Recap of the December 17th Select Board Meeting

(12/19/07)  The Select Board met Monday, December 17th at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.  Gerry Weiss, Rob Kusner, Alisa Brewer, Hwei-Ling Greeney and Anne Awad were present, as was Town Manager Larry Shaffer.  Judith Arcamo took the minutes of the meeting.

Announcements and Agenda Review

Mr. Weiss said that Ms. Greeney had asked to add a discussion about the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) to the agenda.  He said he would also like to add the topics of a downtown project and a problem with the Town’s Annual Report.

Ms. Greeney said that she had provided information to the Select Board members with the BCG’s charge and minutes, and requested that the topic be added to the next meeting’s agenda so that the members have time to read the materials first.  Also for the next meeting she requested agenda items for: discussion of a policy for public use of Kendrick Park; a solution to the graffiti problem; and a report from the Town Manager about the traffic situation at the Strong Street and East Pleasant Street intersection, if he would not instead be addressing that at this meeting. 

Mr. Weiss said there would be a discussion of multiple Department of Public Works issues at the first or second meeting in January, and that that intersection would be discussed then. 

Mr. Kusner shared cookies he had won as the runner-up prize in Phyllis Lehrer’s annual post card contest in the Amherst Bulletin, and cookies baked by his wife.  He then said he had been giving much thought to the issue of re-election, and said that he has run for Select Board in 2001 and 2005.  He said that he has worked hard and done his best to serve the Town.  He said that he will be on sabbatical for the spring semester and will be dividing his time between Amherst and Philadelphia where he will teach at the University of Pennsylvania, and look after his father who lives in that area.  He said that he has determined that running for re-election would prevent him from conducting his public and professional responsibilities.  He said he has decided with pause and regret that the time has come “pass the baton” to others, and that he would not put his name on the ballot for the April 1st election.  He said he hoped people would step forward now and in the future with willingness and ability to serve the Town.  He said he wished those people well and said he hopes that they will listen to the community and to their predecessors on the Select Board. He thanked the public for having given him the opportunity to serve Amherst, thanked his colleagues on the Select Board, the Town Manager and the staff “for putting up with me over the last three years.”

He then displayed the graph (click here and go to page 5) he had discussed at the last meeting, which he said shows the declining fraction of the personal income in the State that is being paid in State and local taxes.  He said that the amount was 13.6% 25 to 30 years ago, and a little over 10% in 2005.  He said that inflation had decreased the value of the dollar, and that the fraction of the wealth benefiting the public sector had decreased.  He said his message had been “garbled” after the previous meeting, and reiterated his points from then about the Governor seeking casino revenues to pay for road and bridge work, instead of pursuing an 11.5 cent per gallon gas tax, which Mr. Kusner said had been the advice of the Governor’s counsel; the artificial limit of 2.5% for property tax increases; and the need to find a “fairer way” to collect the taxes necessary to fund State and local government. 

Public Comment

Diana Stein asked about published reports that $800,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money included $300,000 in administrative costs, which she said was an unusually high administrative proportion.   Mr. Shaffer said that the grant is $800,000 per year for two years, for a total of $1.6 million.  He said that CDBG and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allow 15% to 18% of a grant to go toward administrative costs, and said that those are broadly defined to include things like architectural and engineering services, and feasibility studies, in addition to salaries and more standard administrative expenses.  Ms. Stein asked if the $300,000 was for two years of administrative costs, and Mr. Shaffer confirmed that it was so.

Ed Cutting identified himself as a UMass student and asked if the Select Board and Town Manager were familiar with anti-discrimination laws.  He said that the Town risked losing its HUD and Department of Education grants if it treats the Boy Scouts differently than it treats other organizations.  Mr. Shaffer said he is aware of non-discrimination laws and has no intention of treating the Boy Scouts differently than other groups.  Mr. Weiss said that the Boy Scout’s use of Kendrick Park would be discussed later in the meeting.

Bill Elsasser spoke about a homeless woman who he said is freezing and starving in a tent in the woods.  He asked if there could be “crisis intervention” to assist her.  Mr. Weiss said that he or Ms. Greeney would try to follow up on the information, but that it was not appropriate to discuss the woman’s private matter in a public forum without her participation or consent.  Ms. Greeney said that many feel a sense of “desperation” in wanting to help someone in such a circumstance and being unable to do so.  She said that having the assistance of social workers weekly at Not Bread Alone and the Amherst Survival Center is helpful, but more help is needed.

Ms. Brewer returned to the CDBG issue raised earlier and said that the newspaper said that the $300,000 in administrative costs also cover assistance to existing social service programs.  Mr. Weiss said that Community Services Director Roy Rosenblatt could probably provide a more detailed breakdown of the administrative fees.

Select Board Liaison Assignments (6:55)

Ms. Greeney distributed a document to the Select Board that she said resulted from her and Mr. Kusner’s work assessing the active or dormant status of Town boards and committees.  She said the list left blank all the Select Board liaison names so that the members might start fresh to choose new assignments, and that Ms. Brewer, as the newest Select Board member would have many options.

There was lengthy discussion about how best to handle this task.  There was also discussion about the role of liaisons.  Ms. Awad said that in the past, the Select Board did not assign liaisons to Town Manager-appointed committees, and said that some committees have no liaisons and function fine. She suggested that such options be considered.  Ms. Greeney said that being liaison to many committees is a lot of work, and one cannot attend all the meetings.  She said that the liaison is responsible for making sure that committees are fulfilling their charges, and said that for the Select Board’s own benefit as liaisons as well as for public benefit, they ought to ensure that all committee agendas and minutes are posted on the Town web site, and in a timely fashion.  Ms. Brewer read the description of liaisons from the Appointed Committee Handbook, and said she thinks the liaison’s role is to be a resource for the committee, providing access to Town Hall information.  Mr. Weiss suggested that the topic of the liaison’s role be dealt with at another time. 

Eventually, members chose committees they sought to serve as liaisons to as follows: 

Mr. Kusner:  Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC), Conservation Commission, Electricity Deregulation Study Committee, Planning Board, Public Transportation Committee, Public Works Committee, BCG, Parking Task Force, Agricultural Commission, Zoning Subcommittee, Water Supply Protection Committee

Mr. Weiss:  Community Development Committee (CDC), Council on Aging, Disability Access Advisory Committee, BCG, Parking Task Force, Personnel Board, Economic Development Group, Chancellor’s Meetings

Ms. Awad:  Cable Advisory Committee, Cherry Hill Advisory Committee, Human Rights Commission, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee, La Paz Centro Sister City Committee, Nyeri Sister City Committee, Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, Public Art Commission, Zoning Subcommittee, Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC)

Ms. Greeney:  Committee on Homelessness, CDC, Public Art Commission, Public Works Committee, Recycling and Refuse Management Committee, Shop Local First Committee, Town Commercial Relations Committee, Chancellor’s Meetings, JCPC, Economic Development Group, Campus Community Coalition

Ms. Brewer:  Local Emergency Planning Committee, Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee, 250th Anniversary Committee, Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC), Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, Historical Commission, LSSE

Ms. Brewer said that she would contact the committees without liaisons to see if they feel that they need one.  She also asked about the status of the Cable Advisory Committee.  Mr. Shaffer said that having signed the contracts with Comcast and ACTV, he is taking time to think about that committee’s charge before making new appointments.

Select Board Meeting Structure

Mr. Weiss suggested that this be postponed to another meeting.

Town Manager’s Report – Boy Scouts at Kendrick Park  (7:30)

Mr. Shaffer said that the topic of the Boy Scouts’ Christmas tree sale at Kendrick Park had swirled out of control and that he wanted to provide information on how it got to this point and suggestions on how to proceed for the future.  He said that Kendrick Park had previously been held by a trust on behalf of the Town, but was not owned by the Town until the Town took title last year.  He said that the Christmas tree sale had been allowed by the trust’s executor when the trust held the land.  He said that earlier in the year, a representative from the Boy Scouts asked Mr. Shaffer if they could hold the tree sale at Kendrick Park again this year, and that Mr. Shaffer had said that he would prefer to not have that happen.  Mr. Shaffer said that his concern was that this was a new piece of Town property and that there had been no discussion of a use policy for it, and no discussion yet of its design criteria, and said he did not want the property “unduly encumbered” in any way this year or in future years.  He said that he asked the Boy Scouts to investigate other locations, and said that the Boy Scout representative told him a month or so later that they had not found another suitable location and asked to be at Kendrick Park “for one more year.”  Mr. Shaffer said that considering the lateness in the year, he thought it would be prudent to grant permission for the use on a one-time basis.  He said he was concerned that because it was public land use, there should be some public benefit, and said that he suggested a contribution to the Town of $1 per tree, and said that the Boy Scout representative agreed.  Mr. Shaffer said that the sale then proceeded and that he thought the arrangement would go on “unbeknownst to anybody,” and said he did not expect it to become a “cause célèbre.  He said that he has no hostility to the Boy Scouts and hopes that they raise lots of money to “continue on with their fine programs.”  He said his concern was having the use of the property defined by previous usage instead of by Town policy or discussion.  He said that in the future, he suggests that there be a use policy in place that addresses who might use the park, for what purposes and for what duration, and said that those are issues that warrant public dialogue and scrutiny.  Mr. Shaffer said that Curt Shumway and Barry Roberts have said that they will be funding the Boy Scout’s contribution to the Town in an amount that he said was roughly equivalent to what the Boy Scouts’ fee would have been for the sale of trees.  He said that the Boy Scouts were able to use the park this year and were not “financially injured” by the fee, and that there needs to be a public conversation about the future use of the park.  He said that this had not been his “most glorious moment in public administration” but said that these policy issues need to be addressed. 

Mr. Weiss asked if there are currently guidelines for park use.  Mr. Shaffer said that Town Commons are in the public way and under the Select Board’s authority, and said that the Select Board assigns regulation of Commons to the Town Manager.  Mr. Shaffer said that the use and rental of other public property is in the Town Manager’s jurisdiction.  He said that there are regulations in place for parks and that they anticipate recreational use, such as rental of pavilions at Mill River.

Mr. Weiss said that despite it not being a “glorious” situation for the Town Manager, the Boy Scouts were expected to benefit by selling more trees and receiving donations because of the issue’s publicity. 

Ms. Greeney asked how Kendrick Park might be designated as a Town Common.  Ms. Awad said that Town Meeting would have to do that.  Ms. Brewer said that the Town Act gives the Town Manager jurisdiction over the rental and use of all Town property, including Town Commons, but not including School or Library property. 

Mr. Shaffer said that a charge is being drafted by Town staff for a committee that will consider and make recommendations on the future of Kendrick Park, and that all relevant Town committees would be involved.  He said that many ideas had already been suggested by the public, including having a carousel there, having a UMass and Amherst College gate, a public market, an ice skating rink, public theater and concerts, and more.  Ms. Greeney asked that consideration also be given to leaving it as open space for people to enjoy, and Mr. Weiss suggested Sweetser Park as analogous to her suggestion. 

Mr. Kusner said that the Select Board had been “caught off guard” by the issue, and said that he wanted the public to know that it had been Mr. Shaffer’s decision.  He asked if Mr. Shaffer had earlier been referring to “encumbrances” in a legal sense.   

Mr. Shaffer said he was speaking about practical encumbrances rather than legal ones.  He said he has concern as to whether those who allowed the Boy Scouts’ use did so without making it clear that the Town would not be obligated to continue allowing the use after the property was conveyed.  He said that there would be a conversation “with the people on that end” about there being “implications of their allowing this to happen, and a suggestion that they may want to participate in the solution.”

Ms. Brewer said that while Mr. Shaffer has the legal authority over the property, she said that she hopes he will continue to talk to the Select Board about it, and said she wanted it to be considered in the context of all the Town parks, rather than separately.  She mentioned issues around who pays for electricity at different locations, and noted that the Boy Scouts had had the electricity installed on Kendrick Park at their own expense and for their own use.  She said that the Town needed to be clear that it was implementing its regulations fairly.  She thanked the Boy Scouts for how they handled the process and for having been “agreeable” about it, and said that she was glad the group and the Town were continuing the discussions. 

There was more talk about the need for a use policy, and the fact that it wouldn’t be ready in the next couple of months.  Mr. Shaffer said that the draft committee charge is available.

Bill Hart identified himself as a local attorney and a “twice removed” Scout Master for Troop 504.  He said he had spoken with Mr. Shaffer when the property was first conveyed to the Town, and that he had been the liaison from the Boy Scouts to the Kendrick Trust.  He said that there was no expectation about rights to or possession of the property by the Boy Scouts.  He said they have asked for permission to use the site every year and have always named the trust, and now the Town, as the “co-insured” on their liability insurance.  He said he thought the situation had generated the public reaction that it has because of a sense that political correctness might have been overtaking tradition.  He said the Boy Scouts understand that it is now the Town’s park.  He said that the trust specifies that the land be a park, and said that another use might require that the trust be modified.  He said that he would like to encourage the Town to create a system that would allow the Boy Scouts to continue to use the space.  He said that it is ideal for them because they have been there for so long, and everyone knows and expects to find them there.  He said that men who sold trees there as children come from far away to buy their trees there now, and that students buy trees there and carry them home.  He said the Scouts want to be part of the new process; that they hope a decision can be made soon so that they can make other plans if necessary; and that if there is to be a fee, that they have an opportunity to decide if it is reasonable.  He said the Scouts are grateful for the public outpouring of support, and said that theirs is a quiet organization and does not want to be in the public eye in this way.

Town Manager’s Report – Plum Brook CPA Funds (8:02)

Mr. Shaffer said that he and Mr. Weiss have been talking with Town Counsel about the use of Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) funds for the “indebtedness portion” of the Plum Brook soccer fields reconstruction costs.  He said that there is a narrow scope of authorized uses for CPAC funds, and said that if this is found to not comply, then Town Counsel will provide a suggested course of action.

Mr. Weiss said the discussion comes in the wake of a court decision in Newton in which taxpayers challenged the use of CPAC funds for a park.  He said the situation there is not exactly the same as Plum Brook, and said that the decision is being appealed.  He said that when the request for the funding had been on the Town Meeting warrant several times, that the then-Town Counsel had approved it and not expressed concern.  Mr. Weiss said that CPAC laws are being worked on constantly, and said that this is one that needs to be resolved.

Ms. Awad said that “in fairness” to Town Counsel and the Select Board, this is new legislation, and that both learn as the situation progresses.  She said that while the Newton situation is different, the language of the court decision suggests that Plum Brook’s funding is not legal.  She asked what would be done if that is the determination, in light of the Town’s budget problems.

Mr. Weiss said that the “ripple effects” of such a determination are being discussed with Town Counsel, and that there are no answers yet but there will be soon.

Ms. Awad said that she has also been “haunted” by another part of the Plum Brook financing, which she said had been the use of about $50,000 that had been left over from the Brickyards Conservation area funding.  She said that as long as the project’s financing is being looked at, she would like all of it to be considered.

Mr. Weiss said he had asked the then-Town Manager, CPAC and the Planning Department about the CPAC and Brickyards funds, and been assured that there were no issues.  He said he didn’t know if Town Counsel had been questioned about it at that time.

Mr. Kusner said the court case in question is Newton vs. Seideman, and said that the ruling was that CPAC funds could be used to acquire but not refurbish recreation land.  Mr. Weiss said that acquisition is not the only allowable use, and that the question is whether Plum Brook’s funding is allowable under a different category, and that an opinion from Town Counsel would be available soon.

Town Manager’s Report – Sprinklers in Bars  (8:11)

Mr. Shaffer said that there are nine establishments in town that fall under the Massachusetts General Law requiring bars and night clubs with capacities of over 100 people to have automated sprinkler systems:  McMurphy’s, The Harp, Delano’s, The Pub, Rafters, Amherst Brewing Company, Hickory Ridge, the VFW and Michael’s Billiards.  He said that Delano’s and Michael’s Billiards have elected to reduce their capacity so as not to require sprinklers.  He said that the VFW and Hickory Ridge have opted out of the program through an application to a State appeals board.  He said that the other five are in compliance and have sprinklers or are in the process of complying.  He said that Fire Chief Keith Hoyle is said that all are in compliance or working diligently to achieve compliance and that the Chief is satisfied with the progress.  Mr. Shaffer said there were no issues regarding the recent renewal of license for those businesses because of the current status and said that if they were non compliant, Town Counsel has suggested a hearing process for handling such cases. 

Town Manager’s Report – Police Details for Events on the Common

Mr. Shaffer explained the application for using the Town Common, and how one of the requirements is for police details for events with more than 75 people.  He said that there is no longer a downtown walking beat for police officers, and said that the issue is who pays when security is required for large events.  He said that given the budget situation, payment should come from those who generated the cost. 

There was discussion about how the costs outlined would be exorbitant for non-profits holding fundraising events on the Common, and how those fees have traditionally been waived in the past, and the vulnerability of determining whose fees do and do not get waived.  Ms. Brewer asked if the policy was worth the effort and complexity.

Mr. Shaffer said that the policy needs to be reconsidered and said he would do so and bring back a new recommendation.

There was a brief break in the meeting.  It resumed at 8:33.

Town Meeting Dates (8:33)

Mr. Weiss said that the Select Board had received feedback from the Town Clerk, the Finance Director, the Planning Director, the Moderator, the Finance Committee and a staff person in the Town Manager’s office, all opposing the possibility of starting Town Meeting two weeks after the Annual Election, and two weeks earlier than had originally been considered. 

Ms. Brewer said that she wanted to apologize that it had not been made clear that the Select Board had intended that no zoning or budget articles would be dealt with before April 28th.  She said that she was most concerned with the Town Clerk’s issues about post-election work to deal with Town Meeting seats regarding write-in votes and other complexities that require more time.  She said that all those issues made the early start not worth pursuing.  She proposed that nine dates rather than 12 be scheduled, starting April 28th, to create “psychological” pressure for the body to finish sooner. 

Mr. Kusner said he agreed with the idea of psychological pressure but said that the recent fall Town Meeting finished in fewer days than had been scheduled.   He said that the problem in the spring is that many May dates are skipped, and that Town Meeting ends up taking a break in the middle, which he said causes the body to lose its connection to the work it had been doing.

Mr. Weiss said that May dates had been skipped last year, and that the meeting had not started until May 7th.  He said that this proposal was for an April 28th start and not skipping any dates, and suggested keeping the three June dates in reserve rather than not scheduling them.  ,

Ms. Greeney moved to set the Annual Town Meeting calendar for April 28 and 30, May 5, 7, 12, 14, 19, 21 and 28, and June 2, 4 and 9.  Ms. Awad moved to amend the motion to say that the June dates are “in reserve.”  After some discussion about how best to represent this in the wording of the motion, the vote to approve the amended motion was unanimous.

Mr. Weiss announced that the deadline for filing zoning petition articles with the Select Board office is Friday, February 4th, and that they require 10 signatures. 

There was discussion about the technical details of how much time the Select Board needs to call Special Town Meetings, and how much time the Planning Board needs to hold hearings on proposed zoning changes, and the pros and cons of trying to establish additional deadlines for such.  Mr. Weiss said his intent was to make the legal filing dates, not to have a policy discussion about related topics. 

Mr. Weiss announced that the deadline for filing nomination papers for Town office is 5:00 p.m. on February 12th, the deadline for the Town Clerk to place questions on the ballot is February 26th, and the date of the Annual Town Election is April 1st.

Update on Town Manager’s Budget  (8:47)

Mr. Shaffer said that he has been meeting with John Musante and Maria Racca, and that the review of the departmental budget requests had been completed.  He said that he will submit his proposed budget on or before January 16th; that it will conform to the Finance Committee’s guidelines; and it will contain a prioritized list of items that did not make it into the budget.  He said that one of the “themes” of this budget is to use current surpluses to buy down future expenses.  He said that there is a soft hiring freeze, and that that has allowed surpluses to build.  He said that in the past, the practice had been to spend heavily early and hope there would be enough money left at the end, and that this new plan is to conserve early and use the surpluses to eliminate or reduce future expenses.  He said that the Health Care Trust Fund and retirement obligation both benefited from the hiring freeze.  He said that the Town’s telephone system had been scheduled to be paid off after two more annual payments of $57,000 each, and said that there is enough surplus to take care of one of those payments early.  He said he is seeking ways to remove such debt or lease obligations from future budgets, and said that purchasing golf carts for Cherry Hill with Cherry Hill budget excesses would eliminate the ongoing obligation of leasing carts. 

Mr. Shaffer said that the second theme is reorganization.  He said that the budget would include a proposal to reorganize LSSE, and to reorganize and consolidate the Conservation, Planning and Inspections departments. 

He said that he currently has a $300,000 gap to close in order to meet the budget guidelines.  He said that there are good-news elements and issues of concern.  He said that the Town still has a structural deficit, and said he does not want to “paint an overly rosy picture.”  He said he is very concerned about the “continual assault upon our revenue picture and our inability to -- in any meaningful way -- increase our revenue to the amount necessary to meet ongoing expenses.”  He said that a result is to seek fees where revenue is needed.  He said some revenue-generating suggestions will meet with Select Board approval, and others will face resistance.  He said that he congratulated the department heads for their budget work, and said it had not been an easy process.  He said that the structural deficit requires that in the long term, the town will have to wrestle with the issue of whether it is willing to pay more taxes or live with less service.

Mr. Weiss asked about the $300,000 gap.  Mr. Shaffer said that all the “easy stuff” had been done already, and that now he was dealing with “diminishing returns.”

Ms. Brewer asked about the status of contract negotiations, and asked for guidance on how to have a discussion about whether to continue to increase the Town, Library and School budgets by the same percentage or to redistribute that money differently, such as possibly giving more to the schools.

Mr. Shaffer said that he was in negotiations with the firefighters, the police officers, the DPW, and the CIU, and that the contracts for all are outstanding.  He said that he is reasonably close to a tentative deal with one group.  He said that the results of the negotiations will “weigh heavily” on the budget because wages and benefits are its primary elements. 

Mr. Shaffer said that the conversation about prioritizing the budget allocation is an important one, and is best done by the Select Board, given its policy-making authority under the Town Government Act.  He said that that should be part of the Select Board’s budget deliberations. 

Mr. Weiss said that the February 2nd meeting would be a good time to discuss that. 

Annual Town Report  (9:00)

Mr. Weiss said that the printing of the Annual Town Report was being delayed because there are two outstanding reports.  He said that his opinion is to go ahead and print it, but he wanted to see what the Select Board thought. 

Ms. Awad said that one report is due from a committee and the other from a department, and said that the Select Board has responsibility for the committee. 

Mr. Shaffer said he had not been aware of the department’s outstanding report and would see that it gets done by the end of the week.  He said that the Town Report is important, and is required by the Town Government Act.  He said it is the town’s formal statement for history and declaration to the community. 

Ms. Brewer said that the department in question has been very busy with Town Meeting and other responsibilities.  She said that CPAC is the committee and is “well covered” due to all the reports it is required to make to the State.

The Select Board members suggested some details that could comprise a simple CPAC report.  Mr. Shaffer said he was happy to provide whatever resources are needed to complete the report, such as typing assistance. 

Approval of Minutes  (9:05)

With considerable discussion and correction, the Select Board unanimously approved the amended minutes of the October 20th Four Boards meeting and the December 3rd Select Board meeting.  The amended minutes of the November 19th meeting were approved in a vote of 4 in favor, 1 abstention, and Ms. Brewer said that she abstained because she had been absent from that meeting. 

Committee Appointments  (9:31)

Mr. Shaffer recommended the appointment of State Geologist Stephen Mabee to the Water Supply Protection Committee.  The vote to approve the appointment was unanimous.

Closing Discussion

Mr. Weiss said that the Select Board members should create concrete performance goals for the Town Manager to be part of his next annual evaluation, and that they should be submitted to Mr. Weiss by January 3rd. 

It was discussed and confirmed that the Select Board’s budget meeting would be held on Saturday, February 2nd from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. 

There was discussion about getting committee minutes posted on the web site and what procedures and resources are necessary to do that.  It was suggested that that be a future agenda item, and Mr. Shaffer said he would be happy to talk about that. 

The meeting adjourned at 9:37 p.m.  The next Select Board meeting is scheduled for Monday, January 7th, at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

-- Stephanie O'Keeffe 

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