George Ryan: District 3
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?
I believe one of the biggest challenges we face as a Town is broadening the tax base. For years we have been largely level-funding key Town departments due to the lack of consistent tax revenues. We must encourage responsible growth in the downtown and village centers, both to ease some of the pressure on the individual property owner (in a town where 90% of our property tax revenue comes from residential property owners, 10% from commercial) and to address the acute housing shortage. We must have the courage to face the changes that are happening (and have happened) in our downtown and village centers and see them as an opportunity, not a threat. Without a sustained and concerted effort to grow the tax base, we may in the not so distant future face an override vote -- not for a school, or a new DPW building, or to renovate the Jones library, but simply an override to pay for basic town services. Growth can be managed through thoughtful planning and appropriate zoning regulation. But if we stifle and frustrate growth, I fear that what we will have to manage will be how to make cuts in budgets that have already been cut to the bone.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
In addition to twelve years as a member of Town Meeting, I devoted over a decade to serving on the Board of Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity. In those years I served as both Vice-President and then President. I helped oversee projects in Amherst, Northampton, Turners Falls and Orange. I learned how to work with a wide variety of groups and individuals in many areas of our common life: town planners, zoning boards, builders, architects, lawyers, building inspectors, town managers, fundraisers, church groups, countless volunteers and (not the least) our partner families and individuals. I learned one very valuable lesson: my job wasn't to be the smartest or most capable person in the room, my job was to help get smart and capable people to work together towards a common goal. I learned the virtues of collaboration and humility -- to trust the experience and expertise of those who shared a commitment to making a difference in the lives of others. I would bring that attitude and the commitment to getting things done to my service on the Council.
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?
I have made my campaign tagline "A 21st Century Vision for Amherst". At the heart of that vision is the fact that our town must address a number of pressing capital needs. Because the town has been prudently managed over the last decade or more we are in a good financial position to address these needs. We must replace the aging and inadequate DPW building, move the Fire Station to the south of Amherst for the sake of public safety, renovate the Jones Library so that it can better serve an increasingly diverse community with a wide variety of needs, and we must address the issue of the elementary schools. I think these all must be dealt with in a timely fashion. We do not yet know what the School Committee will recommend in regards to Fort River school, but I believe the school situation to be intolerable. We cannot wait another 5 to 10 years to resolve it. This is a matter both of basic educational need and also one of social justice. I would place the schools in the first position, but I have to acknowledge that the order in which things will be done will in part depend on the availability of state funds. I do not think that the Town should take on either the schools or the Library without substantial state money on the table.
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?
I heartily endorse the broad vision articulated in the 2010 Document. When boiled down to its essentials the Master Plan envisions the following: 1. We need to broaden the tax base. 2. To broaden the tax base we should encourage responsible development in the downtown and village centers. 3. Encouraging development in these areas will allow us to continue to preserve and protect open space and the essential character of the Town as well as begin to address the pressing need for housing at all economic levels. 4. We should adopt environmentally conscious policies and procedures (such as the Zero-Energy bylaw passed and then amended by Town Meeting). And 5. we should continue the positive and constructive dialog with the University and the local colleges. Many of us live and work here because of the University and the local colleges. While living in a college town poses certain challenges, we must acknowledge that it also is what makes living here so attractive. I think that if we follow these five broad principles as outlined in the Master Plan, Amherst can continue to be a place where people want to live and just as importantly can afford to live.
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?
Beyond the two mandatory annual meetings that are required of every councilor I would commit to developing my website and/or Facebook page (or some other more suitable medium) as a way for me both to communicate with constituents in a timely manner about what is happening on the Council and also provide them with a way of reaching me directly with questions and concerns. Since in my district (District 3) some 70% of the registered voters are 24 years old or younger, I face a unique challenge in terms of engaging that demographic. I would reach out to various student groups in the hopes that I could meet with them to discuss issues of concern. One of my annual meetings (or perhaps an additional third) would be on the UMass campus with the student population being the target audience, and I would pledge each Labor Day weekend to walk that part of my District which abuts the University and is home to a number of student rentals and frats, both to welcome students to the neighborhood and also to remind them that they are neighbors and part of a larger 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?
I am of the strong belief that the job of a councilor is not to do the job of other Boards and Committees. One of my deepest frustrations as a member of Town Meeting was how often Town Meeting members would substitute their own (often hasty and ill-informed) judgment for that of Boards and Committees that had spent hundreds of hours discussing and evaluating issues. Once the School Committee has made its recommendations and they have been approved by the voters, the task for the Council (as I see it) is to decide if the borrowing required is fiscally responsible. In other words can the Town afford this borrowing or not. I promise that every decision I would make as a councilor would be guided by the answers to these four questions: 1. Is it fiscally responsible? 2. Does it place an undue burden on the taxpayer? 3. Does it meet a demonstrated need of the town? and 4. Does it fit within the broad outlines of the Master Plan?
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
Certainly continuing the positive and mutually respectful dialog between the Town and the University and the colleges is key. Whatever differences we may have we are all in this together. The success of the educational institutions in our town is essential to the success of the town.
Housing is a key issue. We should encourage the University to pursue public/private partnerships to increase student housing opportunities and we as a town should encourage the development of housing in the downtown and village centers. The Mill District project in North Amherst is an excellent example of such a development, one which will bring 130 new units of housing, 30 of which will be set aside for low-income renters.
I think another important step that the voters could take is electing a qualified student to serve on the Town Council. In a town where 60% of the population are students, in a town where our economic livelihood depends on their coming to our town to get an education, it seems to me to be a matter of plain fairness. Having a thoughtful student voice on the Council would send a clear message that we as a town embrace the presence of students in our midst and we value their contribution to our civic life.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
I have found running for Council to be quite an education, on many levels. That is not completely surprising since I have never run for political office before. But I have come away from the process with a deeper admiration and respect for the large number of my fellow townspeople who give so generously and selflessly to Town service – who volunteer at the Jones Library, or in our elementary schools, or who put in hundreds of hours working on the Finance Committee, or the Planning Board, or the Select Board, or as Trustees to Jones Library, or on the School Committee … the list goes on and on. I think you the voter should know that your town is extraordinarily well served, both by its many citizen volunteers and by its professional staff in Town Hall. However this election turns out, whoever wins or loses, there is one thing that will remain: we are all very fortunate to live in this beautiful town.