Andrew Steinberg: 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?
The Council will be a new entity with members with varying amounts of experience with the issues it will confront. First, it will need to establish a structure and put procedures in place to do the work needed to manage a town with a large budget that provides a variety of services. Second, the Council will need to unite our community that has had divisions regarding our schools and the decision to change our form of government. A third key dilemma is a need for consensus on our vision of Amherst. What services do we expect from the Town? How do we pay for them? What development will support those services and is right for Amherst? Fourth, the Council must establish a relationship with the Town Manager as envisioned in the Charter.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
I have volunteered my services to the Town of Amherst for over 30 years. I am currently a member of the Select Board, first elected in 2014. I was a member of the Finance Committee and its chair for 3 years. I have served on Town Meeting, as a member of the Budget Coordinating Group and its vice-chair for 6 years, the Joint Capital Planning Committee, and the Regional School District Planning Board that considered whether to regionalize elementary schools. As a member of the Select Board, I had a significant role in hiring our current Town Manager. My career as Executive Director of Western Massachusetts Legal Services provided legal and nonprofit management experience that helped me to serve Amherst. My goal is to help our first Town Council succeed and meet the challenges facing it.
The Town faces many challenges with inadequate and outdated public buildings and infrastructure.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?
We need to address problems at the Fort River and Wildwood Schools, the Central Fire Station, the Public Works building, and the Jones Library, the four projects that have been designated as priorities. We also need to consider the needs at the North Amherst Library and the Senior Center.
Our priorities for major building projects must consider these criteria: (1) the availability of substantial state support; (2) addressing problems of health and safety; (3) buildings with problems that have a significant expense to repair but doing so won’t prolong the use of the building; and (4) the degree to which the current facility is a barrier to providing essential town services.
In 2016 there was a plan to address those first four projects and voters passed an essential debt exclusion override for the elementary schools. It also relied on financial support from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). Regrettably Town Meeting did not approve the issuance of bonds, frustrating that plan. Applying the four criteria, we must proceed quickly to submit a proposal for an elementary school if we are invited to participate in the MSBA grant program
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?
The 2010 Master Plan is a vision and plan for the future of Amherst. It was adopted after a comprehensive and inclusive process that involved thousands of community residents. The Master Plan is a 121 page document that sets forth eight key directions and policies, objectives and strategies for each one. They are built upon a detailed analysis of the community, its resources, and the challenges it confronts. The key directions and policies are integrated.
Many sections of the plan were not implemented, but merit consideration. For example, Strategy C for Land Use Objective 1 ends with this sentence, “Using tools such as form-based codes, Amherst can increase the flexibility of development regulations, promote a mix of uses, and ensure that its desired character is retained.” Town Meeting did not implement a form based zoning code and the Planning Board has not been able to consider the desired character of proposals it considered
I support the key directions of the Master Plan. The Council will need to consider the plan as a whole and assess what was successfully implemented before suggesting specific changes. Any proposal to amend the current Master Plan should include a discussion of the benefits and consequences, including the effect on other parts of the plan.
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?
We need to continue and increase current efforts to inform and engage the community, implement the directives of the Charter, and consider the other steps that can be taken. Current efforts to engage residents include working with established news outlets, coverage with Amherst Media, the town website, posting meeting notices and packets of information that will be considered, use of social media, and participation in community meetings and events. The Charter provides for a minimum of two District Meetings each year, appointing a Community Engagement Officer, and creating a Residents’ Advisory Committee to assist the Town Manager to assist the Town Manager with the evaluation and selection of members of committees that he appoints.
We also must recognize that many people have competing demands on their limited time and will not give priority to following the regular business of the Town Council. Their interest will increase when there is a proposal made or adopted that they do not understand. The Council will meet regularly throughout the year. Councilors must be sensitive to issues that fall into that category and not rush them to final conclusion. That will increase the number of people aware of the issue and increase their opportunity to become informed and to participate.
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?
I voted for the school proposal in every vote at Town Meeting, the Select Board, and as a voter. I was the speaker for the Select Board at the Special Town Meeting in January, 2017 explaining the Board’s recommendation to approve the funding for the school building project. Members of a legislative body, including a Representative Town Meeting and a Town Council, are elected by constituents and should be responsive to them.
If the Massachusetts School Building Authority invites Amherst to participate in a new grant program, the current school committee will engage in a public process and develop an education plan and a proposal for a building that will be consistent with that plan. The Town Manager will determine whether the Town can afford to proceed. The Council will decide whether to request an override. Assuming those steps have been followed and voters pass an override as they did in 2016, I will support going forward with the project. Councilors can, and the Council may offer comments to the School Committee. However, the Council is not the School Committee and should not seek to nullify decisions made by another elected body.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
Amherst is defined by being home to the University of Massachusetts and two colleges. This would be a different community without them. They employ many people directly or indirectly. We enjoy music, art, intellectual, and athletic opportunities because they are part of our community. The entire area would be different without their presence.
One benefit we miss is the creation of spin-off businesses because of our zoning laws and the limited land available for development. Amherst and the University have taken positive steps in recent years to address issues of student behavior affecting neighbors. Most students are great neighbors and here to learn. Cooperative efforts such as the UTAC and the Campus and Community Coalition are forums that have led to important partnerships and addressed many of the challenges.
The most difficult problem to address is the demand by students who don’t want to live on campus for their entire time at the University. That has led to converting homes to student rentals, taking homes from families, and raising housing prices. The University has pursued solutions, including public-private partnerships. The construction of privately owned rental property will also decrease the pressure on the home conversions that have changed Amherst.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
My experience and knowledge of our town operations from my service on the Select Board and Finance Committee will provide continuity on the Council during the transition to our new government. Amherst is making an historic and significant change in its government. The Council will replace the Select Board and Town Meeting. The challenges facing Amherst are not changing. We still need to balance our budget. The town must continue to adhere to state and federal laws. Our schools have the same challenges, including our need to work with neighboring towns that are part of our Regional School District. We still need to replace two schools, a fire station, and the Public Works building, improve the library, and provide adequate roads and sidewalks. I am one of two of the 26 candidates who has experience with the wide range of complex issues the Select Board has been addressing and will become the Council’s responsibility. I offer continuity and experience.