Mandi Jo Hanneke
The North Amherst Library needs improvements. I don’t think anyone in town would disagree.
But should those improvements be a top priority? Are they so dire that they need to jump to the head of the long list of capital projects? Are the improvements so critical that it’s necessary to skip the public input and planning process?
Town Meeting apparently thinks so, because that’s exactly what they approved last Monday.
A group of residents who call themselves “Friends of the North Amherst Library” and headed by former Library Trustee Pat Holland brought a petition article to Town Meeting seeking $50,000 for design work for capital improvements.
By bringing this article to Town Meeting directly, they avoided the entire capital planning process. Yes, Amherst has a capital planning process. Elected and appointed officials evaluate proposals based on need, exigency, health and safety issues, and cost. Then they come up with a plan for the Town, a plan that weighs the proposed projects against each other.
This is a process that the Charter Commission heard works very well and should be maintained (we did). The passage of the article not only avoided the process but caused one project to leapfrog all other projects, no matter how much more critical or necessary those other projects are.
The other process the Friends of the North Amherst Library skipped was public input.
The article specified exactly what the design work had to include: a publicly accessible bathroom, an elevator that would provide access to all three levels of the library, the doubling of publicly accessible space inside the existing building, an accessible ground floor entrance at the rear of the building, the finishing of the third floor into a meeting space, the preservation of trees at the back of the library, a sidewalk, and the ignoring of potential upgrades and redesign of the intersection the library sits on.1
Those are some very specific design criteria, some of which are obvious.
When asked what process the petitioners went through, Holland stated that Friends of the North Amherst Library “has been meeting together now for close to a year, maybe nine months, something like that. And sort of brainstorming what we would like to have in that library besides the most obvious thing, which is accessibility.” She did not identify any outreach to the Library Trustees, non-members of the “Friends,” the English as a Second Language program, or even patrons of the library, even though she had the chance to.
This design is what the Friends of the North Amherst Library want. But no one knows who they are or how many of them there are.
The Friends didn’t consult the board the residents of Amherst elected to do this type of planning: the Library Trustees. They didn’t allow time for any public input or feedback. As far as I know, they didn’t even consult the ESL program heads about the need for ESL conversation rooms in the library before they included them in the initial draft (they were removed later, maybe because the ESL program doesn’t want them).
Why is this a problem? Well, the article specifies that the third floor must be a meeting room. Maybe the first floor is a better location for a meeting room? Maybe the third floor would be better suited as a children’s area? The article doesn’t allow for that type of flexibility.
Don’t get me wrong. I support the petition process. The Friends did what they needed to do to bring this matter to the attention of the town officials. That’s exactly what they should do. But then, Town Meeting should have recognized that the process should be followed and all residents should have a chance at input before spending money on a design. The Select Board and the Trustees wanted it referred to them for this exact reason. Town Meeting should have supported that.
This article was drafted by a small number of people based upon what they want, not what the town’s residents want. In some legislatures, the passage of this article by superseding the typical public process would be called pork — a pet project that avoids the traditional cycles, processes, and safeguards in order to reward particular constituencies with what they want, not what is necessarily in the best interests of the town.
The residents of Amherst, and especially all users of the North Amherst Library, deserve the chance to have input in what they want in their branch libraries. The petition article took that chance away from them by mandating specific things for the library, without actually holding any forums, listening sessions or calls for ideas. That’s neither what our residents expect nor what they deserve.
1The original petition also included a requirement that the design include two ESL tutoring rooms. That requirement was removed from the article when the motion was made.