Amherst board praises Musante’s fiscal management, criticizes communication



Last modified: Monday, August 17, 2015

AMHERST— Strong fiscal management along with efforts to preserve and expand affordable housing and promote Amherst’s status as a green community have earned Town Manager John Musante high marks from the Select Board in a preliminary performance review.

The review, provided to Musante and released at Monday’s Select Board meeting, cited communication with the board and public and promoting staff morale as his weaknesses.

In mostly positive evaluations, Musante received satisfactory or commendable grades in meeting many of the 15 performance goals set by the board, including handling ongoing budget challenges, ensuring the financial health of the town, preparing and administering the budget and guaranteeing housing for people of all income levels.

“We look forward to your continued success in so many critical areas of town management, and we look forward to the progress and new successes you will achieve by addressing the areas that truly need more of your attention,” Chairwoman Alisa Brewer wrote in an 11-page draft summary that will be finalized in the coming days.

But Musante, who submitted a self-evaluation earlier this summer highlighting a range of accomplishments, from economic development to building relationships with the University of Massachusetts and preventing a repeat of Blarney Blowout, was given grades of “unsatisfactory” and “needs improvement” for his communication with the board and public.

Kept in the dark

In the draft review, some board members said they were being kept in the dark on a range of issues.

“We can’t provide input on either straightforward or complex policy and practice initiatives and changes before they are implemented if we don’t know they exist,” Brewer wrote. “Finding out about them in the newspaper or other media is simply unacceptable.”

Members cited the municipal budget and the town’s bond rating as strengths of Musante’s work.

“Suffice it to say that the town manager, not least because of his background in finance, has a superb understanding of how budgets work and how to manage a budget,” member James Wald wrote in his evaluation.

Making the downtown and village centers more vibrant through in-fill projects, and the creation of an innovation district that includes the mixed-use Kendrick Place project that will feature MassMutual offices, was praised by Constance Kruger in her review.

“The town manager has been very active in promoting new downtown and village center development which is in alignment with the goals of the Select Board,” Kruger wrote.

Douglas Slaughter, elected in March, wrote that the Olympia Oaks affordable project and preserving dozens of units for low-income families at Rolling Green Apartments that could have gone to market rate are major accomplishments. “The work at Olympia Oaks and Rolling Green garnered the town a Housing Hero Award from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership,” Slaughter observed.

But both Wald and Brewer criticized Musante in the area of maintaining “a professional and effective relationship” with the elected board.

They both cited Musante’s comments on election night, during an interview broadcast on Amherst Media, that the proposed solar project on the former landfill was dead, which caught board members by surprise.

They also didn’t like that details about a settlement with former high school math teacher Carolyn Gardner, who filed a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination lawsuit, were revealed in the Gazette before any executive session was held.

“The potential settlement figure in the Gardner MCAD complaint was never discussed with the Select Board. The Select Board was shocked to find out a settlement had been reached by reading about it in the newspaper,” Brewer wrote.

Filling positions

Wald said there is also continued concern about creation of positions without Select Board input, such as the Department of Public Works administrative analyst in this year’s budget, which “to the casual observer, it might seem that he was creating a new position simply in order to ensure that DPW does what it should have been doing all along.”

The also worried about how slow Musante has been at filling positions on the University-Town of Amherst Collaborative, which is supposed to continue the work of the Town-Gown Steering Committee that issued its recommendations last year. And they questioned why a five-year strategic partnership with UMass, an agreement signed in 2007 by former town manager Larry Shaffer, hasn’t been renewed, and why there has been no apparent dialogue with Amherst College and Hampshire College leaders.

The Select Board noted that the Planning Board remains two members down from a full complement and the Historical Commission is unable to meet to act on demolition delay requests because it has just three members. Musante is responsible for appointments to those boards.

“We need to remember that while the civility and cooperation we expect of all members of boards/committees is an essential qualification for appointment, it does not mean that we cannot also have diversity of viewpoints on matters to be considered,” wrote member Andrew Steinberg.

The evaluations relied on feedback from employees and the public, with many of the public criticisms coming from people who disagreed with stands taken by Musante on issues such as development.

The Select Board, though, supports Musante’s approach.

“The town manager has a leadership style that I think is very effective and appropriate for Amherst,” Kruger wrote. “He is professional, considerate, fair and very good at managing multiple agendas. He remains calm during a crisis and instills confidence.”

The board is scheduled to meet again at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 19 at Town Hall to enter into executive session to make adjustments to Musante’s five-year employment contract. Last year, he received a 2 percent pay hike that brought his salary to $150,628.

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




 


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