Friday, February 17, 2017

Gimme Shelter

UMass Student Union 10:45 AM
Amherst Town Center 10:30 AM

While the state legislature ponders making us a "sanctuary state" and Amherst insists we're a "safe haven" and UMass kids walkout this morning to protest President Trumps immigration policy, the Amherst School Committee was a tad forthright about making our public centers of learning "sanctuary schools."

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School Committee voted unanimously to support sanctuary resolution on Wednesday

How President Trump will react to all this is hard to predict since he has proven somewhat volatile over the past few days.

Although it's safe to say his rally tomorrow will bring out the huge adoring crowds he thrives on and will only serve to embolden his responses defending his policies. 

Chief Scott Livingstone (rt) told the Finance Committee last night that APD has received significant federal grant money over the years 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

School Committee To OML: Drop Dead

The Amherst School Committee, as expected, voted 4-0-1 to fight my Open Meeting Law complaint stemming from their spirited private participation in an ill fated campaign to sell the $66.3 million Mega School to Town Meeting.

And yes, the three in particular -- Katherine Appy, Anastasia Ordonez and Phoebe Hazzard -- took the time to respond angrily and in an ad hominem manner.

Fair enough.   After 30 years I'm used to it.  But just for the record, over that time period the majority of my OML complaints have been affirmed by either the District Attorney or Attorney General.

Abstaining member Vira Douangmany Cage asked the three members to submit from their email inbox the original non-redacted emails so the Attorney General could ascertain how many other public officials and school employees took part.

That didn't go over very well.  Then she tried to get Katherine Appy to abstain from the discussion/vote since she's been School Committee Chair for the past six years and obviously has a different idea of how public officials should behave.

That too went nowhere.  Then she requested the meeting minutes from the most recent School Committee meeting held just one week after the Town Meeting rejection be included in the AG response since it clearly shows the SC acting officially on the Mega School question.

Today my Anonymous source who originally sent me the redacted documents (except for the three School Committee members private email addresses) resent me the same file, except this time it was unredacted.

Names now showing include prominent Town Meeting members, four Charter Commissioners (out of nine) and a bevy of school employees, all using their private email accounts.

But even if a quorum (five) of Charter Commissioners had been involved that clearly would not be a violation of Open Meeting Law since their duties as Commissioners have nothing to do with an expensive new school.

The School Committee, on the other hand, has everything to do with the $66.3 million Mega School.  So for a quorum of them to participate in a behind the scenes shadow campaign to push that through Town Meeting is clearly unethical, immoral and downright illegal.

Especially when only one week later they officially vote not to withdraw the Mega School from the Mass School Building Authority program thus delaying by a full year the opportunity to resubmit another Statement of Interest for a new and better building plan.

If the three cheating School Committee members went out for a beer after last night's contentious meeting and raised a glass to my ultimate demise, that would not be an OML violation.  But if they discussed how they are going to handle my follow-up complaint to the AG, that clearly would be.

Public officials are held to a higher standard.  As they should be!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 18% Solution?

Amherst Select Board voted unanimously to call Mega School "Special Election" 3/28

The Amherst Select Board became pretty flustered on Monday night when discussing the $66.3 million Mega School vote coming up for the 4th time at the March 28th election, with Chair Alisa Brewer blurting out she was "beyond frustrated" with a murky response from Town Counsel, KP Law.

The SB has unanimously supported the Mega School the previous three times and probably know how remote the odds are of it passing only days before the drop dead deadline from the Mass School Building Authority.

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Everyone agrees that in order for the Town Meeting recent rejection to be overturned the voters must support the ballot question by a two thirds margin, because that was the hurdle it required from Town Meeting.

The murky part is does the question also require 18% of the voters to agree (2,983 votes) to overturn ... or just an 18% total turnout?   A previous town attorney, Alan Seewald, thought it was the former.

And what if someone takes a Referendum ballot and feeds it into the scanner blank, does that count towards the turnout?

But let's look at this backwards and the interpretation of previous Town Attorney actually makes a lot more sense.

Pretend Town Meeting on January 30 had approved the Mega School by the necessary two thirds vote and Save Amherst's Small Schools went out and got the necessary 5% of 16,569 "active" voters (829) to force a Referendum Town Meeting's approval.

Now remember the Referendum simply puts the question as previously presented to Town Meeting before the voters with the same quantum of vote required for passage (two thirds) or FAILURE (one third).

Thus at the March 28th  Referendum SASS would only need one-third of the voters to vote "NO" to the question of whether the town should finance a $66.3 million Mega School.

Therefor it would be pretty easy to overturn ANY decision of Representative Town Meeting that requires a two thirds vote of support, which all zoning articles and any borrowing require:  Get 5% of the voters to sign the Referendum petition and then only a 33% plus one vote at the ballot box.

I can't imagine that's what the Founding Mothers had in mind.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Don't Mess With God

The parking lot has been used for over a generation for Church parking

Only in Amherst would town officials declare Feburary 1st (St Brigid's Day) a day to celebrate Irish heritage while simultaneously instituting a new overnight parking program that bans parking in the town owned lot immediatley adjacent to -- you guessed it -- St Brigid's Church.

New parking policy started Feb 1st (No Parking 7-9 AM)

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There They Go Again

26 Spring Street is currently an open lot

Archipelago Investments has invested greatly over the past few years filling in the Amherst skyline with five story mixed use buildings that are mostly residential:  Boltwood Place, Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant which is now under construction.

On March 1st they go before the Planning Board for yet another similar project at 26 Spring Street in the heart of downtown for a 38 unit five story building with 1,000 square feet of commercial on the ground floor.

Commercial in yellow

Although located in the Municipal Parking District and therefor exempt from the usual 2 parking spaces per unit bylaw they will be providing 17 parking spaces.

And since the property is located in the (BG) General Business District they are only requesting two Special Permits from the Planning Board under Site Plan Review to increase lot coverage from 70% to 77% and a rear setback of 1' vs. 0 or 10'.

All in all very modest requests.  Especially considering the significant property tax increase to town coffers and the increase in badly needed rental housing stock. 

Since the property is nestled among commercial buildings (Lord Jeff, Police Station, Grace Church) NIMBY noise should not be overly deafening

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Cost Of Unbridled Optimism

Amherst has 16,569 active voters so 18% is 2,983

The venerable Amherst Select Board will place the $67 million Mega School on the ballot for the annual town election scheduled for March 28.  This will make the 4th time it has been voted on by Town Meeting and The People.

Although, since it's a  rare special "Referendum" election to overturn a Town Meeting action, it has to be decided in a "Special Town Election" separate from the annual town election.  But it can still be held at the same time as the regular 3/28 election, so it will cost taxpayers "only" an extra $8,000 for poll workers and printing additional ballots.

In order for the Referendum to succeed a two-thirds super majority to overturn Town Meeting is required and the election must have a minimum 18% turnout.  Over the past 30 years only three such Referendum votes have taken place and none of them have been successful overturning Town Meeting.

In fact even the requirement for an 18% turnout will be hard to meet as Amherst local elections over the past ten years have averaged only a 15% turnout.

Although a stand alone $2.5 million Override for the schools on May 1, 2007 attracted a 31.5% turnout and was defeated by a narrow margin.  Interestingly the regular annual town election held four days earlier attracted a 21% turnout.

And in 2003 and 2005 the annual local elections garnered over a 30% turnout due to the controversy sparked by the Charter question to change our current Select Board/Town Meeting government to a Mayor/Council/Manager.

In 1998 the Parking Garage Referendum vote to overturn Town Meeting's hard won approval for the tiny $4 million Boltwood Parking Garage garnered a 22% turnout and failed by less than 1%.

At the time Town Attorney Alan Seewald had interpreted the law to say 18% of the voters had to vote to overturn in order for the question to count.

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As a result the pro-garage Town Meeting defenders did little campaigning, since getting 18% of the electorate in a local election to vote to overturn anything is all but impossible.

But the Mega School issue has generated plenty of passion from both camps, so plenty of private money will be spent over the next six weeks targeting voters.  Good money after bad.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Clear & Egregious Violation

I've seen and complained about many an Open Meeting Violation over the past 25 years but this one takes the cake.

For a quorum of School Committee members to not only deliberate but outright scheme to get their way is beyond the pale.  Especially when their endgame will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars for a concept they do not particularly like.

   Amherst SC OML Violation by Larry Kelley on Scribd  (reverse chronological order)

What kind of an example does that set for the children of Amherst when elected pubic officials flagrantly violate the law to win?  Although, since they cheated and still lost, it does reaffirm my Irish mother's motto, "Cheaters never prosper."

I hate to think what further violations are taking place now that the Mega School question will be voted on for a fourth time at the March 28th town election.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mayor It Is!

All nine Amherst Charter Commissioners present (one by remote participation)

After spending almost an hour discussing a compromise proposal made by Meg Gage to salvage Town Meeting --  although downsizing it from 240 to 60 -- the Amherst Charter Commission stuck to their guns about replacing Town Meeting with a 13 member Council and then after a brief discussion voted 6-3 to support a (strong) Mayor in place of an unelected Town Manager.

In 2003 the Mayor/Council/Manager proposal to replace Select Board/Town Manager/Town Meeting failed by only 14 votes almost exclusively because the Mayor was a weak ceremonial figurehead.

Two weeks ago the Charter Commission heard from Northampton Mayor Dave Narkewicz who assured them professional management comes from putting together a strong team of department heads under the direction of one leader, where the buck always stops.

Mayor Dave Narkewicz (ctr), Mike Sullivan (rt)

When asked by Charter Chair Andy Churchill for any parting advice Mayor Narkewicz replied, "Make roles very clear.  Don't come up with a diluted mish-mash.  Know where the buck stops.  Don't go with a fake Mayor."

Tonight the Amherst Charter Commission took that advice to heart and made a huge step forward towards real genuine change, one that voters will embrace.

DUI Dishonor Roll

In 2014, three times as many males were arrested for drunk driving as females

Surprisingly Amherst PD did not make a single arrest for drunk driving last (Superbowl) weekend. 

Maybe everybody was too engrossed in the Superbowl drama to overindulge but you would have thought the celebrations from the stunning outcome would have resulted in a few folks making that major error in judgment.

UMass Police, however, did make two arrests. 

And since both of the perps took the legally admissible Breathalyzer test the likelihood of them beating the charge is about the same as the Patriots 4th quarter comeback.

Finn McCool, age 21, stands before Judge Thomas Estes
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 Matthew Pham, age 20
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Ninjas Gone Bad

Stephanos Georgiadis appears before Judge O'Grady

The judicial system is slowly but surely grinding its way to justice in the violent home invasion that somewhat shocked Amherst on October 30th last year.

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I say "somewhat" because it came soon after an even more shocking incident, a handgun murder that occurred at Southpoint apartments on October 15th, which is not all that far from the house that was invaded on South East Street.

Three of the perps have now been apprehended, so it's only a matter of time before the 4th is brought to justice.  Score one for the l-o-n-g arm of the law.

Didn't have my external microphone so turn up your volume

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

One Miracle Per Season

'Twill be a cold day in Hell when a Referendum vote overrides Town Meeting

What are the odds of Amherst voters supporting a measure that would increase their already extraordinary high property taxes by another few hundred dollars per year on a controversial building project now needing a two-thirds super majority?

About as likely as the Patriots last quarter comeback from a 28-3 deficit.

 About 1,700 signatures submitted to Town Clerk yesterday vs 7,000 who voted no on November 8th

But Mega School supporters do not have a Tom Brady leading their team.  In fact main wine-&-cheese cheerleader School Committee Chair Katherine Appy has already announced she will not be running for reelection.

 Crowd of about 50 (less than 1% of town voters) turned out last night for SC meeting

Her going away present was getting the School Committee to vote last night 4-1 against withdrawing the Mega School project from the MSBA process which now kills the prospects of reapplying this year with a Statement Of Interest to get back in the pipeline for a new improved project with real majority support.

The only thing that ever wins in Amherst by a two-thirds margin is a Democrat for President running against the Devil, err, Republican and perhaps a pot resolution.  In fact no Override ballot question over the past 30 years has passed (and about half have failed) by a two-thirds margin.

Now the rancor will continue until March 28th and in the end it will all be in vain.  Town officials fiddle while Amherst burns.

Amherst EMS: A New Normal

AFD provides ambulances to Amherst, Hadley, Leverett, Pelham & Shutesbury

This past weekend was not nearly as crazy as last weekend when AFD had to rely on NINE outside ambulances via mutual aid but three outside ambulances were required.  So still not acceptable.

Interestingly the difference in total calls was only seven less going from 56 down to 49 but it was the timing of the calls, which is the problem with ETOH (overly drunk) incidents as they tend to come in clusters.

And staffing last weekend was only 8 compared to 11 this weekend.  Thus demonstrating proper staffing makes all the difference.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Celebrate, Celebrate, Dance To The Music

Southwest concourse last night just after Patriots stunning comeback victory

Perhaps this a good sign for looking forward to March and what town officials refer to as, "The event that shall not be named."  Yes, thousands of UMass students can gather in unbridled celebration without riot gear clad police and pepper spray being required for dispersal.

Of course I do have to wonder if the game had ended differently in those final mesmerizing minutes of play and a large angry crowd had formed instead of the jubilant crowd, what the outcome might have been.

But all's well that ends well.  No arrests, only a few medical calls and no bad press for our flagship University.  Let's hope the BLARNEY BLOWOUT goes equally as well.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Fireground East Pleasant Street

Area units on scene with AFD Super Bowl Sunday morning
South Hadley E4 providing station coverage at Central Station this morning

As is the case with any major structure fire AFD required a little help from their friends, specifically: Northampton Fire Department, Pelham Fire Department, Hadley Fire Department, South Hadley District 2 Fire Department, Belchertown Ambulance, and South County Ambulance.

Fortunately this morning the smoke detectors did their job and all three residents home at the time made it to safety, although the structure's top floor sustained heavy damage and those below probably a fair amount of water damage.

But what if this awful event had occurred a week -- minus a few hours -- earlier?  AFD was so overwhelmed last weekend by medical calls (mostly alcohol related at UMass) that NINE mutual aid ambulances from surrounding departments were required to cover the calamity!

Since AFD is in ready mode for the Super Bowl we had 10 on duty and thus were able to muster a decent initial response, which can make a life or death difference.

Either way area departments would have responded because the emergency response system state-wide for fire/EMS is always spread ultra thin. 

And when the Beast comes calling it takes a combined effort of on-duty personnel area wide and our off-duty firefighters to meet the challenge.

This time, we won.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Sh*t Storm Indeed

$67 million Mega School

Over the past 20 years only two Town Meeting actions have been challenged by referendum (and failed) where enough signatures have been collected within the short five day deadline to force it on the local election ballot.

That alone is a major hurdle, requiring 5% of the registered voters to sign a petition.  But the most challenging aspect of the crusade is the state requires "the people" to meet the same standard imposed on Representative Town Meeting, in this case two-thirds support.

"A question put to the voters at large under the provisions of this section shall be determined by a vote of the same proportion of voters voting thereon as would have been required by law had the question been finally determined at a representative town meeting."
The other provision which sounds easy is the local election must garner a minimum turnout of 18% or the referendum vote is invalid. Now that may sound pretty easy but in overly politically active Amherst our local elections have garnered a pathetic average of 15% turnout over the past ten years.

Behind the scenes email exchanges, including elected officials 

The only local elections to attract over 18% turnout over the past generation involved Charter change (twice) -- aka replace Town Meeting/Select Board with Mayor/Council -- or pocketbook Override questions.

And none of those outcomes were decided by much more than a 55/45% margin.  And both of the referendum of Town Meeting attempts failed to pass after all the effort to get it on the ballot.

In fact this Mega School question already went to the voters on the November 8th ballot and only barely won a simply majority and even then by less than 1%.

It would be one thing if town officials were simply performing due diligence with no downside.  But that is far from the case, because in order to take this foolhardy desperate last stand we will lose one full year gaining Mass School Building Authority approval for a new and better plan.

The bigger the risk the bigger the reward I suppose.  Something I would expect from President Trump but not so much from our overly enlightened local government.

House on busy Rt 116

Thursday, February 2, 2017

3rd Time The Charm?

The town can submit both schools for MSBA funding

Kevin Collins, probably the most hated man in Town Meeting for his overzealous style, wants to collect 200 voter signatures to call yet another Special Town Meeting for yet another attempt at garnering a two-thirds vote needed for the new $67 million Mega School bond authorization.

While there's still time for that desperate Hail Mary to occur before the April 1st deadline the MSBA gave town officials for getting the needed Town Meeting approval another, however, more important deadline would be missed:

In order to get back in the MSBA pipeline immediately for funding on a new improved school plan, acting Superintendent Mike Morris must withdraw the original failed Mega School project by Monday otherwise we lose an entire year.

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If the acting Superintendent wastes an entire year on this impossible dream gamble, an irresponsible lack of judgement, he should be fired.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

DUI Dishonor Roll

In 2015, 10,265 people died in drunk driving crashes

Once again Amherst had only one driver taken off the road over the weekend by APD for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol.

Considering how completely overwhelmed AFD (and other area departments who came to assist) was with drunk runs from UMass to Cooley Dickinson Hospital late Saturday night I'm pleasantly surprised.

After all, there's a big difference between drinking too much in the privacy of your dorm room or at a party within walking distance and drinking too much and getting behind the wheel of a deadly weapon.

 Cassandra Lacoy stands before Judge Thomas Estes

Since Ms. Lacoy's Breathalyzer is not all that far over the limit and since she seemed pretty determined before Judge Estes that she will fight this charge she is probably a candidate for the class action suit in the Supreme Judicial Court questioning the accuracy of the BT.

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Well over 500 DUI cases have been "consolidated" and await the decision of our highest Court.  Of course if they find the Breathalyzer flawed and no longer usable by police departments for drunk driving enforcement, I'm giving up driving.