner of the property as well.

 Click to enlarge/read

Once landlord's start getting hit with $300 fines they may figure out a way of reining in their tenants -- even if it means eviction.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Horrible Tragedy

The District Attorney's office released a statement late this afternoon in the tragic death of a 67 year old Amherst woman last night and I guess I can see why they took their time issuing it considering the unthinkable reality of what happened.

When was the last time you looked behind your car at night to see if someone was flat on the ground near the rear tires before backing up?

 Click to enlarge/read

So I guess the bricks and mortar media was close when they originally portrayed it as a "car vs pedestrian."

But after the horrendous incident in town center six weeks ago where a drunk driver piloting a speeding truck trampled a man sitting on a bench waiting for a PVTA bus, people are naturally suspicious.

Especially when they see the phrase "State Police have been called in to investigate" which insiders know happens with ANY unattended death. 

Transparency is always the better option, even when the facts are so jolting. 

Round Two: Final Round?

Over 400 signatures handed in yesterday afternoon

The Town Clerk's office certified the 200 signature required to bring the $67 million Mega School back to Town Meeting for a second bite at the bitter apple.

The first time around it failed miserably and stands little chance of gaining the two thirds vote it needs to pass, since the meeting will be happening prior to the annual election (March 27) so the exact same Town Meeting membership will be voting on the exact same proposal.

The Select Board will meet Wednesday morning to confirm the Town Meeting date for the single article warrant so it will probably happen a day or two before February 1st.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Amherst Select Board meeting via remote viewing

The epic 5-4 vote of the Charter Commission on Monday night in favor of a Mayor/Council to replace antiquated Select Board/Town Meeting was kind of like the Battle of Midway, a major turning point.

But it would have been far less dramatic if it had been a 4-4 tie.

Which is why the Charter Commission asked our illustrious Select Board back in mid-June to allow them the common sense ability to do "remote participation" via Skype, Facetime, or even old fashioned conference call.

A member can participate and vote on something but they do not count towards a quorum.  Thus a 9 member body could not have 5 members participate via remote participation.

The state allowed it back in 2012 and the Regional School Committee started using it years ago.

The diffident Select Board is overly concerned because it's not just something they can grant to a particular committee, otherwise they probably would have instantly granted to the Charter Commission, but it's simply an all-or-nothing declaration.

And apparently they don't overly trust some of our many committees to figure out 21st century technology even though the average 8-tear-old has no problem doing it.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, no stranger to using social media, will bring back a proposal for  their January 9 meeting.

Thus it should be in place for some of the epic Charter Commission island hopping engagements coming up soon where members have already stated they will not be physically able to attend.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Fateful Decision?

Charter Commission last night (Julie Rueschemeyer not yet arrived)
 Town Meeting last moth:  four sessions, 3 hours each; Nine sessions last Spring

The Amherst Charter Commission, after nine l-o-n-g months of public meetings, made their first real decision concerning a core requirement for any form of government that's legal in Massachusetts and fortunatley it was the right one:  replace Town Meeting with a smaller more efficient and professional Council.

The first hour or so of the meeting saw each member give a brief presentation of where they are at and it was quite clear that five favored replacing Town Meeting and three did not.  But Julia Rueschemeyer was missing at the time due to car problems.

Nick Grabbe however hit the nail on the head during follow up when he said it's better to go with the right Charter even if it is only endorsed by a 6-3 vote than to compromise too much to get it to a 7-2 or 9-0 vote of the Commission.


Ironically the nine-member Charter Commission is pretty much acting like a nine-member City Council:  put them in a room to deliberate over a given problem and let them come up with a solution.

So even a 5-4 vote passes, and somewhere down the road if voters give it that same 55% approval it pretty much proves the Council/Commission "represents/matches the will of the voters."

Fifteen years ago in the early stage of deliberation the Charter Commission took their fateful vote and decided to ditch Town Meeting by a 7-2 margin.  And six months later when the Charter was completed it was the exact same 7-2 vote to send it to the voters.

In fact the two Town Meeting loyalists back then became almost obstructionists after that initial kill-Town-Meeting vote and started to work against the Charter well before it was complete.

Of course the other fateful decision they made by a much narrower 5-4 vote was to keep a Town Manager and give him more authority than a Mayor who would be pretty much a ceremonial figurehead.

Let's hope this Charter Commission has learned from (recent) history.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Price of Protest

Pipeline protest prevented bank entry for 6 hours (although drive up was open)
Throughout the occupation no less than a dozen supporters were always on scene

The four arrested do-gooders who chained themselves to the main entry and exit doors of TD Bank on Triangle Street blocking access for six hours all pleaded not guilty and brokered a deal with ADA Bob Opsitnik to reimburse the town $800 for all the public safety personnel they needlessly tied up.

Now $200 each may not sound like much, but the usual court cost imposed is $50 and I've seen a few set at $100 but the only time in memory it went that high was for the infamous case of the Blarney Blowout when most of the perps reimbursed the town $200, wrote a letter of apology to APD and did 40 hours of community service.

Since these protesters were apologetic to APD the entire time of the incident, no need for a letter of apology and their idea of "community service" would probably be standing in town center with their anti-pipeline signs.

Since the four were egged on and supported throughout the occupation by about 20 other like-minded individuals if they split up the total cost it only comes to $35 or $40 each.

But I can assure you if this happens again the next four perps will not get off so (relatively) easily.  

Alyssa Johnson-Kurts
Harrison Greene
  Paxton Reed
  Marc Oston

(Although I wish they interviewed the young woman who quit to find out why)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Charter Fork In The Road

The Amherst Charter Commission has scheduled a marathon four hour meeting Monday night in an attempt to close out the year with a major milestone setting a direct course for a noteworthy final destination:  a new and improved local government.

And all roads lead through the question whether Town Meeting should continue beyond the 257 year mark?

At the consultants urging -- with time starting to run out -- the Commission will probably come to a straw vote on whether to keep Town Meeting in some form as the legislative branch.

A majority of members have telegraphed enough discontent with Town Meeting to indicate a yes vote for a replacement Council form of legislative branch, but a 5-4 vote will not be overly reassuring to the voters who have to approve the new Charter by majority vote.

But even Gerry Weiss,  stalwart defender of Town Meeting seems agreeable to at least downsizing the body from the current 240+ members and he also liked the idea of replacing the five member Select Board with a Mayor, but was told by the consultants the Attorney General would not accept such a hybrid.

Back in 1996 a Charter that failed miserably downsized Town Meeting to 150 members, kept a Town Manager but added a separate Council and a weak Mayor (elected only to lead the Council).

Something for everyone to hate.

The most contentious issue that will create the most enthusiasm for both enacting and/or defeating the new Charter proposal is this  issue about keeping or killing Town Meeting.

The Charter Commission, after nine months of meetings, public hearings and general outreach needs to bite the bullet and make this epic call. Now!

Hint:  Any new Charter that maintains antiquated Town Meeting -- in any form -- is doomed to failure. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Don't Do The Crime

Soknang Chham arraigned before Judge Ross for murder

Eastern Hampshire District Court this afternoon hosted more police officers than I have ever seen including representatives from Belchertown, Amherst, State and a few extra bailiffs for good measure.

 State and local PD stood in the Courtroom

And midway through the arraignment of Soknang Chham for the shooting death of Jose "Joselito" Rodriguez after an outburst from a couple spectators you understand what the extra security was all about.

Crowd of friends and family 

The entire proceedings took perhaps 45 minutes but the actual time in the Court Room for Judge Ross was probably no more than 10 minutes, although he quickly left the room briefly after the outburst and then returned for the second arraignment.

 Click to enlarge/read

 Soksot Chham arraigned for accessory after the fact to murder

The court room was packed with about three dozen friends and family of the deceased.  The actual murder trial will probably take place in Northampton Superior Court since Eastern Hampshire District Court does not deal with full blown murder trials.