Lynn Griesemer: District 2
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 first challenge I see is making the transition to the new form of government successful and constructive. Getting that right will be the key to making progress in all other areas. Securing a good transition will call on the best in all of us: to listen, find common ground, and move our community forward. It’s a unique moment, and we only have one chance for a good start.
A second major challenge is knitting together discussions about planning, zoning, the tax base, and our values. Important decisions come along regularly — about new construction, economic development, the integrity of our neighborhoods, and the quality of our schools and local services — but the connections among these decisions are not always clear. I believe the Council has the obligation and opportunity to put issues in context, bring important information forward, and promote ongoing, informed dialogue among its members and across the community.
A third major challenge is sorting through our many competing needs to improve school, municipal and library facilities. Council members must be responsible stewards for the public assets generations of taxpayers invested in, and also responsive leaders to meet evolving needs. And they must do so in financially and environmentally responsible ways.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
I’ve spent my career working in teams to build strong public organizations, first as founding director of a seven state non-profit education consortium and for the past 31 years with the UMass Donahue Institute. In these roles I gained experience in many areas that will be important for Amherst’s future, but my success always relied on bringing people together around shared challenges and strategies.
In Amherst town government I’ve served as chair of two committees working to upgrade our fire and public works facilities. That also gave me the opportunity to help renegotiate the Town’s new Zero-Energy by-law, a great example of finding better solutions through creativity and collaboration.
For the past decade I’ve worked with a terrific team of board, staff and volunteers at the Amherst Survival Center, where I’m now president of the board. That experience has really demonstrated what building community is all about.
I have no illusions about the challenges this first group of Councilors will face. There are divisions to be healed, long-standing issues to be tackled, and the unique task of figuring things out for the first time. But I love a challenge, especially in a good cause. And I have an unwavering commitment to open, informed, forthright and respectful dialogue.
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?
After working on these issues for many years I believe we can address our current and future needs if we think comprehensively. It will be essential to capture the maximum possible state and private funding to limit the impact on the property tax. We are fortunate that the town put aside significant capital reserves, so today we can move forward with a comprehensive and balanced plan.
Capital needs are always with us as buildings reach the end of their useful lives and needs change. So I will stress a plan that accounts not only for today’s needs, but also emerging ideas — for example an improved senior center — that reflect the changing character of our community.
While there are still important questions to be answered about all these projects, I support moving as quickly as possible to secure state funding for a school project that addresses the needs at both Fort River and Wildwood; settling on a new location for DPW, and using that excellent spot to move the current Central Fire Station “south;” and developing a public-private partnership to respond to the programmatic needs identified at the Library. The funding mixes for all these projects vary, so they can move forward in parallel if the Council and the community come together around a careful and comprehensive plan.
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 Master Plan incorporated many good ideas, but left open some important questions about resolving competition among different values and priorities. So as a practical guide to action I believe it is not yet complete.
The new requirement that the Council adopt a master plan creates the opportunity to take the good work already in place a step further. I would encourage the Planning Board to revisit the key elements of the plan in a community discussion of trade-offs and priorities, and to update the plan accordingly prior to Council action. I think it is imperative to make clear how our values, and our small-town character, will be respected and strengthened in the plan and in subsequent zoning. Since the development of the current master plan in 2010 we have learned a great deal about the consequences — intended and unintended — of planning and zoning decisions, and we should take advantage of those lessons as we move forward with elevating the importance 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?
My experience with the Amherst Survival Center has brought home in very practical terms how great the gaps can be across our community in terms of engagement in local government, access to information, and opportunities to have an effective voice. We make too many assumptions about the inclusiveness of our government, and spend too little effort reality-checking them.
I applaud the new charter’s emphasis on transparency and engagement. I’m excited about the opportunities to hold district-wide forums, and communicate with residents through all the media available to us. But closing the gaps will require more than passive transparency, however diligently we pursue it. I noted the need for context and connectedness in terms of capital planning, and I believe that principle should extend to all town business. It should be our job as Councilors to think about who is likely to be affected by a decision, directly or indirectly, and frame the choices accordingly. Where we have reason to believe that those affected may not be in the loop, we should bring the discussion into the community. I believe the many fine community-based not-for-profit organizations can be especially helpful in both framing issues and consequences and connecting with those voices need to be heard.
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 was not on Town Meeting at the time, but I supported both ballot questions. Our son attended Fort River, and the problems were very clear then. He is now 24, and the situation has become critical.
I appreciate the appeal of building two new schools, but we cannot do it all on the backs of local property taxpayers. We must maximize state funding, and it is clear to me that the state will not build us two new school buildings at the same time. We could go forward with one of the projects, and roll the dice that the state will come through at some point with the other. But that is not a risk I want to take, nor do I think we should consign a generation or more of children to the conditions that exist in those schools today. So a unified project makes sense to me.
Because we must go through the process again, we will have another opportunity to hear and address concerns related to a co-located approach, and I look to the School Committee to lead a wide-ranging community discussion. Nearly all communities face declining school-aged populations. There are good models for sharing certain school facilities while still maintaining a small-school atmosphere, and Amherst should continue to learn from other communities and apply those lessons here.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
The University and the colleges are key to our identity and vitality. We’ve been very effective over the years in maintaining strong cooperative relationships, especially in areas such as economic development and energy and water conservation. Even in difficult matters, like student impacts in neighborhoods, we’ve made progress. I want to build on those relationships and look for opportunities for the town and the campuses to succeed together.
The town and each campus are communities with their own challenges and priorities, but I don’t see their fundamental values as being in conflict. So the more we engage, the more likely it is that common ground will emerge and unintended conflict will be avoided. And each of our communities is changing: our town is aging and diversifying, and the campuses face major demographic shifts. We will need to understand and support each other more than ever.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
My optimism about a positive transition to our new form of government has grown steadily as I have been out talking with citizens. We sometimes hear that Amherst is a town divided, but my sense is that we are less far apart than may sometimes seem. The idea of a different kind of government has hung over us with some understandable uncertainty and contention. But now that the question of what our government will look like has been settled, I have found tremendous interest in engaging the big issues that will determine the success of our community. That is what excites me the most about the chance to serve on the first Council.