UMass students seek a voice in Amherst as at least 12 run for Town Meeting
AMHERST — Some want to improve town-gown relations and serve the community they call home. Others want to get a better understanding of how town government functions and how decisions made at the local level affect them.
At least a dozen University of Massachusetts students are running for Town Meeting seats in the town’s April 9 election, a number that dwarfs a typical annual election, when at most one or two students try to get elected to the town’s legislative body. There are 240 Town Meeting members from 10 precincts.
Renee Barouxis, an outreach coordinator for the UMass Student Government Association, said it is no coincidence that she, SGA president Ashkay Kapoor and others are running.
A senior political science major, Barouxis said she and Kapoor made a concerted push to get students, who share many of the same goals and interests as other Amherst residents, to seek election.
“We drive on the same roads, we interact with children in town, we frequent the same eateries and shops and enjoy the town’s natural beauty,” said Barouxis, who lives in Precinct 6. “We are just as concerned as other residents about fiscal responsibility, inclusivity, sustainability and other matters.”
Kapoor, a senior majoring in biology, sociology and public health sciences, said he is happy to see so many students take out nomination papers.
“The students that UMass has brought in the last few years are some of the most engaged and socially aware that we have ever seen,” said Kapoor, who is running in Precinct 4.
But at the same time, Kapoor said there has been an increasing amount of finger-pointing and accusations about problems in town that are caused by a small fraction of students.
Started with service day
Kapoor and Barouxis began urging fellow students to get more involved in the town last fall, with a “Salute to Service Day” that brought students into the community to take on volunteer tasks such as planting bulbs outside the Jones Library, spreading mulch at playgrounds and getting new trees into the ground downtown.
Most students study, volunteer, intern and work in Amherst, Barouxis said. “The vast majority of students do not cause trouble in the community,” she said.
Though Barouxis said the interest grew gradually, eventually she created a Facebook page, “Elect Students to Amherst Town Meeting April 9th,” with information about nomination deadlines and how to run as a write-in candidate should a student make a last-minute decision to run. They have also done radio spots publicizing the idea.
As they began promoting the concept, Town Meeting member Terry Franklin of North Pleasant Street was invited to speak at a weekly session of the SGA, a visit that proved inspirational, Barouxis said.
Franklin, who consults with the Cannabis Reform Coalition on campus, said he talked about how more students could heal some of the rifts between the community and students. He said he has periodically heard derisive comments made about students by residents, including some who have called them a “cancer” on the town.
Kapoor describes the student candidates as offering an olive branch, a way to communicate and work together to solve problems, rather than attempting to effect dramatic change.
“While there are not enough students to push through major legislation, what I do look forward to, and what my goal has always been, is to start a proper dialogue in which residents of Amherst and students can come together as mutual citizens and help solve many issues that we are battling as a community,” Kapoor said.
Even so, Franklin said they may play an important role in deciding the fate of new rental regulations being proposed. Franklin, a renter himself, said all tenants should be wary of the plan. “It will inevitably raise their rents one way or another,” he said.
Franklin said Town Meeting often makes decisions that impact students, such as passing noise and nuisance house bylaws, without their input.
“The first time a lot of students find out about the effect of these decisions is when cops come to their doors on a Saturday night,” Franklin said.
Candidate Matthew Fortune, a sophomore who lives in Precinct 1, agrees. A resource economics major, Fortune said students are often underrepresented in town government and are unaware of what is happening even though they pay property taxes through their rents, are affected by town bylaws and also benefit from living in the community.
“Getting students involved in the process is the best way of getting student input heard and keeping students informed about what is happening in the community,” he said.
Some of those who are running include junior Ritika Bhakhri of Precinct 1, a legal studies and political science major, who said that Town Meeting will be more diverse and better represent the town’s demographics if more students participate, and political science major Rocco Giordano, a freshman who lives in Precinct 3, who said students are too often misunderstood. The bad reputation they’ve acquired could be changed if they demonstrate responsibility, he said.
“As both residents and contributing members of the Amherst society, we have a right to be represented and our concerns deserve recognition and thought,” Giordano said.
Barouxis said she hopes that when voters cast ballots they will understand that the UMass candidates are running because they want to better the town and should be regarded foremost as residents, not students.
“Amherst has been known for welcoming diversity,” Barouxis said. “My hope is that this openness can be extended to young students concerned about the well-being of the town and eager to learn more about town politics.”