Amherst Forward claims it will not act as a PAC, opponents skeptical

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2018 9:46:55 PM

AMHERST — About half of the remaining candidates seeking election to Amherst’s first Town Council have indicated their support for smart-growth development principles, high quality municipal services and good government.

But even though 16 of the 33 candidates responded favorably to questionnaires from Amherst Forward, a successor to the Amherst for All 2.0 ballot question committee that supported adopting a new town charter, organizers have decided that Amherst Forward will not be a political action committee, and will limit its actions to publicizing those they would like to see make it through the Sept. 4 preliminary election.

“We are staying a group of citizens who are working together to support the agenda we have,” said Matt Blumenfeld, a leader of Amherst Forward. “We’re likely to support and encourage others to support candidates in line with our vision for the town.”

Blumenfeld said no money will be spent on behalf of candidates before Sept. 4. Instead, the candidates who requested lists of charter supporters received those, and endorsed candidates will also receive position papers on various issues related to Amherst Forward’s perspective on topics like new schools and library modernization, he said.

For those who didn’t support the town charter and the formation of the Town Council, which replaces representative Town Meeting and the Select Board, there are worries that Amherst Forward is acting as a political action committee.

Gerry Weiss, who served on the Charter Commission, said it is hair-splitting to suggest that Amherst Forward is not a PAC.

“They have a slate, they are giving their candidates an expensive data base with phone numbers and email addresses. They are contacting people about their slate,” Weiss said. “They are Amherst for All, by another name.”

Jason Tait, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said he couldn’t immediately evaluate whether Amherst Forward is a PAC, though he observes that it doesn’t meet the basic definition.

“A PAC is any group that raises money for the purpose of supporting or opposing candidates,” Tait said.

For Amherst Forward, getting new and renovated schools is considered a paramount issue following the failed effort in 2017 to build a new school to replace both Wildwood and Fort River schools, Blumenfeld said. There is also a need to diversify the tax base through density in downtown and village centers to support other future projects, such as a new Department of Public Works headquarters, an expanded Jones Library and a new fire station in South Amherst.

“We will have a list of 16 candidates who answered in ways we liked,” Blumenfeld said. “We are fairly pleased with the depth of the candidates.”

Ginny Hamilton, another Amherst Forward leader, said the Amherst School Committee is working to address enrollment issues at elementary schools, such as busing kids based on socioeconomic status, but there is still concern about maintaining existing buildings that really don’t warrant more investment because of their poor condition.

“We need council members who can connect the dots on town revenues and services so Amherst doesn’t relive the mistakes of the past,” Hamilton said.

Smart growth principles means density and development in downtown and village centers, as the master plan recommends, while good government means robust resident participation, equity and inclusion, strong fiscal management and thoughtful, long-range planning.

“We plan to help voters understand which candidates for Town Council have committed to supporting smart growth development in our downtown and village centers, and which candidates will vote for a plan that replaces our flawed and failing elementary school buildings in a financially responsible way,” Blumenfeld said.

Recommending certain candidates, though, may not be healthy for town politics, Weiss said.

“In my mind, this does not promote greater representation, greater diversity and greater democracy in Amherst,” Weiss said.

Blumenfeld acknowledges the group could become a PAC before the general election that will decide the 13-member Town Council Nov. 6.

This will depend on what happens at the vote next month.

“We will assess the results of the primary and then decide how to specifically move forward,” Blumenfeld said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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