Process questioned for appointments to Amherst planning, zoning boards

  • Amherst Town Hall FILE PHOTO

  • District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz, chairwoman of the Outreach, Communications and Appointments Subcommittee.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2019 11:45:18 AM

AMHERST — Amherst’s Town Council made its first four appointments to the town’s Planning Board Monday after nearly two hours of discussion about whether the process of getting recommendations yielded the best candidates.

In an 8-2 vote, with three abstentions, councilors approved the recommendations from District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz, the chairwoman of the Outreach, Communications and Appointments subcommittee, meaning that Janet McGowan of South East Street, a lawyer and former Town Meeting member, will begin serving on the Planning Board July 1, alongside three reappointed members: Pari Riahi, Maria Chao and Jack Jemsek.

The seven-member board also includes three members previously reappointed by the Select Board: Michael Birtwistle, Christine Gray-Mullen and David Levenstein.

District 3 Councilor George Ryan and District 4 Councilor Evan Ross voted against Swartz’s recommendations, with Council President Lynn Griesemer, At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg and District 4 Councilor Stephen Schreiber abstaining. District 5 Councilor Darcy Dumont said she found that Swartz’s recommendations balanced a diversity of views with institutional knowledge.

“She's proposing a very, very modest change to the Planning Board, a one member change,” Dumont said.

But Steinberg said he worried that, by not reappointing Planning Board Chairman Gregory Stutsman, experience is lost.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said she did not worry about the recommendations.

“We're not starting new here," Schoen said, adding that McGowan is someone with intelligence and insights. “I think we've been proposed a very strong slate.”

The closed-door process to get to the recommendations for both the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, and McGowan’s presence on the Planning Board list, was talked about at length. Swartz’s advice came following private interviews, with candidates who filled out community action forms, involving her, the board chairperson, the staff liaison to the board and Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Art Keene of Dennis Drive said this confidentiality constrains the process. “Without a public airing of the qualifications of candidates, all we're left with is hearsay and innuendo,” Keene said.

Bob Greeney of McClellan Street said he favors a more open process that would allow all residents to feel included in their government. Greeney said he also supported fresh perspectives, like that of McGowan, being on the Planning Board.

Jemsek, though, told the council that losing Stutsman, as well as the smaller board mandated in the new town charter, will hurt the Planning Board. Gray-Mullen said the board is too green and inexperienced.

The vote on the candidates happened only when, by a 7-5 vote, with one abstention, the council failed to refer back Swartz’s recommendations to the subcommittee for further consideration. Griesemer, Steinberg, Ryan and Ross, were joined by District 5 Shalini Bahl-Milne, in voting for the referral, with District 4 Councilor Stephen Schreiber abstaining.

Ross said the pool of applicants was lacking because none would have brought new voices to the conversation. “I saw old voices who are on the Planning Board, and old voices who are not on the Planning Board,” Ross said.

Although the appointment process was discussed, At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said the discussion seemed to center as much around the nomination of McGowan as anything else. “It probably is about politics and who we believe best represents our views,” Hanneke said.

District 2 Councilor Patricia DeAngelis said she sensed hesitancy in voting for the recommendations because some councilors were not getting what they wanted in having McGowan on the board. “I think we need to address these recommendations now and be honest about it and stop playing games,” DeAngelis said.

Ross said the process, developed on March 18, is aimed to maximize transparency and protect privacy while complying with the state’s Open Meeting Law. There was a concern that applicants not used to town government might be intimidated if their names were made public. The idea, he added, is to bring in genuinely new voices.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she would like to see a process more open to the full council. “I am recommending the process be reconsidered after initial appointments,” Pam said.

Community actions forms, Pam said, should be public documents, as they are in Northampton. “I think we'd get more applicants if this were more public,” Pam said.

“I think the public wants to know who applied and who was appointed,” Pam said.

Hanneke said she wasn’t sure that the council had enough information to know if the best candidates, or the best mix of candidates, were recommended.

“I’ve struggled, not necessarily with who's been put forward, but has this process done what we as councilors need it to do,” Hanneke said.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said the process is no less open than what occurred during the Select Board era when the elected committee was charged with ratifying appointments made by the town manager.

Schreiber said the charter wanted a “Goldilocks” solution that is somewhere between the previous appointments process and direct elections by voters. Instead, the compromise has created a convoluted system,

There was far less controversy over the ZBA appointments, in which, by a 13-0 vote, five members, and three associates, were named to the committee.

The five members include incumbents Mark Parent, Thomas Simpson and Joan O’Meara, while newcomers are Matthew Wilk and Steve Judge. Alternates will be Aaron Arcello, Sharon Waldman and Tammy Parks.

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


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