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Diversity lacking among Amherst Town Council candidates

  • Amherst Town Hall

  • People cheer as results favoring the Amherst charter revision are received Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at The Pub. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



@dustyc123
Wednesday, July 18, 2018

AMHERST — With 34 candidates running for seats on the newly created Town Council, the average profile of a candidate is hardly representative of the town as a whole.

A Gazette analysis of all of the candidates for Town Council found that they are whiter and older than the average Amherst resident, and from the available data they also appear to be wealthier than the typical resident. They are also disproportionately male.

Of the 34 people who filed paperwork to run for Town Council, it appears that only three candidates are people of color, despite the fact that around 23 percent of Amherst is non-white, according to census data.

The average age of eligible voters in Amherst is 39, according to statistics that University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers Ray La Raja and Wouter Van Erve gathered in 2014. For Town Council candidates, however, the average age is 57.

While statistics on wealth are hard to come by, one way to get at the issue of class within the pool of candidates is to look at home ownership numbers.

Amherst is largely a town of renters; of 9,371 total housing units in town, 5,030, or around 54 percent, are not owner-occupied, according to a town-commissioned housing market study from 2015. Despite that reality, only seven of the 34 candidates are renters, although one is a landlord who owns a separate property, according to a Gazette analysis of property records.

With candidates who own homes, the average tax assessment for those properties is almost $375,000, which is higher than the $353,000 average valuation of single-family homes in town, according to the tax assessor’s office.

Thirteen of the 34 candidates, or 38 percent, are female.

Those unrepresentative demographics are not unique to Town Council, however.

La Raja and Van Erve’s 2014 research was focused on the diversity of Town Meeting, and they found that the average age of Town Meeting members was 59. Their study found that 79 percent of eligible voters were white, compared with 93 percent of Town Meeting members, and that 49 percent of eligible voters were homeowners, compared with 80 percent of Town Meeting members.

Helplessness

The question of diversity was front and center during the lead-up to the town’s vote in March, when 58 percent of voters decided to approve the historic change to the town charter, dissolving Town Meeting creating the 13-member Town Council.

Now, with the list of candidates for Town Council in place, some are worried that their communities won’t have any voice on the newly created 13-member body.

“It kind of further alienates my demographic, anyway,” said Town Meeting member and former School Committee candidate Ben Herrington, describing his feelings and those of other residents of color as one of helplessness. “There is nobody in a position of authority and power in town that represents us, which is kind of scary.”

Herrington, who is also a renter at Southpoint Apartments in South Amherst, said he had hoped to run for Town Council himself, but as a member of the custodial team in the town’s public schools, he could not — town employees are barred from running for Town Council.

Herrington said he and other opponents of the new charter felt that a Town Council would consolidate power and offer communities of color less representation than Town Meeting — a concern that the pool of candidates seems to confirm, he added. Running a campaign in such a crowded field is a huge undertaking, he said, making it difficult for those without the time and resources.

Diversity

One of the non-white candidates running for office is Shalini Bahl-Milne, an Indian-American who immigrated to the United States 17 years ago and became a citizen three years ago. Bahl-Milne is running for a seat in District 5.

“The way I’m thinking about it at this point is reaching out to the diverse populations, the people who are living in the apartments, immigrant families especially,” she said of her early campaign efforts. “And not just them, but just the different populations, different ethnicities, and trying to understand from their perspective what are their issues and concerns.”

Bahl-Milne said her own experience as an immigrant — as someone who previously couldn’t vote, but was still directly affected by elected officials’ decisions — informs her campaign, adding that she wants to make sure that those who are disconnected from town politics know that their voices matter.

“I’ve literally lived through diversity,” she said of her upbringing in India and Kuwait. “To me it’s a basic way how I think, appreciating that different points of view is a good thing. I think it is helpful to have that experience and background.”

One of the few renters and young people running for office is Amherst native John Page, 21, who is soon to be a UMass Amherst senior and is also one of only a few college students running for the office. Page is running in District 3.

Page said that in a town where most residents rent, having the perspective of a renter on the Town Council is essential, as is having the point of view of a young person and student.

“Affordable housing is a huge issue in Amherst, and is one that’s important to students as well as everybody else,” Page said. “As someone who wants to stick around and work and live in this area, I don’t know if when I graduate I’ll be able to afford a home in Amherst, or to rent.”

Dillon Maxfield, 27, is also a student and a renter, and is running for one of three at-large Town Council seats.

“That’s what I expected to see, fewer renters running. Typically the people who are renting don’t have the time or resources to get involved in politics,” Maxfield said. “I do think it’s important to have one or two candidates who actually have that perspective of renting in town … it does definitely change your perspective.”

Accountability

Some proponents of the Town Council system say the ability of various communities in Amherst to hold Town Council members accountable is greater than under the Town Meeting system.

“The difference here is even if they are pretty similar in terms of demographics, these people have to be accountable to broader constituencies,” La Raja, the UMass Amherst political science professor, said of the eventual Town Council members.

If those elected officials aren’t held to account, he said, voters will have a far greater ability to remove them from office the next time there is an election.

With so few people of color, young people and renters on the ballot ahead of the Sept. 4 preliminary election, however, the likelihood that those perspectives will actually make it onto the Town Council is smaller.

Given that reality, some say that the only option at hand may be to pressure their elected officials to respond to different constituencies’ demands.

“I think a lot of it is really going to come down to community engagement. It’s not an option right now for anyone to give up completely, the loss of hope doesn’t necessarily equate to loss in general,” Herrington said.

Herrington said his focus as a renter and person of color will be ensuring that people from his district stay engaged and focused.

“Really just organizing, coming up with groups that will hold Town Council, whatever it looks like, accountable,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.