Amherst town manager getting good marks, some dings from Town Council

  • Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2021 2:34:36 PM

AMHERST — Councilors are giving Town Manager Paul Bockelman mostly high marks for his job performance, including on climate and finance issues and the town’s response to the pandemic, but expressed concern about the pace at which four capital projects are moving forward.

The ongoing evaluation, which is underway with the 13 councilors providing their own ratings and comments this month, is being compiled into a summary memo drafted by Council President Lynn Griesemer. Once finalized in December, the review will be used to set goals for 2022 and as the basis for negotiating a contract extension.

With respect to both climate action and finance, all councilors ranked Bockelman as performing at either a commendable or satisfactory level.

“Paul and staff have done an admirable job, especially considering the limits of our budget and competing demands of the pandemic,” District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen wrote in her comments related to climate issues, pointing to Bockelman completing a Climate Action and Resiliency Plan, moving forward on a landfill solar project, and making progress on the Community Choice Aggregation power program with Northampton and Pelham.

On financial matters, District 4 Councilor Evan Ross wrote that Bockelman “has done a commendable job administering the budget, developing a budget in the context of limited revenue and increased budgetary demands, and working with staff to explore and identify new revenue sources and different approaches to revenue.”

Economic vitality, though, was an area of concern, with four councilors asking Bockelman to improve his work. At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer was among those who expressed disappointment the town no longer has an economic development director following the departure of Geoff Kravitz to be Sunderland’s town administrator nearly two years ago.

“The town manager made a mistake in not filling the economic development director position,” Brewer wrote. “We’ve only had one, and he was excellent, and it’s a difficult position to fill, but removing it from the budget after he left for another opportunity in January 2020 signaled that we gave up on the concept, which is not something we can actually afford to give up on.”

District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber, though, praised Bockelman for working with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement District. “His collaboration with the chamber, BID, etc. has been commendable. Work on zoning has continued.”

Some councilors wrote that community health and safety initiatives could be improved, as well.

Inadequate Fire Department staffing is one area of contention, with At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke pointing to a period where Amherst needed to have a Northampton ambulance stationed in town.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis wrote highly of Bockelman’s work on health and safety. “The town manager’s work on issues related to the pandemic has been outstanding. His coordination with members of the Health Department addressing issues of access and communication with the community have facilitated our response to COVID,” DeAngelis wrote.

An unsatisfactory mark came on the four major capital projects from District 3 Councilor George Ryan: “I can’t imagine a more important goal for the long-term well-being and flourishing of our town than these four major investments. Yet how much of our council time and how much of the town manager’s time was focused on this over the past three years?”

Councilors noted that Bockelman has not yet found a new site for the Department of Public Works and that he might want to consider abandoning a plan for a new fire station on the current DPW site.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam wrote that she appreciates Bockelman’s relationship with the council.

“The town manager does a great job dealing with the Town Council,” Pam wrote. “But there is a problem that the workload of the Town Council keeps growing and since we have no staff and can’t deal directly with town staff (I understand why) the job is rapidly becoming beyond the capacity of most ordinary people who have families, jobs and lives.”

Bockelman submitted a 29-page self-evaluation in October that praised the successes over the past year and the hard work of town staff in meeting this year’s series of goals.

“I have dedicated most of my focus this year to public health/safety of the community and to ensuring our finances are strong,” Bockelman wrote.

Brewer said she was frustrated by a decision by Griesemer to only give ratings, and not comments, and District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont’s choice to not participate in the review. “Having no comments or no ratings makes no sense to me,” Brewer said.

DuMont called for a performance evaluation that includes a neutral third party, rather than having Griesemer lead it, and efforts to get more public and staff input.

“The council president manages the process,” DuMont wrote. “She is a good manager, but biased by the fact that she works with the town manager virtually daily and is too close.”

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