James Pistrang: 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?
Here is my list of the key challenges facing the new Council:
Process: The Council will need to determine how it operates. What are the rules of order, how will Council agendas be formed, how will meetings be structured? Residents must be heard in a fair, respectful, and timely manner. Council agendas, deliberations, and decisions must be transparent and follow agreed-upon protocol.
Outreach: The Council must be responsive to voices from all segments of our community. See below for more of my thoughts on this topic.
Capital Projects: The town is facing a number of large capital projects: our aging elementary schools, a fire station in South Amherst, our crumbling DPW building, and our libraries. The Council must establish a long-range fiscally responsible plan to support these pressing infrastructure needs, prioritize them, and then follow through with action.
Downtown Development: I have heard concern from many Amherst voters regarding the new downtown buildings, and the Council will need to carefully address those concerns. Responsible development should be encouraged, but our bylaws must consider the needs and desires of the current residents as well as downtown parking concerns.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
During my tenure as Amherst Moderator I developed a unique perspective and understanding of the issues facing the town. I have a proven ability to work effectively and respectfully with residents on all sides of an issue. I am able to remain calm and even comfortable in very tense and difficult situations, relying on the rules of order to reduce polarization and foster an atmosphere of safety and respect to help keep things focused on the issues at hand. I have served as Committee Chair on three successful town committees in the past three years. My professional life, my volunteer community activities, my position as Chair of multiple town committees, and my work as Moderator all involve the ability to multi-task, collaborate well with others, and to handle complex issues and bring them to closure.
The Town faces many challenges with inadequate and outdated public buildings and infrastructure.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?
There are four significant capital improvement projects facing our town: our two aging elementary schools, a fire station in South Amherst, our DPW building, and our libraries. I would place the elementary schools and the South Amherst fire station as my #1 priorities, putting the DPW and the Libraries slightly lower on the list. I recognize that other elements yet to be determined such as funding and land availability may also effect the order in which the projects are prioritized. Based on past work done by our former Finance Director, I believe that there are creative ways in which we can plan and afford these projects.
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 support all key elements of the Master Plan, including (but not limited to) higher density development in downtown and village centers, the continued preservation of undeveloped land, the call for more diverse, moderately priced and affordable housing types, and the use of flexible zoning techniques, such as form-based codes, to promote mixed-use development. I also support the Master Plan’s mission to protect community character. To quote from the Plan: ‘Even as higher density development occurs, design standards can help to ensure that such new development is in accordance with the character and needs of the community.’ The Master Plan calls for a community process to update the Plan at a minimum of every five years. I strongly encourage that such a process be initiated to ensure that our zoning regulations meet the ongoing needs and desires of the community.
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?
I would like to see the formation of non-partisan associations in each district that meet regularly to discuss issues facing their neighborhoods. My hope is that Councilors, in conjunction with the new Community Outreach Officer, will hold regular meetings in each district to educate the public and to discuss the issues facing the Council. Outreach must extend beyond Town Hall and into neighborhoods and gathering places frequented by the public, such as schools, apartment complexes, dorms, and community centers. Where applicable, materials should be translated to reach non-English speakers. It is critical that the entire community, including low-income residents, renters, residents of color, and other underrepresented voices be listened to respectfully.
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 did not vote in Town Meeting due to my position as Moderator. If I had voted, I would have voted in favor of the Elementary School project. When a new school construction proposal is brought before the Council I will approach it in the same manner as all other issues. I will expect an initial hearing by the Council followed by a period of time in which the community at large can be heard from and questions can be answered. My decisions and votes on the Council will be careful, transparent, and fact based, and I look forward to receiving a proposal from the School Building Committee with a plan for our elementary schools. Assuming the plan is backed by valid studies and facts and financial data, I will support it and advocate for it and vote for it.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
I applaud and hope to continue the efforts that are currently being made by the town and the colleges and University to improve our relationships, including the activities of the Amherst Neighborhood Liaison, the work of the Amherst and UMass Police Departments, and the ongoing communication between our Town Manager and various representatives of the colleges and University. One critical problem that needs to be addressed is housing. The large number of houses rented to multiple unrelated students is having a negative impact on the neighborhoods bordering downtown and UMass. I hope that the Council will explore the possibility of a public/private partnership to build additional student housing on UMass land to alleviate this problem.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
I commend Amherst Forward on this survey, which is far superior to the simplistic yes/no questions that they issued last July. I am also pleased that they will be publishing all responses, something that I recommended 3 months ago. Amherst’s first Town Council members will have a great deal of serious work to do in developing our new form of government. It is critical that council members be willing to collaborate with each other, not by compromising their own values, but by carefully listening, deliberating, and setting aside personal agendas for the betterment of the town. If elected, I pledge to engage in this collaborative style of governing. I would encourage voters to carefully consider all candidates and make their own informed decisions when they vote in November. To learn more about me please visit my web page at www.jimforamherst.org I also welcome comments and questions via email to email@example.com or by phone (413-237-5710).