A post-partisan future for Amherst

Nick Grabbe

There’s been too much mistrust and partisanship in Amherst this year. As we approach an important election for our first Town Council, voters need to exercise informed judgment, debate should be civil and factual, and candidates should respect their opponents.

When the Town Council is sworn in on Dec. 2, I hope the members can put aside the disputes over the charter and the elementary school project. On the big questions the Town Council will have to address – such as how to prioritize public building projects, how to spend taxpayers’ money, and what to do about downtown parking – I hope there will be no fixed pro-charter and anti-charter positions.

I expect that once the Town Council meets, past divisions will evaporate and we’ll have new disagreements over policy. I expect that new coalitions will form, and that’s a good thing. If we’re going to solve our problems, we need everyone on board and contributing their experience, knowledge and insights.

I was disappointed that in the two slates of candidates I’ve seen, one contained only pro-charter candidates and the other only anti-charter candidates. It will soon be time to relegate the past to the past and work together to brainstorm what’s best for Amherst’s future.

To do that, we will need Town Council members who can work collaboratively with those holding differing perspectives. Numerous candidates have demonstrated this bridge-building inclination in conversations with me.

Voters should exercise independent judgment on Tuesday. Don’t feel obliged to vote for all the candidates on a particular slate. Look for those people who can work well with others. Don’t forget that although fresh perspectives are great, knowledge of how town government works is also important.

Each of us can promote unity in town by listening to people from the “other side” and acknowledging their sincerity. My own perspective has been broadened by the dialogue I’ve had on this blog and by email with Ira Bryck, who approaches issues with intelligence, facts and research. When we disagree, it’s done respectfully, and paying attention to his opinions has caused me to moderate some of my beliefs.

But I was distressed to see at-large candidate Rob Kusner’s lawn signs asking voters to give them their second vote. A politically astute person, having seen these signs, asked me somewhat sheepishly how many at-large candidates she can vote for. The answer is three, not two. We need to clarify issues for voters, not confuse them.

And some misleading statements about downtown development and Amherst Forward remind me of anti-charter arguments such as “The council will be dominated by men” and “Candidates will need big donations from developers.” Both have been shown to be untrue. I expect that there will be between seven and 10 women on the 13-member council. And I know of three candidates who returned donations from a developer. (What candidates have needed is a lot of time and energy, not a lot of money.)

I’ve heard some responsible criticism of the tall buildings downtown and of Amherst Forward, but I’ve also heard some misinformation. Let’s get clear about some things.

No, the tall buildings were not “fast-tracked.” No, the Planning Board wasn’t responsible for the fifth stories (that was Town Meeting). No, the board couldn’t control the overall style of the buildings. No, Town Council members will not be able to issue or deny waivers of the Zoning Bylaw. No, major development decisions have not been made in “lame-duck legislative sessions.”

No, Amherst Forward is not the same group as the pro-charter Amherst for All. No, candidates endorsed by the group are not using VAN, the voter-targeting app that was used in the charter campaign. No, the group is not paying for lawn signs or giving money to candidates. No, it did not pay for voter data. No, the endorsed candidates will not be required to act in “lockstep.”

And no, I am not an “Amherst Forward insider,” as columnist Jim Oldham claimed in last week’s Bulletin. I have not been at any of their organizational meetings, and I have not done any canvassing or phoning. I have criticized some of their decisions, and I have praised some candidates the group didn’t endorse. (Reading Oldham’s falsehood about me made me wonder how much of the rest of what he wrote is true.)

It is not surprising that I’m more aware of misleading statements made by people I tend to disagree with. If there have been other misleading statements, I want to hear about them.

Comments 12

  1. Nick, and fellow Amherst citizens:

    It has also been good for me to participate in this forum, also have private conversations with Nick, to lower my assumptions and demonizing (as much as I might have demonized- I’m not a huge offender, in that way); and to see the impact of drilling down with someone from “the other side.”

    There is that cliche but true quote “None of us is as smart as all of us,” and I think that it will have its truest exemplification if Amherst’s Town Council is comprised of the best explorers, more than the best settlers.

    The founder of the time-tested Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, said you will find the root cause of a problem, and therefore the best solutions, by asking “why” 5 times. We need a council that is willing to drill down like that. https://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html

    Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, notes that the wonderful team-building at the core of Saturday Night Live, was largely due to how Lorne Michaels ran meetings, making sure that everyone is heard. https://www.fastcompany.com/3066570/the-management-secret-that-makes-snls-chaotic-writers-room-succeed

    Jack Stack, father of open book management, author of The Great Game of Business and A Stake in the Outcome, said (to an audience at the program I run, the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley) “it’s more important to focus on building a great company than a great product, because a great company can’t help but make a great product.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Stack

    Ideo, the world’s foremost designer of everything but nature, knows about building multi-disciplinary teams, to consider all perspectives. In designing sneakers, for example, include in the group “extreme non users” to make sure you’ve incorporated many, many vantage points. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66ZU2PCIcM

    SO I AM HOPING THAT VOTERS WILL SELECT THE CANDIDATES MOST LIKELY to engage in that deep dive. More than anyone’s time-limited views about the issues of the day, we need to have 13 people dedicated to fair process, open mindedness, complex thinking, and curiosity.

    I want a council that exemplifies what F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Maybe discover that opposed idea with something like: it’s 2068, and the co-located school is a ridiculous failure — what happened?

    I am not necessarily opposed to any candidate that is on AF’s slate. I early voted, and voted for both independent and slate candidates. But to accept or reject anyone, based on that criteria is, IMHO, Crazy AF.

    Town Council members can expect to see me – and many, many others- in the audience at Town Hall, expecting you to live up to the demands of your new job. I am not impressed that you’re sticking to any specific position. I’ll be impressed that you can think creatively, bravely explore possible unintended consequences, consider the “7th generation” impacts of what you’re doing.

    I commend everyone that’s run for this role. I’ve spoken with many of you, and heard how demanding it’s been.


    Ira Bryck

  2. I think this post by Nick and Ira’s response are both important, but I do take issue with Ira’s assertion that voting for the folks who Amherst Forward has endorsed is “crazy”.

    Let’s be clear. The people involved with Amherst Forward have put a great deal of volunteer time and effort into coming to an understanding about what all the candidates positions are on the specific issues that we believe are important priorities for our Town. No one volunteering for Amherst Forward believes that these issues are exhaustive, nor are there any expectations that the candidates being endorsed will work in lockstep on any issue coming before the Council. We believe that these are great candidates – that’s it. We completely agree with Ira that “we need to have 13 people dedicated to fair process, open mindedness, complex thinking, and curiosity.”

    The expectation is that Councilors will do just as Ira and Nick suggest – That they will have reasoned and deep debate that considers both short and long term impacts of decision making. These discussions should factor in the impact of decisions on the economic, social, environmental and educational aspects of our Town.

    Amherst Forward encourages all voters to reach their own conclusions, and does not and will not dictate anything at all to any candidates. We have done a bunch of homework, however, and are sharing those results with our fellow voters. This has been tough but meaningful work, and this work has led us to our recommendations for Town Council. From my perspective, that’s just the opposite of crazy. It’s common sense in the best old New England sense of the term.

  3. Matthew: I don’t doubt AF members have done their due diligence, and are acting in good faith. But I object to however much the subtle message might be “we thought about it, so you don’t have to.” And I have heard from several Amherst friends that there is a message being expressed by AF campaigners that people should vote along slate lines, and that independent candidates are not worthy. I have never been a voter that takes to that kind of thing.

    1. Ira:

      Again to be clear, AF’s position is not that subtle – there are 13 remaining candidates that we like better than others. Why? We like their positions on the issues that we think are of importance to all of us moving forward.

      That does not demean or belittle other candidates. As I, and many others, have repeatedly stated here and elsewhere, there are many terrific candidates, and it is good that we have a competitive election.

      It is not a perfect pool, certainly, but it is a great start. I hope, and will work for, increasing diversity among the candidate pool in future elections so that we can have a council, school committee and other boards that fully reflect our community.

      To provide criticism of other candidates’ positions should not be viewed as saying they are unworthy.

      I am glad that you voted the way you did, and I would see nothing wrong in you discussing your choices publicly and asking others to vote similarly. That’s essentially what AF has done.

      I think your critique should focus on the candidates and their positions, not AF. I look forward to seeing you participate at future council meetings.



  4. Writing as one of the Amherst Forward co-chairs, I want to make clear that we did not use the candidates’ past positions on the Charter as part of our vetting criteria. To be candid, we considered it! In the end, however, we came to the same conclusion you have shared here, the charter vote should not be a litmus test for serving on the Council.
    What was our process? Early in the summer, Amherst Forward asked all candidates if they wanted campaign support such as treasurer trainings, tips on how to campaign on a shoestring, and coordination of events and outreach. A number of candidates responded that they wanted to be considered. Some responded that they didn’t want support and still others didn’t respond at all.

    To ensure that those wanting support generally align with our priorities and approach, we sent candidates a survey based on the 7 issues most important to us, examined their public records—everything from their votes as public officials to editorials and campaign literature—and decided accordingly.

    Could we have done this differently, perhaps better? Sure. Will we strive to do better going forward? Absolutely.

    Our intention has been to add constructively to an informed discussion about the critical issues facing our town and how candidates would approach them. We fully encourage voters to do their homework before voting Tuesday. And we look forward to working with all 13 councilors once elected.

    Speaking for myself, I’m deeply grateful to be part of this engaged community!

  5. I’ve no way of polling or tracking voter engagement, but my sense is that this election is one of the most engaging we’ve had in Amherst in a very long time. This excitement is no doubt the result of the new governance structure that came about from the Charter review process. As long as I’ve lived in town, I’ve never seen so many people this engaged. Maybe I’m too close to the kitchen to smell anything else, but that’s my sense.

    I also don’t see voters blindly following one person or group’s recommendation over another. People are taking the time to do their own independent evaluations. I’m sure the slates are used, but only as a contributing – not a deciding – factor. Again, that’s just my sense.

    I respect Amherst voters. I don’t see them blindly following one recommendation. We didn’t see that with the Charter Commission. Thanks to all the candidates who’ve made this whole three-year process worth every cold signature that I collected at the Transfer Station. When politics sounds like a dirty word, this local election cleans it up for me.

  6. Post

    I agree, Jerry. So far, this first Town Council campaign has been exactly what I’d hoped for: lots of capable candidates, debate about the issues, extensive voter involvement. To me, it’s so clear that this is a better process than those Town Meeting elections where voters had few or no choices among candidates. The only thing I want to see now is increased turnout. It won’t be hard to exceed or double the average 15 percent turnout in past local elections, but I’d like to see 40 or even 50 percent.

    1. This campaign has been exactly what you’d hoped for? Sorry, there were not enough forums, especially in the districts, in which candidates could freely and politely engage with each other directly. Instead, we got frightfully canned statements in the most recent one, in which candidates were essentially invited to talk past each other. I salute Amherst Media for providing some free media for candidates, including the video statements that continue to run. But my sense is that an informed Amherst electorate, assisted by an infrastructure of opportunities for candidates, without financial cost to themselves, to be seen and heard engaging the issues and each other, is many moons away. For me, this election is a predominantly blind draw for the Town. I’m waiting for the first voter some time in 2019 to cry out in frustration, “we just didn’t know.”

  7. Nick, Thank you for discussing the potential gender distribution on the future Town Council. You did not mention race or ethnicity, however. Amherst continues to pay lip service to diversity and continues to pay NO attention to diversity when it comes to its elected officials. Eric Nakajima and Vira Douangmany Cage both lost their bids for state representative. I am voting for Shalani Bahl who, in addition to her intellect and balanced perspective, will provide gender and racial/ethnic diversity to the Council. I cannot tell you how frustrated and outraged I am that I have heard no attention to this issue in the campaign.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the comment, Pat. I think lots of people have noticed the lack of racial diversity among the candidates for Town Council. I know I have. I am so grateful to Shalini for running and (hopefully) saving us from the embarrassment of an all-white council. And as you point out, there are many good reasons for supporting her. But I’m interested in your perspective about why more people of color didn’t step up and run for Town Council. I think Irv Rhodes would have run if he wasn’t planning to spend much of the year in Florida, but I don’t know the reasons why other people didn’t run. I think one of the functions of the new community participation officer should be to seek greater diversity of race and class in committee appointments.

  8. Nick,
    You are way off the mark in saying that if Shalini wins, it will save “us from embarrassment.” “Us” meaning we “white folks?” By saying this you are setting up a dangerous dichotomy, one of many divisions you have proliferated on this blog.

    I taught for decades (1983-2009) at the former Mark’s Meadow School, the most economically, culturally and racially diverse school in Amherst. I became shocked and then ashamed at the very real racism in our town veiled in liberal-speak. I have learned this from my students and their parents as well as from the few diverse teachers who have been hired in our district but felt uncomfortable staying in Amherst.

    I know I wear a white privilege knapsack every single day. I’ve spent much time in the South visiting my grandmother both pre- and post-Brown v. Board of Education where I heard white teenagers after Sunday school bragging about running over “coloreds” the night before and assigning points for arms or legs, one tire or two. Unfortunately, racism has been a reality since our country was founded and continues today, even in our city (once known of the Town of Amherst).

    It is clear why many members of community cannot run – lack of economic independence, lack of education, daycare, multiple jobs, lack of transportation, daycare and, of course, prejudice and discrimination.

    1. Post

      In Amherst, racial diversity on the Select Board and in Town Meeting (and our teaching staff) has always fallen short of our aspirations. Amherst is not alone in this regard, and it looks like this will be the case with the Town Council as well. Thank you for your insights into why this might be so.
      But I was puzzled as to why you thought that, in saying that if Shalini wins it will “save us from the embarrassment” (of an all-white council), “us” might refer to “white folks.” The only way I could make sense of this is to speculate that perhaps you were unaware that my comment was made in reply to a woman of color. So of course when I wrote the word “us,” I was referring to Amherst as a whole, not to “white folks.”

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