Evan Ross: District 4
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?
Amherst has a severe housing problem. Rents are high. Vacancy rates are low. It is difficult for student and non-student renters to find available, affordable, and adequate housing. As a renter, this dilemma is a top priority. But the issue affects more than renters. A tough rental market drives rental conversion of single-family homes, reducing our stock of starter homes for young families. And high taxes push low-income residents and seniors on a fixed income out of town. These problems have ripple effects throughout our community, affecting enrollment in our schools and a sense of community within neighborhoods. Housing must be a priority of the first Council.
Beyond housing, the Council must:
• Address needed capital projects (especially the schools)
• Improve our infrastructure
• Grow our local business community to diversify our tax base and generate revenue
• Work to grow Amherst as a model environmentally sustainable community, including local efforts to tackle and adapt to climate change.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
One of the first tasks of the Council in its first term will be to build trust with the community it serves. Coming out of the divisive debates of the past few years, the Council must work to bring people together and move Amherst forward. And as we transition from a 240-member Town Meeting to a 13-member Town Council, we must ensure that those people who have been so engaged and invested in our Town’s decision-making are still heard and valued. My experience working for the State of Rhode Island prepares me to take on this task. There, I was an intermediary between the Department and the public. I reached out to private citizens and community groups, sat in on local meetings, and organized and attended public forums. In each, I listened attentively to the public's concerns and worked to find viable solutions. My primary objective was identifying the various stakeholders impacted by the problem and working with them to tackle it. This accessibility to the public and my outreach to communities earned me the trust and confidence of the public, and helped mend a strained relationship between the Department and the community. This experience will be critical in building bridges between the Council and the community.
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?
It is difficult to pick and choose which capital projects require immediate funding and which may have to wait, as all are necessary and overdue. However, nothing is more important to the future of a community than the education of its children. From the pride we have in our public schools to our higher education institutions, education is who we are. From this perspective, the current conditions of Wildwood and Fort River are a betrayal of our commitment to providing our students with the best education. We cannot continue to ask our students to learn and our teachers to teach in failing buildings. Thus, the elementary schools are my top priority.
The South Amherst fire station is also a priority. This is a public safety issue, and the residents of South Amherst have waited long enough for this project. The Town Council must also work to fund a new DPW building, and move ahead with the Jones Library project. Saying “I like the library the way it is” is not an option for many of the low-income folks, disabled residents, and English Language Learners for whom the library is not capable of fully meeting their needs. And, finally, we need to maintain and expand our sidewalks and bike lanes so we can move toward complete streets.
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 basic premise of the Master Plan, that we conserve our rural outlying areas while focusing new development, housing, and business growth in our village centers, remains an approach that preserves the rural character of our town while allowing us to develop in the most environmentally sustainable manner. We must now work to revise our zoning bylaws to meet this objective. As a town, we have done a commendable job in conserving open space, but have lagged behind in producing new housing. The Master Plan contains several recommendations for increasing housing production to bring down housing costs that the Town has not acted on. As a member of the Council, I would work to shepherd some of these changed through the body. I would also support the transportation goals outlined in the plan to encourage more bike lanes and greater connectivity for a multi-modal transit network.
The plan does need to be updated and revised. Some of the updates reflect changes that have occurred. For example, the loss of Amherst’s rail station to Northampton alters some of the transportation goals, and the recent legalization of recreational marijuana must be considered when discussing economic development. I would also like to see form-based code added as a goal.
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?
The new Charter mandates that District Councilors must hold two district meetings per year. I believe that two meetings are insufficient, and commit to holding meetings more regularly. Beyond formal district meetings, I also commit to more informal meeting opportunities, modeling after our Tow Manager. This allows folks who may not have time to attend a more formal meeting an opportunity to swing by quickly. By holding meetings more regularly, constituents can become engaged with issues and plans at multiple stages of the process. Currently, many residents feel as though they find out about a plans late in the process. These regular meetings can reach out to constituents early in any decision-making.
A common problem with public meetings is that it is often the same folks who show up every time. We need to make sure Councilors reach all residents. This means varying the locations and times of engagement opportunities. Meetings cannot just be held at the Jones Library or Bangs Center. They must also be held in Greenleaves and Clark House to engage seniors. They must be held in Ann Whalen and Chestnut Court to make sure folks in Amherst Housing Authority Housing have a voice. And when appropriate, they should be held on campus to engage students as residents of our 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 private citizen and voter, I voted in support of the proposal to replace our failing elementary schools with twenty-first century schools that would have created a better learning environment for all our students. No plan will be perfect, but I believed this plan would’ve allowed us to replace both Fort River and Wildwood simultaneously, was a fiscally responsible approach using MSBA funding, and would’ve ended the family and community separation that currently occurs due to the schools’ differing abilities to meet the needs of all students.
As a Town Councilor it would not be my job to propose a school project. I trust the expertise and judgement of our School Committee, elected by the voters, to make the tough decisions over the best path forward. As a Town Councilor, I view myself as having two roles. First, as a project is proposed it would be my job to reach out to constituents and engage the public early in the process to maximize public input and, hopefully, public support for the project. Second, if the project is approved by the School Committee and by the voters of my District it would be my job to approve the funding. I believe that it is important that Town Councilors implement the will of the voters.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
Amherst’s status as a college town is part of what makes it such a great place to live. Our higher education institutions not only are a major source of employment, but they bring with them culture and arts. They also can and should be close partners in moving Amherst forward. This includes securing sufficient payments for Town services, but also more innovative partnerships. One opportunity is collaborations between the Town, the colleges, and the private sector to grow our local economy. The colleges bring students to our Town and provide them with the education and skills for in-demand fields in STEM and the arts, among others. But after graduation most students move away because our area doesn’t provide jobs in their fields. We have a great knowledge base here. We can work together with the colleges to leverage that resource to bring companies to Amherst to capitalize on this. We can see this with the MassMutual Data Lab in Kendrick Place, which was a collaboration with UMass’ data science program. The Town can work to build on this potential to grow our business community and diversifying our tax base.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
The shift in government is a big transition for Amherst. While some approach it with trepidation, it should be viewed as an exciting opportunity to build a government that is transparent, representative, and accountable. But it relies on electing people committed to making it work, open to collaboration and compromise, and who eschew rigid ideologies. I believe I possess these qualities, and can work effectively with other elected Councilors to find areas of agreement to move our Town forward.