Councilor apologizes for talking down to Amherst working group on police services


Staff Writer
Published: 1/26/2021 6:51:48 PM

AMHERST — A Town Council member’s participation in a recent public forum that sought input about Amherst’s policing from members of underrepresented communities is being called out as an act of racism.

At a presentation Monday updating the council on the ongoing work being done by the Community Safety Working Group, Vice Chairwoman Brianna Owen and Chairman Paul Wiley read a letter criticizing At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer for what Owen described as “egregious comments,” including Brewer expressing concern about the forum not complying with the Open Meeting Law.

“This is what racism looks like,” Owen said, adding that Brewer publicly reprimanded the group’s tardiness in starting the meeting.

“These are the very actions that perpetuate and enable systemic racism to continue within our governing and political bodies and it must stop,” Owen said. “The implications and impact on our community are massive and deserve acknowledgment and repair.”

Wiley said the working group, which will be giving reports to Town Manager Paul Bockelman later this year, can’t do its work well if a public official denounces it. He also apologized to the Black, Indigenous and people of color at the forum because the safe space was “invaded by a white person in a position of power.”

“These actions mirror what happens in our community at large,” Wiley said.

Brewer, who didn’t speak at the Monday meeting, wrote two lengthy responses to her colleagues that explained the reasoning behind her comments.

In one, Brewer wrote that she spoke after she was addressed by name and felt responsible to provide information about previous town efforts to better understand the police department.

“I am very sorry for any frustration my speaking … has caused any members of our community, for any offense taken by the speaker who named me, or felt by any other speakers, listeners, and possible speakers, and especially to those devoting so many hours to the work of the CSWG,” she wrote. 

In the other letter, Brewer noted that she has been concerned about the public being kept out of a part of the working group’s meetings.

“I apologize to our entire community, and to the members of the Community Safety Working Group in particular, for any effect that saying what I said during public comment” at the Jan. 16 forum, she wrote.

Brewer wrote that beginning a public session without allowing participants into the Zoom virtual meeting is an inadvertent Open Meeting Law violation, and while she could have written a letter about this, that might be perceived as “too bossy.”

“Instead a brief informal mention during regular public comment of including the public for the start of the public meeting, after expressing appreciation for scheduling two separate community forums, would be perceived as less aggressive,” Brewer wrote.

“The public should be able to have an expectation that public meetings are conducted entirely in public,” she added.

“Although this comment may have been intended to be supportive, it is important to recognize the difference between intention and the real-life impact these actions have within our society and within our own community,” Owen said. “The impact of these actions brought up feelings of anger within our group, distracted us from our important work, and created mistrust between this group and our fellow town leaders.”

Owen explained that the working group uses what is called “progressive stacking,” allowing the first comments to be made by Black, Indigenous and people of color community members.

“This is a practice used to increase equity in meeting spaces. The purpose of this forum was to create a safe space for BIPOC residents to do so,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Town Council gave a two-month extension to the working group, from Jan. 15 to March 31, for making short-term recommendations on alternative options to the public safety services currently provided by Amherst Police. During that time, two vacancies on the police force will remain open.

A second written report will be delivered to Bockelman by June 30 on recommendations for resident oversight and for policy reforms for the department.

A request for a proposal for a consultant to be hired to work with the working group, using some of $80,000 set aside in the town budget, is also likely.

“They have a very intense amount of work to do in a very short period of time,” Bockelman said.

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