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As council convenes, unity and tribalism

Nick Grabbe

At its first meeting Monday night, Amherst’s new Town Council had difficulty getting beyond the tribalism that characterized its creation.

Several councilors, in their opening statements, promoted a “spirit of unity” (Andy Steinberg) and “reaching across the aisle” (Dorothy Pam). That spirit prevailed in the selection of a president, but when it came time to choose a vice president, the old familiar divisions resurfaced.

Shortly after being chosen as the first Town Council president, Lynn Griesemer called the group “13 very independent people all committed to moving Amherst forward.” This was an intentional yoking in one sentence of two buzzwords from the campaign, implying that the Town Council should not be riven by factions.

In the public comment, Jeff Blaustein cited Chief Justice John Roberts’ rebuke to President Trump, in which he said there are no “Obama justices” and “Bush justices.” But Andra Rose said that a good way to show a determination to work together and not in factions would be to choose a vice president who, unlike Griesemer, was not endorsed by Amherst Forward.

And so there were two candidates for vice president: Mandi Jo Hanneke, who had been endorsed by Amherst Forward, and Sarah Swartz, who was not. Alisa Brewer was the only councilor who broke ranks, voting for Swartz and creating a 6-6 tie, with Griesemer abstaining.

After much discussion and more inconclusive votes, Griesemer broke the tie by voting for Hanneke.

Under the charter, the vice president of the Town Council has little power beyond filling in for the president when she is unable to attend meetings. If ability to perform this function were the only consideration, I think the council made the right decision in choosing Hanneke. This is not meant to imply that Swartz would be unable to do the job. I worked closely with Hanneke during the two years she was first the vice chair of the Charter Commission and then my partner on this blog, and I can vouch for her exceptional competence and collegiality.

But that’s not the only consideration, is it? The councilors who supported Swartz were not arguing that she is better suited for the job than Hanneke; they were saying that selecting a vice president from among the “independent” council candidates would be an appropriate gesture of bipartisanship. Councilor Darcy DuMont said that many residents who voted against the new charter are “distrustful” of the council, and electing a vice president who was not endorsed by Amherst Forward would “instill trust and confidence.”

I confess that I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. I want to see the Town Council move beyond factions and develop new coalitions specific to particular issues, rather than have two rival parties fight each other on every point, like Republicans and Democrats in Congress. I see no reason why there should be separate pro-charter and anti-charter positions on issues like downtown parking and public spending.

If the role of vice president of the council had substantive power, such as working with the president on agendas or appointments to subcommittees, I would say that Hanneke was the right choice. But it doesn’t have any real power. And so I think that giving the role to Swartz would have served as a potent symbol of unity among the councilors, and among residents who differed on the charter. Hanneke’s contribution to the council’s effective functioning would have been undiminished.

Griesemer said just after she was elected president that “the temptation to go tribal can be strong.” But she urged the councilors not to constrain themselves in a “narrow box,” but to “get out of it as fast as you can.” I hope that at future meetings, the Town Council will follow her advice.

Here are some highlights from the councilors’ opening statements:

  • Brewer got a laugh when she cited some councilors’ prior experience in town government and then added, “I expect you to listen to me.”
  • DuMont and Evan Ross highlighted their commitment to addressing the climate change crisis at the local level.
  • Pam said that Amherst is “not just another town” and cited Emily Dickinson’s “idiosyncratic” poetry.
  • George Ryan urged residents to “give us time and room” before judging members or “attaching labels” to them.
  • Steinberg acknowledged that there were “mischaracterizations” and “hurt feelings” in the campaign, adding that although councilors may disagree in a debate, they should respect each other afterwards.

Comments 19

  1. The climate change issue is important, but its current prominence, the frequency with which it comes up, in the prevailing rhetoric in town is a bit of a puzzle. My sense is that it very effectively insulates the speaker from any criticism from the public. But, ultimately, it’s really the sound of one hand clapping, because there are pressing human needs to be addressed in town, whether in zero energy buildings or not.

  2. I applaud Alisa Brewer for stepping out of the box. At this point in our history, creating workable unity instead of maintaining the rigid lines drawn by the Charter creation seems to be the most important step the Council could have taken. I’m disappointed that they missed that chance.

  3. The biggest thing to happen at the Council’s first meeting, after years of hard work, a townwide petition and two elections, eighteen months of 4 to 6 hour meetings by the Charter Commission, and promises to work for future generations all around, was an hour of “conversation” and five votes over who would get to hold the gavel when Lynn took off for a couple weeks in the summer. And these are the people we chose to run an $80 million a year business with a $2 billion property tax base. Imagine the board of a small corporation (under $100 million a year) that proposed rewriting the Charter at their first meeting, overturning the will of the voters. Can you spell “fiduciary duty”?

  4. my overall impression of last night’s meeting included:

    – several councilors making the right effort and saying the right things, aiming at healing the tensions of the campaign, and other contentious issues
    – a realistic amount of residual distrust, an understandable motion to have symbolic balance in leadership, a discussion on whether the role of VP, as clearly described in the charter, was the most effective policy – even though it seems like nothing much happened, I think these issues took the necessary time, between process and product
    – some councilors more well versed than others in parliamentary procedure, and those people moved things along in a relatively fair-minded way… all councilors would be wise to embrace the spirit and letter of Roberts Rules, keep track of all that’s on the table (ie: VP vote and VP powers were muddled, only forced apart by Alisa Brewer’s tactic of nominating herself and then again pressing the point that the charter is clear
    – some appropriate discomfort, ie: the President needing to play favorites, right after being elected– I respected her hesitancy
    – I hope that the Amherst Town Council be evolve into a group that can think together, both forward and independent, as Lynn Griesemer pointed out- there was nothing last night that seriously discouraged me – you get a 13 person team of rivals together of opening night, and no matter how intellectually and emotionally intelligent the group, it’s going to be sloppy at first
    – I very much respected that Mandi Jo’s first act as VP was to go over and hug Sarah, who she just edged out for the role

    In conclusion, I’ve heard there is a plan to create a non partisan website, to replace this one- glad to hear it, as very few non-slate people ever dared to post here, and we need to create a safer place for us all to contribute.

    PS: I am hoping there will soon be an official method for Amherst citizens to post suggestions and comments to the whole council

  5. I was dismayed that factions have formed around independents and those endorsed by AF and that the overriding criterion for the VP was that they should represent the independents. It was as if the AF-endorsed councilors have been bought by AF and are indebted to AF and will vote as AF wants them to. This is absurd and insulting.

  6. I talked to a number of Councillors at the reception Sunday and had some hope based on the responses of three of them that they might go with unity on the Pres/VP vote.
    They said they were waiting for the discussion at the meeting.

    There were many excellent arguments for the value of unity. I’m trying to understand why even one of them wasn’t persuaded. It’s very disappointing.

    The last public commenter at the end of the meeting (near midnight) said it best. The Councillors who voted for Mandi Jo chose their favorite candidate over the call for healing divisiveness.

    I would have liked to hear someone in the majority respond to Alisa and others’ concern about the agenda being decided by a Pres/VP duo to the exclusion of the other 11. Sarah was crystal clear that she interpreted the role of VP very narrowly as stepping in when the Pres is unavailable. Mandi Jo was noticably silent on the issue.

    Hopefully Lynn and Mandi Jo will be influenced by the concern expressed about consolidated power.

    It would have been good if someone could have pointed out to the Councillors voting for Mandi Jo that they know her from before the election, some just meeting through Amherst Forward. Even more poignant, but uncomfortable, would be to point out the possible influence of class assumptions about education and why they may be more comfortable with Mandi Jo’s style.

    Someone could have acknowledged that Mandi Jo was more of a parliamentarian but that leadership development was more important for the future of the Council.

    It’s sad that they appear to care more about meetings presumably running better on a few occasions, than healing the rifts in town.

  7. Thanks for posting this Nick. You won’t be surprised to hear me say that I agree with Darcy’s idea and your support of that idea that it would have been a good outcome to have elected a non Amherst Forward Vice President. If that is why Alisa voted as she did, I applaud her. It would have been an easy, low cost way for the new council to show a “gesture of bipartisanship” and help to “instill trust and confidence” in the new council. I don’t know Lynn’s reasoning not to have supported such an initiative , but it feels like an important opportunity lost and in my mind gets the council off to an avoidable partisan beginning. The only way to get that moment back would be for Mandi Jo to step down and let the council vote anew.

  8. I’m no government genius, but here’s what I think the first 3 things the town council should do if they are serious about governing Amherst responsibly.

    #1. Set a plan in motion to replace Fort River and Wildwood Elementary Schools immediately and start the process of getting funding again from the state. No screwing around this time… just do it. We owe it to the kids in the elementary schools now and the the babies being born now in Amherst who are going to be going to those schools in 5 years.

    #2. Find a way to expand the tax base in town through development and/or trying a new tax structure with businesses and homeowners. Find out what other towns are doing and any town that has a good idea, steal it and make it work here. You do this so you can have the money to pay for a new school and all the other work that needs to be done in Amherst that effects EVERY person in town… pot holes in the roads, police, ambulance, and fire services that can take care of every part of the town effectively, hire more teachers and pay them better, fix the libraries that need fixing and start managing the town like we manage our families… on a common sense budget that finds ways to pay for the things we need. If we need more money, we find ways to get it.

    And #3, renegotiate the financial deals that the town has made with the colleges who receive services from the town. The town and the colleges benefit from each other and there has to be some changes because to a lot of people it seems like it’s a one-way street where Amherst gives and the colleges take. I know it’s not as simple as that but there has to be some adjustments to keep the town solvent.

    Those are my suggestions for the first 3 things that need to be tackled. Now I don’t have a degree from Harvard and I’m no great thinker…. but I’ve done alright in life with a high school education and some common sense. But the idea that anyone on the town council thinks that the first things they should be working on is global warming and climate change is nuts! That is like taking a person who is having a heart attack to the Emergency Room and the doctor trimming the patients toe nails first because, “Well, his toe nails really need trimming’.” It’s stupid and someone should call that out for what it is. Amherst is the ER and the new town council is the doctor and the heart attack patient is the elementary schools and the things everyday citizens want and need.

    We have very real and serious problems in this town but they are all capable of being solved if we can stop all of the playing to the crowd for politically correct pats on the back and instead work to help families and children and the elderly residents who are the backbone of this town fix their problems and make their lives better… and make all of our lives better.

  9. Isn’t way too much being made of Amherst Forward? Aren’t there lots of reasons to have selected Mandi Jo Hanneke besides whatever Amherst Forward thought of her? Worrying about stuff like this as opposed to what the Council actually does is, in my opinion, a complete waste of time. What Brian Scully said +1.

  10. Rick, are you thinking that AF and it’s predecessors, Amherst for Change, and Amherst for All, have had little impact on the political scene in Amherst?

    I obviously think they have been a very big factor, while at the same time agreeing that the council has a lot of important work to do. I think the election of officers is a symbolic foundation setting of the politics and relationships in that council which will have a great impact on future discussions and decisions coming their way.

  11. Gerry, no they had a big impact. What I was saying is that Hanneke is a person independent of whatever group endorsed her, or didn’t endorse her, as are all 13 members. Continuing to make this be about who was an “AF person” and who was not, instead of treating this as 13 different people capable of independent thought, is what will keep the tribalism going. Like Griesemer said, we should all “get out of it as fast as we can.” This reminds me a bit of when I was on the School Committee, when who was an “ACE person” and who was not was made way too much of — ridiculous stuff. All that matters is what are the issues, and how will they be solved, not who is perceived to be on what side of an imaginary fence. Probably none of the 13 are completely on any side of a fence, but are there to carefully listen, weigh pros and cons, and make the best decisions they can. Anyhow…. thank you all 13 for serving… it’s a lot more time and work than anyone realizes. Glad this is up and running.

  12. Rick, I don’t think you can have a powerful PAC that has lobbied and worked very hard to change the government and then selected certain people to run that government and now that the campaigning is done, say, OK, forget about them. Humans just don’t work that way. Is it a coincidence that 7 of 8 AF endorsed councilors voted for the same person? Is that because they each, independently felt that Mandy Jo was the overwhelmingly best person for the job and the other 6 people, independently, each felt Sarah was the overwhelmingly best person for the job? Doesn’t that seem like quite a stretch?
    Here’s a guess…………those above chastising those who are talking about this topic, are all or mostly all people who were members of at least one of the 3 groups I mentioned earlier or strongly supported those group’s positions, just as most if not all of the 8 AF elected councilors strongly supported those positions, such as the Charter Change, a more aggressive approach toward development, and, again, a guess, less proclivity, if they have been TM members, toward approving additional social service funds over the years. I imagine a comprehensive look at voting over the years would show other similar views.
    Full disclosure: I’m suspicious whenever any majority group, whether it be AF, white people, men, Christians, etc., who cry foul when the minority talks about unbalanced decision making or unbalanced bias, or unbalanced power.

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    Gerry, I think you overestimate the power of Amherst Forward. Yes, eight of the Town Council members were endorsed by AF, but many of them would have been elected without that endorsement, and at least five of the endorsed candidates did NOT get elected. And Amherst Forward was not the only organized group promoting candidates. The percentage of AF-endorsed council members (61.5%) is only slightly higher than the percentage of voters who endorsed the charter (58.5%).
    And on the question of who should have been elected vice president of the council, I think it depends on what you value most. It is not a knock on Sarah to say that Mandi was the more competent candidate, as Mandi is more competent than most people. But electing Sarah might have eased some of the divisiveness that the charter and the council campaign created, and, as you point out, at little “cost” because the position does not include major responsibility. I think both arguments (for competence and for reconciliation) were legitimate. I just regret that the vote broke down mostly along “party” lines, and that Lynn (who seems to want to be a bridge-builder) was forced to make the final decision. I want to see the polarization decrease and have the council debate issues on their merits, and I don’t want to see it devolve into warring camps, voting in lockstep on every issue.
    As to your line about “more aggressive approach toward development,” I don’t think there’s any question that we need more residential, retail and office development — that is, unless we want to cut back on municipal services and/or further burden single-family taxpayers. There are debatable differences over where that development should occur and what limits town government can and should impose on it. I think it’s appropriate to resume these debates. But remember: Our budget this year was saved (from cuts and/or overrides) by the new revenue coming from the developments in the northern part of downtown, and our budget crunch next year will be eased by new revenue coming from the housing development in North Amherst and Barry Roberts’ development on University Drive. I think the question now is the location of and restrictions on the next development.

  14. What Nick said +1. (” I think both arguments (for competence and for reconciliation) were legitimate.”)

    BTW there is a certain “power” in the VP, as that person can be viewed as “on deck” to be the next President, so there is a potential future power, if not much current power. So it’s sort of a good idea to have a VP who could make a good P.

    Gerry, yes it is true that “humans just don’t work that way”. My point is that they should try work that way. If you are saying that isn’t going to happen, well, you’re probably right. Another “powerful” group that had an effect on things was SASS, in the defeat of the school building plan. A lot of people are having a hard time getting over that.

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      Gerry has frequently compared the rejection of Town Meeting because of its vote on the school project as “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” The problem with that is that SASS drowned the baby.

    2. Yes, you know which people are having the most trouble getting over that SASS killed that new elementary school? THE CHILDREN who go to Fort River and Wildwood… and the children who are in pre-school now and will have to go to those schools… all because a few mean-spirited people, especially the leader of that group who had removed her own child from public school and sent that child to private school.

      Of course, that was her right and I suppose anyone who could afford to send their child to private school should be able to. But what they SHOULDN’T be able to do is to put their own child in a nice safe environment and then work feverishly to prevent all the children of parents like me who can’t afford to send their kids to private school from having a good, safe, positive learning environment elementary school.

      That was the single most hypocritical thing I have seen in my life and I’m 65 years old and I have lived through Nixon and Kissinger committing treason in 1968 by extending the war in Vietnam to win an election… and in the past two years seen Trump do the worst of the worst things when it comes to hurting people and children… and yet Trump has still not stooped to the level of the leader of SASS and the terrible thing she did that will hurt children in Amherst for the next 10 to 15 years.

      Yes, the defeat of the school was the reason for the end of town meeting, but that was not anywhere near punishment enough for the crime that was committed against our children. I will be interested to see if this new town council stands up on it’s own feet and undoes the damage that SASS has done… or will members of them continue to toady up to the SASS people.

      I wish I had a more optimistic outlook on that. But please, make no mistake that the people who were hurt by SASS and it’s leaders were the CHILDREN… the parents who love them were hurt too, and maybe even some nice people who just wanted to do something good for the kids of Amherst, but it was the CHILDREN who were victimized and hurt. And every member of SASS, including their leaders, should never be forgiven for that. ESPECIALLY their leaders.

  15. Perhaps we should begin to talk about what Amherst as a no-growth community would look like. I think my household now could live with that. It does have a certain long-term environmental logic to it. We’d simply peg the residential tax rate at $25 per $1000 (the legal limit in Massachusetts), view any incidental growth as pennies from heaven, enjoy our conservation areas and the cultural opportunities from the colleges, get through several override votes per decade, and then see how we do. I think that there would be consequences, but perhaps that’s where we should start in thinking about the future of the Town: no growth. I’m sick of fighting about development, and, quite frankly, my family and I don’t need it.

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