Friday, January 6, 2017

Charter Commission Flip Flop?

Charter Commission:  8 out of 9 were in attendance last night

Much to the horror of the Collins Institute consultants the Amherst Charter Commission spent an hour discussing a topic not on the agenda, a sort of do over of the previous meeting where a 5-4 straw vote set a path towards Mayor/Council leaving our current Select Board/Town Meeting/Manager system relegated to the dust bin.

Town Meeting loyalist Gerry Weiss read a defiant statement lamenting the lack of discussion by Charter Commissioners about "improving" Town Meeting and suggested he would outright oppose any new form of government proposed that did not include Town Meeting.

Weiss was joined by Julia Rueschemeyer who echoed the same concerns even going so far to say the lawyer in her was tempted to call for a revote knowing Mayor/Council supporter Irv Rhodes was not in attendance.

But Chair Andy Churchill pointed out a 4-4 tie vote would still mean the motion fails, so it would not undo the 5-4 vote from the previous meeting.

The Select Board will vote on Monday night whether to allow town boards and committees to use "remote participation," so in the future when Mr. Rhodes is traveling and unable to make a meeting he can use an electronic device to participate and his vote will count.

The consultants were concerned about an already tight deadline with this backtracking taking up valuable time.

The Commission decided to flesh out the Mayor/Council proposal for the rest of the meeting and on January 19th briefly revisit the idea of "improving Town Meeting" and take yet another vote which form is the best for them to pursue over the next six months.

Although Mr. Weiss was quick to acknowledge that it will still end up a 5-4 vote in favor of Mayor/Council.

Over the rest of the night they did vote to support forming a Council of 13 members, one per precinct (Amherst has 10 precincts) and three elected "at large"; and the precinct Councilors serve two year terms while the three at large Councilors each have a four year term.

And, like a kid taking his toys and going home, Mr. Weiss abstained on those two votes. 

Let's hope on January 19 when the Charter Commission reaffirms their earlier vote to mothball Town Meeting, Mr. Weiss will simply resign and let someone replace him who can help move the Commission steadily forward on solid ground rather than seeking a quagmire.

No Signatures For You?

Jones Library:  An iconic presence in the heart of downtown

The Jones Library Trustees met yesterday and spent about 25 minutes discussing whether the library could or should be used as a favorite fishing spot to bag signatures for town wide office -- especially that of Jones Library Trustee.

Although clearly a public space and therefor fair game, Trustee President Austin Sarat made a distinction between "norms vs. rights".

Most agreed that a sitting Trustee asking an employee they technically have power over for a signature on their nomination papers is a tad intrusive because the employee might feel "pressured" to sign.

Director Sharon Sharry pointed out the "gauntlet" that sets up in front of the Middle School Auditorium on the first few nights of Town Meeting with candidates in search of signatures, and she would prefer that not happen at the Jones Library two front entries.

Rookie Trustee Alex Lefebvre, appointed by a joint meeting of the Select Board and Trustees last month, said she doesn't like being approached by strangers when shopping at Stop & Shop to sign petitions or nomination papers.

The Trustees took no formal action but will send it to a sub committee for further study.  In the audience was Terry Johnson a candidate for Library Trustee on the upcoming March 28 election who also applied for the temporary seat won by Alex Lefebvre who voiced strong support for the library expansion during the interview before Select Board and Library Trustees.

Ms. Johnson was not overly supportive of the expansion during the interview.

As such Ms. Lefebvre was appointed by the Trustees to their Building and Facilities Sub Committee and the Joint Capital Planning Committee.

Director Sharon Sharry also updated Trustees on the progress of the e-x-p-a-n-s-i-o-n telling them the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners had come back with required changes in the preliminary plans and all of them had been implemented.

The final Construction Grant Application is due January 26th and they hear back whether it will be funded on July 13th.

At the Spring Town Meeting starting in late April the Library will request permission to apply for and receive grant funds (if approved by the state) and at the Fall Town Meeting will request the amount of town money needed to go along with the state money and private fundraising efforts.

Current estimates for the Jones Library expansion/renovation is in the $32 million range with the state paying $15 million, private donations of $5 million, and a taxpayer Debt Exclusion Override of $12 million.

The Jones Library endowment now stands at $7.63 million and President Sarat brought up the idea of perhaps using more than the 4% draw to support the operation budget this coming fiscal year.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

DUI Dishonor Roll

On average 2 out of 3 people will be involved in drunk driving crash in their lifetime.  Yikes!

Since veteran drinkers refer to New Year's Eve as "amateur night" I was a little surprised but overly pleased Amherst police only arrested one driver for being impaired over the long weekend.

And with a chemical breath test almost twice the legal limit he was most certainly impaired, and driving in a busy part of town at a time when many innocent citizens would be going about their business.

 Henrique Daviega, age 49

 Click to enlarge/read

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Recycling Cop?

Transfer Station on closed landfill helps fund town's solid waste/recycling programs

Back in December Town Manager Paul Bockelman told the Select Board Amherst had received a $50,000 state grant to hire a full time "Waste Reduction" employee.

Of course it's a "matching grant" so the town will have to come up with $50K in tax money and once the state money is gone the town will assume full responsibility for the cost of that position.

Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer did not seem overly enthusiastic about the idea telling the Town Manager we don't have to jump on money just because it's offered by the state, although she certainly did not have that attitude with the Massachusetts School Building Authority's $33 million match for the new Mega School, aka Maria's Folly.

The Recycling & Refuse Management Committee will go before the Select Board on Monday night to discuss their Solid Waste Master Plan which was issued over a year ago but to little if any notice.

Coming this close on the heels of the single use plastic bag ban which takes away a convenience most shoppers and stores took for granted, combined with the push for a full time employee to enforce such rules and regulations the issue may get a tad more attention.

 Big Y switched to thin paper bags

And of course "public outreach/education" is one of the stated goals of their Master Plan.

But businesses in spite of the inconvenience seem to have come into compliance with the plastic bag ban just as they did a couple years ago with the Styrofoam ban, so a full time enforcement cop is hardly necessary unless of course the town continues down the road of increasingly restrictive ordinances.

The RRMC is also concerned about the number of private trash haulers doing business in town (7) and would like to get that down to only three or better yet one to reduce the number of trucks running all over town spewing hydrocarbons as they go.

Draft recommendations from Master Plan

Restaurants would also be penalized for not keeping organic wastes out of the trash stream through composting.

And if there's any free time left in their workweek the Waste Reduction employee could snoop through homeowners trash to make sure it does not contain more than 5% recyclables or the occasional mercury thermometer or cadmium batteries.

The Town Manager is required to submit his budget to the Select Board in a couple of weeks and since it's a safe bet he's not going to increase the number of desperately needed full time firefighters, any new position he does add -- even if somewhat paid for by state money -- will come under close scrutiny.

And hiring a new employee dealing only with trash, recycling, sludge and compost may not pass the smell test.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top Story Of 2017?

No doubt our little college town will made a few "Best in America" lists

Trying to predict what story will captivate readers in the coming year is like trying to predict what the weather will be like in early-to-mid March. 

Which would be a valuable skill if only to illuminate the potential recurrence of an obnoxious event that made my top story of 2013 and 2014, The Blarney Blowout.

Blarney is primarily an outdoor event, thus weather dependent.  Combine the old maxims  "bad weather is a cop's best friend" and "March comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb" and there's always a good chance for Mother Nature alone to mitigate the rowdiness.

Last year's Blarney Blowout -- or I should say Blarney Blowover -- still made my top ten list for hits but since nothing really happened that readership was down dramatically from those two years when it was my top story.

And with a mutual aid agreement in place with all surrounding police departments and UMass willing to fund extra boots on the ground that day, I'm confident this year's event will be about as exciting as a Boy Scout Jamboree.  Much to the chagrin of ZooMass aficionados.

Major building projects will generate a lot of buzz in the coming year.  The controversial Jones Library expansion comes up for a vote at the Town Meeting starting in April to allow the project to apply for state funding and then again at the Fall Town Meeting to set the all important matching amount the town will need to chip in.

The equally controversial new DPW building will need $350,000 at the Spring Town Meeting for "schematic design" phase as will the new far less controversial South Fire Station.  The DPW initial cost estimates are three times that of the new Fire Station so it will be a much harder sell.

In fact the town currently has enough money stashed away in savings accounts ($12 million) to cover the entire estimated cost of the new Fire Station.

Zoning issues are ALWAYS controversial especially if they are, gasp, pro development.  The Planning Board will also probably bring a recreational marijuana article to Town Meeting and the Select Board will also probably place a referendum question on the election ballot to limit the number of recreational sales permits the town has to allow.

K-12 School issues are ALWAYS a page view magnet and with the need to hire a new Superintendent, the highest paid employee in town, that will generate more buzz than a fleet of quadcopter drones.

And since Amherst is still a bastion of naive liberalism there's always the possibility of  one of those "only in Amherst" type scenarios that could go viral at any time, as we witnessed not to long ago with flag controversy at Hampshire College.

For instance if the town refuses to fly the commemorative American flags on Inauguration Day later this month because they don't like who's being inaugurated, that would probably do it. 

Death is also one of those unexpected attention grabbers.  The tragic death of Town Manager John Musante on an otherwise gorgeous Sunday morning was my top story of 2015 as well as top ten story of all time.

Over the past year there were a number of suicides, heroin overdoses and an accidental gun death that received no media attention at all, but a couple a very high profile incidents that were hard to ignore:

The inexplicable head on crash into a parked Peter Pan bus in town center  that took the life of a 22 year old and the horrific truck piloted by a drunk driver trampling to death a man sitting in town center waiting for the bus both made my top ten list.

Oddly enough my top story of all time happened last year but it was routine District Court appearance links from a year earlier that attracted all the eyeballs when the national media linked to those dispatches as background for the infamous "Mac & Cheese kid," aka Luke Gatti.

Ah, the vagaries of the digital age.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Making The Naughty List

McMurphy's Uptown Tavern:  A college aged youth favorite

A little late for Christmas but just in time for New Year's Day the Boston Globe published a list yesterday of Massachusetts bars and restaurants named as the last place the perp had a drink before getting behind the wheel of a deadly weapon only to be taken off the street by a sagacious patrol cop.

Now I will have to make inquiries on Tuesday because the Globe states these were a byproduct of being "convicted" of drunk driving.

Because after a few years of covering Eastern Hampshire District Court I'm used to hearing the name of an establishment that served the last drink to a driver arrested for drunk driving but they were smart enough to take a plea deal known as a 24D disposition.

In other words they were not "convicted" of drunk driving and after a year the charge is dismissed.

But over the years I've observed perhaps a 100 or more of these plea deals and I have heard McMurphy's Uptown Tavern named more than a few times as the last place the driver was served a drink.

For instance (A BAC almost 2.5 times over the limit)

Sure the perp could by lying and just trying to get a particular bar in trouble because they once made them stand in line too long to get in, but I seriously doubt it.  Because that would be perjury -- and the Courts frown on that even more than they do DUI.

So I was not surprised in the least to see McMurphy's name appearing  on the list published by the Boston Globe.  After all, they were the architects of the infamous Blarney Blowout. 

The Other #1 Story Of 2016

A sea of flags at Hampshire College protest called by VFW Post 754

The Maria Geryk debacle that I declared the #1 story of 2016 was based on number of Blog hits and comments on the initial story that appeared a day or two before other media sources picked it up.

So it was a pretty easy call declaring it the top story of the year.  Mainly because it had such a far reaching impact over long period of time, which still has not concluded since the $67 million Mega School -- Maria's Folly -- comes up for a revote at a Special Town Meeting January 30th.

But the story that reached far more eyeballs than the Geryk affair -- mainly on Facebook rather than my Blog -- was the embarrassing deja vu incident with the American flag at Hampshire College. 

Or perhaps I should say the lack of an American flag at Hampshire College.

My Facebook post of B2 video showing the enormous flag waving crowd on the day of protest called by our local VFW had almost 30,000 views on Facebook alone.  Which goes to show the power of that website for news distribution.

Interestingly enough the first blog post I did on the flag controversy lamenting the initial idiotic decision to fly the flag at half staff to protest the election of Donald Trump was the first time I was banned by Facebook for 24 hours.

Maybe some of the Facebook moderators are Hampshire College grads.