An ideal Town Council would include a healthy mix of new faces and old hands. Newcomers to town government bring fresh ideas and perspectives, while councilors with experience provide institutional memory and awareness of how things work.
I’m impressed that capable newcomers such as Shalini Bahl-Milne, Evan Ross, Darcy DuMont and Pat DeAngelis did so well in the preliminary election Sept. 4.
But I’m concerned that the qualifications of three candidates who didn’t do as well haven’t gotten enough attention. These three candidates possess valuable knowledge of planning, zoning and finance, and this knowledge would provide solid foundations for many of the decisions the Town Council will make.
Voters will make up their own minds among the 26 candidates for Town Council. But I think we should be skeptical of anyone who says that prior experience in town government doesn’t matter, or who panders to residents’ aversion to change, or offers simplistic solutions to complex problems. Isn’t that how we got our current President?
Steve Schreiber is a candidate in District 4 (Precincts 5 and 9). He’s been a Planning Board member for over nine years and chair for the last two.
So he’s been a visible target for people who don’t like the two new downtown buildings. I believe this criticism is unjust. The height and appearance of the two buildings were largely outside the board’s control, and Schreiber believes it would be a good idea to slow down development in that part of downtown. Like many people, he thinks 1 East Pleasant is too close to the street for a building that size, but its setback from the street didn’t require a waiver.
Schreiber is well versed in the Zoning Bylaw, the thick book of rules dictating what kinds of development are permissible where, and with what levels of review. It will require a two-thirds vote on the Town Council to change any of these rules. Both supporters and opponents of any changes would benefit from Schreiber’s awareness of what the Zoning Bylaw says and how it’s applied.
He is an architect and a UMass professor, and he’s engaged his students in a project to design alternative development plans at the Bertucci’s/Pray Street site. At the other proposed downtown development, on Spring Street, the Planning Board has been criticized for not requiring parking. But the board didn’t have that power.
Schreiber would be a bridge-builder on the Town Council, not a building-booster. I’ve been impressed by his willingness to reach out and listen to people who are critical of the new downtown buildings (even those who can’t vote for him), and explain his position.
He got involved in town politics 10 years ago in the campaign to keep an Amtrak station in Amherst. He has been a Town Meeting member for seven years and has served on the Agriculture Committee. His knowledge would be useful on the Town Council.
Paul Bobrowski is a candidate in District 5 (Precincts 7 and 8). His experience in town government is broad: he’s served on the Planning Board, Finance Committee, Town Meeting, Housing Authority and Cable Advisory Committee, and been a delegate to the Hampshire Council of Governments. He’s a lawyer with expertise in land use.
His main rival, Darcy DuMont, has done admirable work to combat climate change but has no experience in town government. Bobrowski also believes in the importance of climate change. He supports zero-energy buildings and solar arrays on private property, and has installed solar panels on his own house.
As a member of the Planning Board, he supported affordable housing, farmland preservation and recreational fields. He has in-depth knowledge of zoning, construction, parking, and the need to broaden our tax base.
Bobrowski, who lives on Hulst Road, has personal awareness of the need for a fire station in the southernmost part of Amherst. The response time for ambulances traveling to this corner of town has not been fast enough, and Bobrowski wants to work on a solution to this long-standing problem.
In the preliminary election, Schreiber and Bobrowski both came in third in their districts. To be elected on Nov. 6, they must get more votes than female rivals with less experience who came in second. For those keeping score, even if Schreiber and Bobrowski are both elected, it’s probable that a majority of the Town Council members will be women.
As a Select Board member since 2014, Andy Steinberg has been negotiating with Leverett and Shutesbury officials over the complex formula for apportioning the cost of the regional schools. This is a delicate question whose answer will have a big impact on Amherst’s budget, and Steinberg would provide continuity in the talks if he’s elected to the Town Council.
But there are four strong candidates for three at-large seats, and he came in fourth in the preliminary election.
Steinberg is retired after 26 years as executive director of Western Mass. Legal Services. He knows as much about municipal finance as any Amherst resident, having served on the Finance Committee for nine years, three of them as chair. He has served on Town Meeting, the Budget Coordinating Group, and the Joint Capital Planning Committee.
He’s well acquainted with another potential school budget crisis, the precarious state of the Fort River roof. He’s looked at all the options, none of which are attractive. He also worked with former Town Manager John Musante and former Finance Director Sandy Pooler on plans for paying for four major infrastructure projects. His knowledge of these issues would be beneficial to the Town Council.
I’m not saying that you should automatically vote for these three candidates. But I think voters should be aware of the loss of expertise on these complex issues if they do not become members of the Town Council.