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Amherst reflects on first-ever town council election

  • Amherst Town Council candidate Shalini Bahl-Milne, center, reads vote tallies sent to her phone during an election night party at Mission Cantina in South Amherst, Tuesday. Joining her are Kate Atkinson and George Milne. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Thursday, November 08, 2018

AMHERST — For the past few months, candidates for Amherst’s first Town Council discussed the town’s needs: a new elementary school and fire station, a renovated library, paying for capital projects without increasing the tax burden, and creating more housing for all income levels, among other issues.

That sort of dialogue among those running for local office may not have occurred without the Charter Commission spending more than a year developing a proposal, approved by voters in March, to change the form of government, says Andy Churchill, the commission’s former chairman.

“Overall, it was very gratifying to see a real campaign about ideas and the challenges of the future in Amherst,” Churchill said. “The critical issues for Amherst were really greatly aired out in a good way.”

The 13-member Town Council replaces the 240-member Town Meeting and the five-member Select Board, in which 80 Town Meeting members were up for election each year, and one or two Select Board seats were on the ballot annually. But Churchill said all of these races have largely been uncompetitive in recent years, with people getting elected for reasons other than their policy stances.

The Town Council race was entirely different, he said. “It was unlike any Town Meeting campaigns I’ve seen before, and even the Select Board (campaigns), haven’t been issues-based recently,” Churchill said.

Former Charter Commission member Nick Grabbe, a retired Amherst Bulletin editor and reporter who voted in the 5-3 majority to give voters the chance to adopt the new form of government, said the Town Council campaign met his expectations for how issues facing Amherst can be addressed.

“I’m very happy with the way it turned out,” Grabbe said. “There were high-quality candidates, there was a lot of citizen interest in forums and issues, and a good turnout.”

Grabbe said it was great knowing voters throughout town had choices to decide who would represent them. “I think this is a new day for Amherst,” Grabbe said.

Former commission member Meg Gage, who voted against the proposal and sought to preserve Town Meeting, said in the lead up to the election her biggest worry was formation of the Amherst Forward political action committee, to which councilors would be beholden. Eight of the 13 candidates the group endorsed won.

“I’m glad voters examined candidates individually,” Gage said. “I’m hopeful because there are a number of thoughtful and committed people elected, and a number of new faces.”

Katherine Appy, co-chairwoman of Amherst Forward, said the campaign and election brought a mix of talented people to the the town’s first council.

“It wasn’t perfect, and can be improved,” Appy said. “But for the first time, we had a real townwide conversation about the issues, not just one issue, but many of them.”

As a coordinator for the pro-charter group Amherst for All prior to the charter vote, Johanna Neumann said Tuesday’s vote was “incredibly refreshing” and that the campaign was vigorous and public issue-oriented.

“I think the charter is off to a great start,” Neumann said. “Our first town council elections were competitive in every district and for every at-large seat.”

While Gage said she was disappointed town moderator Jim Pistrang failed to win a seat, she was happy for the nine women elected to the town council.

“I’m delighted to see so many women elected,” Gage said.

Churchill, likewise, observed many good candidates fell short. In addition to Pistrang, he cited Nicola Usher and Sharon Pivinelli in District 1 and Paul Bobrowski in District 5. There are other roles that he hopes they can play, such as serving on a master plan review team and a committee that will determine how to get ranked choice or instant runoff voting to town elections.

The councilors will have a learning curve. But Grabbe said it’s good to have mixture of new people with fresh ideas, alongside those with deeper experience. As time goes on, he said, the divides, whether for or against the charter or for or against the twin school project that would have replaced Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools, should disappear

“More than anything it’s about how we get away from the polarized town with pro- and anti-charter people,” Grabbe said.

Gage said part of the divide ending should be the political action committee not working on behalf of candidates.

“I hope Amherst Forward will fade into the background and not feel they will have to direct candidates to vote in a certain way,” Gage said.

But Appy said that the intent of the group was to get issues the proper attention.

“We care deeply about Amherst, we think there are a handful of priority issues on which we must make progress together, and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” Appy said.

“Much has been made about the need to overcome divisions,” Appy added. “I think this election leaves us well positioned to make real progress on that front, and we are intent on playing our own small, positive role in that effort.”

Once council meetings start, the public will have a new role, Neumann said. “I have no doubt civil society will have a really watchful eye on Town Council and will hold them accountable,” Neumann said.

“Amherst has high standards when it comes to democracy and coming out of this election we have the ingredients in place to live up to those standards,” Neumann said.

Churchill said he is already hearing common views among councilors, such as a discussion of using what is known as form-based code to guide development so that the scale and appearance of new buildings fits with the downtown aesthetic or other parts of Amherst.

“I feel like we have a council that looks ‘Amhersty,’ represents neighborhoods and perspectives,” Churchill said. “I’m optimistic they can work together and be good bridge builders.”

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