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Charter, schools top candidate forum in Amherst

  • David Williams, candidate for the Amherst Housing Authority, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ivan Babian, candidate for Select Board, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Robert Greeney, candidate for Select Board, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kerry Spitzer, candidate for School Committee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amherst candidates including James Pistrang for Town Meeting Moderator, left, David Williams for Amherst Housing Authority, Carol Gray, for Elector, Oliver Smith Will, Jeffrey Lee for the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, Cathy "Kitty" Axelson-Berry for Jones Library Trustee, Tamson Ely for Jones Library Trustee, Sigurd Nilsen for Jones Library Trustee and Austin Sarat for Jones Library Trustee are shown March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Allison Bleyler McDonald, candidate for School Committee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amherst candidates including Ivan Babian for Select Board, left, Robert Greeney for Select Board, Douglas Slaughter for Select Board, Benjamin Herrington for School Committee, Allison Bleyler McDonald for School Committee and Kerry Spitzer for School Committee are shown Thursday during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Benjamin Herrington, candidate for School Committee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • James Pistrang, candidate for Town Meeting Moderator, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tamson Ely, candidate for Jones Library Trustee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Carol Gray, candidate for Elector, Oliver Smith Will, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jeffrey Lee, candidate for the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sigurd Nilsen, candidate for Jones Library Trustee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Austin Sarat, candidate for Jones Library Trustee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Douglas Slaughter, candidate for Select Board, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cathy "Kitty" Axelson-Berry, candidate for Jones Library Trustee, speaks March 15, 2018 during a League of Women Voters forum at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2018

AMHERST — With a change in Amherst’s form of government on the March 27 ballot, candidates for the lone Select Board seat are divided over whether eliminating representative Town Meeting is a good idea.

At a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Amherst held Thursday at the middle school auditorium, current Select Board chairman Douglas Wesley Slaughter, 5 Dwight Circle, said he will vote in favor of the charter, which calls for replacing the 240-member Town Meeting and five-member Select Board with a 13-member town council.

“I’m in favor of the charter,” said Slaughter, explaining to the roughly 50 people who attended the forum that Amherst government is too complex. “The charter is the right choice for Amherst moving ahead.”

While there would be no Town Meeting or mayor to counter the council, if residents don’t like its direction, they will have the opportunity to vote out councilors, Slaughter said.

Thursday’s forum was the first time Slaughter took a position on the pending charter vote.

But both his challengers, Robert D. Greeney, 76 McClellan St., and Ivan B. Babian, 167 Colonial Village, said they are opposed to a change in Amherst’s government structure.

Greeney said that he could only support a government that has “radical inclusion” and wide participation. “We should preserve a system of government in Amherst with strong checks and balances,” Greeney said.

Babian said the lack of checks and balances in the proposed change will lead to corruption, and that the idea of eliminating Town Meeting galvanized him to run for office. “By eliminating Town Meeting you eliminate a body that anyone can engage in,” Babian said.

Better communication between town boards and Town Meeting would serve to improve Amherst government, Babian said.

Greeney blasted the lack of diversity in viewpoints on the Select Board and the Planning Board, which leads to a flawed process that often causes unfair blame to be put on Town Meeting.

“On controversial issues where town and Town Meeting are divided 50-50, the Select Board is unanimous,” Greeney said.

The way to reduce divisiveness, he said, is representation by other voices.

In other topics, Slaughter said conversations around zoning can promote economic development in Amherst that is done in a responsible way. “I think we have to have good conversations about what we want,” Slaughter said.

Greeney said forced growth in commercial activity isn’t going to lower taxes, and he would support development so long as it doesn’t change the town’s charms.

“By all means we can have the growth and development we need and maintain the charming small town England character of the town,” Greeney said.

Babian said an increase in funding for social services would mean more than six beds for homeless women in town. “We as a community could address these shortcomings,” Babian said.

School Committee

The three newcomers seeking two open three-year seats on the School Committee all expressed support for the dual language immersion program announced this week by Superintendent Michael Morris.

“We need to celebrate the things we are doing well, the programs that are working,” said Benjamin Joseph Herrington, 99 J Southpoint Apartments, a veteran of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Herrington is running along with Kerry A. Spitzer, 56 Berkshire Terrace, and Allison Bleyler McDonald, 43 Hop Brook Road.

Herrington said he hopes to bring a diversity in skills, perspective and socioeconomic status to the committee.

“I’m running because I want to serve as a bridge of communication between people who feel they haven’t been heard, and the school system,” Herrington said.

McDonald said she will bring expertise in public relations and communication, and hopes to also make sure diverse populations have a voice.

“We all want our schools to provide a great education experience for all kids in our community,” McDonald said.

Spitzer, who attended Amherst schools in the 1990s, said she can bring budget and policy experience to the committee.

“I’d really like to keep the schools strong and give the next generation of students the same experience I had,” Spitzer said.

All three candidates agreed that arming teachers is not a way to make schools safer.

Spitzer said she wants children to feel safe, but worries about the school to prison pipeline.

“I want to make sure our schools don’t become places overly concerned with safety,” Spitzer said.

McDonald said school officials, residents and parents all need to take responsibility. “Safety in the schools is as much safety in our community,” McDonald said.

Herrington said policies such as restorative justice, a concept that makes children feel more part of overall community, can contribute to a safer schools.

Both Spitzer and McDonald said they supported the twin elementary school project, which would have replaced Wildwood and Fort River schools, while Herrington was opposed because it didn’t address equity issues.

Jones Library trustees

The project to expand and renovate the Jones Library, and likely demolish the early 1990s addition, is the main point of contention between the four candidates vying for two open positions on the Jones Library board of trustees.

The race features incumbents Tamson M. Ely, 26 Middle St., and Austin D. Sarat, 76 Snell St., and challengers Kitty Axelson-Berry, 89 Stony Hill Road, and Sigurd Nilsen, 27 Teaberry Lane.

Ely said the current Jones building doesn’t have sufficient room for programs or enough space dedicated for children and teenagers.

“I feel we need more space, open space, flexible space, to meet the needs of the community,” Ely said.

Sarat said trustees have managed the library well while protecting the Jones Inc. endowment, increasing fundraising and cooperating and collaborating on a sensible plan for the library’s future.

“The plan for expansion and renovation of the Jones emerged from extensive public participation,” Sarat said. “What we heard was the space in the Jones was inadequate to meet the needs of the Jones.”

But Axelson-Berry said as a longtime patron of the Jones Library, she is concerned because the building is becoming shabby through neglect and the trustees’ response is what she called an “outsized demolition and expansion project.”

“The Jones Library and their branches are in even worse shape than they were a few years ago,” Axelson-Berry said.

Nilsen said that trustees should give the town gem the care it deserves. He opposes the demolition plan, removing an addition that was only opened 25 years ago, and that trustees and staff could reconfigure existing space.

“We don’t need a $50 million expansion,” Nilsen said.

Uncontested races

In uncontested races are James W. Pistrang, 41 High Point Drive, for a one-year term as moderator; David W. Williams, 158 Rolling Ridge Road, for a five-year term on the Amherst Housing Authority; Jeffrey C. Lee, 815 South East St., for a five-year term on the Amherst Redevelopment Authority; and Carol Jeannette Gray, 815 South East St., for a one-year term as Elector under the Oliver Smith Will.

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