Amherst community safety committee member balks at losing seat

Debora Ferreira, seen visiting a class at Wildwood Elementary in 2017, wants to keep her seat on the town’s Community Safety and and Social Justice Committee.

Debora Ferreira, seen visiting a class at Wildwood Elementary in 2017, wants to keep her seat on the town’s Community Safety and and Social Justice Committee. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-27-2024 2:20 PM

AMHERST — A lawyer employed by the University of Massachusetts, who has helped lead the town’s Community Safety and Social Justice Committee may lose her position on the panel charged with advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and community safety in Amherst.

While the status of Debora Ferreira’s tenure on the committee is uncertain, she contends that Town Manager Paul Bockelman informed her she will not be reappointed, leading to two members of the Town Council at Monday’s meeting publicly endorsing her remaining on the committee.

The initial concern over Ferreira’s possible departure was raised at the committee’s June 12 meeting, when Ferreira, who brings expertise in equity, inclusion, and sexual harassment from her legal background and identifies as West African and Cape Verdean, said that her term would be ending, despite asking Bockelman for a reappointment at the end of March. According to Ferreira, Bockelman told her committee members are appointed to two terms, and her time would be only extended until someone else is identified as a replacement.

“I obviously found that very odd, and I have since responded to him saying I don’t think that’s correct,” Ferreira said.

Her contention is that she has only been on the committee for one term, and her time on the previous Community Safety Working Group shouldn’t count toward this. In addition, she believes other residents have served multiple terms and for many years without being forced off committees. This prompted her to begin communicating with community members about her status.

Bockelman said Tuesday that Ferreira’s reappointment remains up in the air, though he confirmed that he told Ferreira that she would likely not be able to continue due to the two-term policy.

“I haven’t made reappointment decisions yet,” Bockelman said, adding that the public input from At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker and District 3 Councilor Hala Heather Lord the night before could play a role.

“I am hearing from people, I will have more conversations and will have an open mind,” Bockelman said.

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Already the community safety committee has two vacancies that need to be filled first for the seven voting members, of whom at least five must represent Black, Indigenous, people of color, or other historically marginalized communities. Two initial appointments had to come from the Community Safety Working Group. Ferreira was one of those who had the previous experience.

“I am someone that advocates very zealously, with lots of energy, for BIPOC community members, for equity, for social justice for all members of the Amherst community,” Ferreira said.

She said she worries about being in limbo that the town manager may be making a personal decision that attempts to silence her. “It feels retaliatory in terms of I name things that go on in this town,” Ferreira said. “I’m not afraid to do it, I name it, I say it and I’m going to continue to do it.”

Some meetings of the safety committee have been tense, including as questions are asked of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion departments, and critiques have been made of the previous CRESS interim leadership team that included a police officer.

Ferreira said she put in a public records request to find out what practices have been in place for the past 10 years regarding reappointments.

Allegra Clark, who co-chairs the safety committee, said it runs well because of Ferreira. “You’re a great asset to the town and this committee, and I hope he will appoint you to a full term,” Clark said.

Walker expressed her strong support for Ferreira’s reappointment after serving alongside her on the working group, where they advocated for the creation of the new town departments, as well as a resident oversight board for police and a youth empowerment center.

“She has played an integral role in community safety in our town, and bringing a voice for marginalized communities in our town,” Walker said.

Ferreira also provides continuity, multiple vacancies aren’t yet filled, and term limits shouldn’t be enforced for separate committees, she said.

“As one of the original members of the CSWG, it is completely critical for her continued engagement and involvement around these topics,” Walker said.

Lord said Ferriera has important institutional memory and has been outspoken, too, but represents some “of many who don’t get to the table quite yet.”

During public comment, resident Vira Douangmany said it’s bizarre to remove Ferreira and that she’s concerned about Bockelman’s decision-making. “I have no confidence in the town manager. It’s clear he has just personal interests in being vested in this town government,” Douangmany said.

Pat Ononibaku, who heads the Black Business Association of Amherst Area, said the DEI office and CRESS are both in disarray, and that removing Ferreira would sabotage work being done to promote the well-being of the BIPOC community.

Temistocles “Tem Blessed” Ferreira said he supports his sister and finds it “sad and frustrating and infuriating,” as both a town resident and the director of the A Better Chance program, that someone who truly cares about the town and gives voice to the voiceless. He said Bockelman is playing politics with the appointment.

“There is no clear reason why he wouldn’t want to automatically reappoint Debora,” Ferreira said.

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