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.