Amherst council forms panel to redraft ‘Percent for Art’ bylaw

  • Amherst Town Hall —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/28/2019 4:57:49 PM

AMHERST — A new ad hoc committee will be spending the next two months studying how to tweak a bylaw to ensure a portion of spending on future municipal building projects will go toward public art projects.

The Town Council voted Monday 10-3 to approve the membership, the charge and the timeline for what will be called the Percent for Art Bylaw Ad Hoc Council Committee.

Council President Lynn Griesemer proposed the formation of the ad hoc committee, which will have five voting members whom she will appoint, including three councilors and two current members of the Public Art Commission.

By Oct. 31 it will have recommendations on the bylaw to the Finance and Community Resources committees, and by the end of November it will have a proposal ready for action by the Town Council.

The idea is to make sure that the “Half Percent for Art Bylaw,” adopted by Town Meeting in the spring of 2017, is enacted. The measure, which mandated that 0.5 percent of the construction costs for new or renovated municipal buildings would have gone into a public art fund to be used for visual art and performing arts, failed to get necessary approvals from the state Legislature. One option the ad hoc committee will explore is how to tweak the measure so it doesn’t require state approval.

The council’s creation of the ad hoc committee came only after an hourlong discussion about how such a panel should be formed and whether there is any wiggle room in the town charter to establish a work group, as opposed to an ad hoc committee.

Some councilors worried that because forming  ad hoc committees requires action by the full council, such committees would be unable to act in a timely and nimble manner.

The Government, Organization and Legislation Committee, over the course of four meetings, attempted to define work groups.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, chairwoman of the government committee, said the plan had been to have work groups be different from ad hoc committees in that members could be drawn from the public, while ad hoc committees would only have councilors.

“The goal of adopting working groups … is to make a more flexible way of creating a multiple-member body to advise the Town Council,” Hanneke said.

A legal opinion from Lauren Goldberg at KP Law, though, nixed that idea. Goldberg wrote that the town charter doesn’t allow for the establishment of work groups.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who had proposed such a work group at the Aug. 19 Town Council meeting, said requiring ad hoc council committees limits the speed at which public concerns can be addressed.

“It’s hard to believe that we would set up ourselves in a way that we can’t do something flexible,” Schioene said.

Hanneke said part of the concern with work groups is that they lack transparency in how people are appointed, with members possibly not going through the usual application process, and could also lead to confusion. She noted that different standing committees of the council also might form more than one work group on the same topic.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said council committees should be able to do more work on the side without asking for this permission from the full council, and she worried about the council president being able to appoint all of the members.

Griesemer said that appointment method is necessary to follow the charter and have an open application process so the council isn’t accused of cronyism. 

District 2 Councilor Patricia DeAngelis said even though she has great respect for Griesemer, having her appoint all members means putting significant power in one person’s hands.

“It troubles me that only the president appoints ad hoc committees,” DeAngelis said.

District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont said work groups could be more action-oriented, while fellow District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said work groups could handle in-depth research and conversation.

But District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said that he appreciated the Town Council was able to revise the rules around ad hoc committees so that creating work groups is not necessary, though he also described as “absurd” the long discussions about forming work groups when everything can be accomplished with ad hoc council committees.

In the final vote, only councilors Hanneke, Ross and District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz voted against the proposal.

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

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