Alisa Brewer: Councilor-at-Large
The new Town Council will need to work through many issues, old and new. What are the key dilemmas you believe the new Council will face?
We all have great dreams for our community, but making local government work takes discipline, hard work, and very practical problem solving. While several candidates are newly engaged in local governance, all Town Councilors need the skills to bring together residents and fellow Councilors of very different perspectives, over and over again. We must develop shared norms and new practices that meet our residents’ expectations for inclusive representation, while actually regularly engaging residents in deep discussions before owning the decisions we make on their behalf.
The new charter lays out a great framework, but a million different small decisions will bring it to life. The appointed Town Manager is in charge of Amherst now, and historically free to hire who he wants, when he wants, and direct them as he sees fit. That won’t change just because the Town Manager will have to justify his department head and committee appointments in public. While the Charter provides clear deadlines, exactly how will the legislative body decide whether or not to approve such appointments? Our friends in Framingham and Easthampton have struggled with their versions of this process. What public input will be considered? What does accountability look like, beyond an annual evaluation?
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
Served with six Town Managers, and eleven Select Board members. Initiated and analyzed policy to direct the Town Manager, and to determine whether to recommend legislation to Town Meeting, working with not only the advice of both appointed committee members and staff, but also with members of the public. Know what has worked well and what hasn't.
Understand the lines of authority between the executive and legislative branches in Amherst and MGL, and do not automatically defer to the perceived authority figure while still recognizing their expertise.
Fully understand both the intent and practices of Open Meeting Law, as well as the law’s limitations, in improving transparency and access.
Prepared and delivered testimony to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, the Conference Committee on Marijuana Legislation,the Cannabis Control Commission, and the Treasurer’s Alcohol Task Force.
Select Board 2007-present Chair 2015-2017; Amherst & Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees 2002-2007; Town Meeting, precinct 3/1 1999-present; Comprehensive Planning Committee 2002-2007 Chair 2004-2006; Hampshire County Select Boards Association (HCSBA) Vice-President 2016-present county designee to Massachusetts Selectmen's Association (MSA) Executive Committee 2017-present
The Town faces many challenges with inadequate and outdated public buildings and infrastructure. What are your priorities for capital improvements? If everything cannot be done at once, how would you prioritize them?
Elementary schools first.
Select Board(s) asked Town Manager(s) to provide a clear path forward to address our multiple delayed major capital projects. While the Select Board and Finance Committee know how the numbers add up, it’s become clear that we haven’t yet engaged the entire community in an effective conversation.
We face the dilemma of addressing a variety of serious unmet maintenance and renovation and construction needs after decades of making only small capital investments. While we recognize that capital grant funding -- which is of course Massachusetts taxpayers money, not some largesse that falls from the sky -- is only available for schools and libraries, and some roads and sidewalks, not for fire stations or DPWs or senior centers, we cannot let the grant funding cycle usurp additional conversations about resident priorities. Despite local infusions, we still have millions of dollars of unmet paving needs plus an unwieldy bidding system that prevents us from doing work when it has the least impact on local businesses.
Select Board worked with advocates on a viable Zero Energy Town Buildings bylaw.
We need our five year capital plan to thoroughly incorporate all the larger projects so we can more effectively engage in priority discussions with our residents.
Many of the Town’s competing needs and goals involve zoning, land use, and development. The Charter requires the Council to adopt a Master Plan to frame these issues, and to consider any proposed zoning changes in light of that plan. The Planning Board adopted a Master Plan in 2010 that can serve as a starting point. What key elements of that plan would you support as a member of the Council? What would you change or add?
As a member of the 17-25 member Comprehensive Planning Committee for six years, nearly three of them as Chair, I am hugely in support of the many hundreds of people who recognized densifying downtown and the village centers as worthy goals we've had since 1973, and that are still very much needed to afford the kind of Amherst we want.
Form based code/zoning -- rejected by Town Meeting -- would have helped the community embrace dense projects, and needs to be revisited soon.
It would have been impossible for Representative Town Meeting to effectively “adopt” the Master Plan, but it is entirely possible for the 13 member Town Council to become very familiar with the details of this critical document. The Town Council must work with the Planning Board to find new ways to help residents use the existing Master Plan to connect the dots between the things and services our residents want and how we can pay for them.
We absolutely need to engage our community in working with the incredible resource that is the Master Plan we have, before leaping into updating it. It captures both our aspirations and suggests how to confront our challenges. We need the Master Plan Implementation Committee to function.
Resident engagement is a key feature of the Charter. As a member of the Council, how would you engage and communicate with your constituents, including those who have not previously been active in town politics? How would you engage constituents in understanding issues before the Council and the choices and trade-offs they represent? What steps would you take to engage low-income residents, renters, residents of color, and other underrepresented voices?
Our recent form of legislature was not effective at increasing racial or class diversity despite many efforts on variety of fronts. Candidates are coming from existing structures, where very few people of the global majority and very few people of limited income felt included or empowered. All residents need multiple practical ways to engage with elected officials, not limited to one-sided public comment during one portion of a single meeting.
Work together with an adequately resourced Community Participation Officer to actively engage our residents where they are, to connect various communities of interest to the discussions and decisions they care about. Explain how the roles of our appointed and elected officials interact so residents can see why they would even want to be part of influencing municipal decisions given all the constraints on their time. Broad based neighborhood associations could go a long way toward engaging those voices we don't normally hear directly and in encouraging them to be part of ongoing campaigns for candidates and for issues.
Electing a UMass student to Town Council at this historic moment in Amherst history will make it clear that students belong at the decision making table while we all work together to keep Amherst a thriving community.
In 2016 and again in 2017, a majority of Amherst voters supported an override to fund the new co-located elementary school building, yet our legislature at the time, Town Meeting, did not provide the two-thirds vote needed to approve the funding, so the proposal failed. How did you vote, either as a Town Meeting member or a voter, on the proposal to fund the co-located school building? Since you are running for Town Council, not School Committee, how would you approach your role on a vote for funding if a school construction proposal is brought to the Council and supported by the School Committee, the Town Manager, and the voters?
As a larger body with a broader scope, any elected Town Council may well have additional connections to communities of interest than any elected School Committee, and Town Councilors should always be working to maximize ongoing connections between all our residents.
When an elementary school construction proposal that is in fact supported by both the elected Amherst School Committee and the voters is brought to the Town Council, I will vote for it, just as I did when I was a Town Meeting member. There is simply no reason that such a supported proposal needs the Town Council to second guess it.
I have been a Town Meeting member since 1999, and I enthusiastically voted yes on that bond authorization as it was clear that we now had an effective plan for addressing four major capital projects after decades of inaction. I had already encouraged and enthusiastically joined the majority of Amherst voters in voting yes on the necessary override. The 2-6 co-located schools project was a very good project that terrifically served families throughout the entire Town with necessary state and local funding. It was in fact a progressive, socially conscious, viable, affordable plan that garnered broad community support after informed, transparent discussions held throughout our community.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
We have worked hard on the Town’s relationship with UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College over many decades, with varying degrees of success depending on the issues at hand and the leaders in place.
Construction and redevelopment on the campuses impacts the services we provide students, faculty, and staff, from repairing roads damaged by heavy equipment to creating -- but not duplicating -- the food and entertainment and housing options people want in a thriving college town.
We need to regularly update our residents on our ongoing successes as well as our challenges. Steady enforcement of our noise and keg bylaws, Rental Registration bylaw, and the newer party registration have improved everyone’s quality of life.
Some campuses are directly paying for services, while others are making donations; all those contributions need to be both widely known and easily located.
We need appropriate and taxable undergraduate housing.
Our Economic Development Director works with a variety of stakeholders to maximize the unique qualities of being a large-ish municipality with a very large number of college students and day workers and a relatively small non-student population. We should be hosting spin off businesses and serving as a cultural hub and tourist destination.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
Despite the absence of party identification in municipal elections, Amherst indeed has a long history of both formal and informal slates of candidates and changing coalitions of interests, even if not everyone knew of them. I was elected and appointed to represent our community’s values well before the existence of coalitions like Town Meeting Works, Sustainable Amherst, Amherst For All, or Amherst Forward.
Ongoing organizing around educating residents on issues that matter to some voters is not a bad thing. Calling people liars when they see things differently than we do is not helping us be the best Amherst we can be. Helping inexperienced candidates brings more voices to the decision making tables. Additional organizations that would serve that function are surely needed.
Encouraging voters to talk openly and regularly in all types of venues about the issues they really care about can strengthen our sense of community as we chart this new course. Our beloved Amherst needs to move forward together, not leaving anyone behind.
The purpose of Town Governance is not to stop things that don’t seem quite perfect, it’s to pursue the things our residents value.