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Editorial: Welcome votes by Amherst Town Meeting

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kudos to Amherst Town Meeting for its votes during the past 2½ weeks supporting a sanctuary community bylaw, public art, a new historic district and added spending for social services.

That series of votes signals that Amherst wants to be known as a community that welcomes immigrants regardless of their status, aids its most vulnerable residents, and values art and history.

Monday’s 165-4 vote approving the sanctuary community bylaw is significant because it strengthens a resolution adopted by Town Meeting in 2012. Amherst joins Northampton as two of five cities and towns in Massachusetts declaring themselves sanctuary communities, which generally are defined as places where local police decline to cooperate with federal officials to deport undocumented immigrants who otherwise have not committed a crime.

The bylaw bars law enforcement officials in Amherst from inquiring about a person’s immigration status and from acting on detainer requests by the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency unless it has a criminal warrant.

The Amherst Sanctuary Committee sponsored the bylaw because many immigrants face an uncertain future resulting from President Donald Trump’s policies, including enlisting local communities to help with mass deportations. Human Rights Commission Chairman Matthew Charity told Town Meeting that his board is concerned about religious, ethnic and racial profiling as a result of Trump’s executive orders affecting immigrants.

Adoption of the sanctuary community came less than a week after the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee unanimously approved a policy to protect undocumented students. It states that school staff in the two towns will not refer students or their families to ICE if for any reason they disclose their immigration status. The policy also bars ICE agents access to school property unless they have a signed warrant.

We commend the regional school committee for its leadership in adopting the first such standard in the region designed to make immigrant children feel safer.

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We applaud the majority of Town Meeting members who supported an innovative way of funding public art by approving the “Half Percent for Art” bylaw 110-45 on Monday. Amherst and Cambridge are the only communities in the state with a bylaw linking visual and performing arts to municipal building projects.

The Amherst bylaw sets aside for art one-half percent of the town’s cost for any municipal building project, such as renovating the Jones Library or constructing a new fire station.

While one Town Meeting member suggested that patching potholes and improving sidewalks should take priority over art, we believe that art is as essential a service as infrastructure improvements.

We share the sentiments of Town Meeting members Jennifer Page (“All of us can use more beauty and inspiration in our lives”) and Kenton Tharp (“Art is part of preserving the human psyche”).

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Preservation of another kind was the order of business May 1 when Town Meeting voted 172-19 to establish a new Local Historic District giving added protection to 194 properties near downtown.

The historic district designation does not prohibit construction or renovations. It directs a local historic district commission to review changes to exterior architectural features that are subject to a building permit and in public view.

Steve Bloom, chairman of the North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Historic District, said, “This is a neighborhood that wants and deserves to be an LHD.” He explained that homes in the district reflect the development of racially diverse neighborhoods between the Civil War and World War II.

Amherst has taken a reasonable step to be mindful of preserving that slice of the town’s history as changes come to the neighborhood.

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We appreciate the compassion shown by Town Meeting members April 27 in voting to add $60,000 to the $1.8 million community services budget.

The additional money, which was taken from cash reserves, adds flexibility for the town to support agencies addressing issues such as crisis intervention and sheltering homeless people. It will particularly be useful for small nonprofits such as Amherst Community Connections, which operates on a total budget of $30,000. Hwei-Ling Greeney, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 10 who founded that agency, said the extra money could help keep homeless people off the streets.

“It would be an investment in the quality of life for town residents and the tourists alike,” she said.

That’s a smart investment for Town Meeting to make, at a relatively low cost.