Nicola Usher: District 1
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?
Many community members are entrenched in the recent town-wide debates over the failed elementary school building project and the charter. The council will need to take the lead on moving forward in a way that lets go of past bitterness while allowing historic successes and losses to inform their work particularly when it comes to community engagement. The key dilemma that the council will face: we know that we will never satisfy everyone, but how do we make everyone feel heard?
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
As a town meeting member since 2016 I learned a lot about how the town operates and about the often competing needs and interests of the community. I am a critical and analytical thinker who will address issues from all sides and not be afraid to identify when an argument may be personal or emotional versus when I believe we ought to give weight or deference to an objective, expert opinion whether that of a town hall staff member, board or committee member, educator, architect, etc. As an undergraduate academic advisor my job is to be an active listener: I need to hear students’ concerns, challenges, ideas, and respond with pragmatic guidance and solutions—skills that would serve me well as a town councilor. Anyone who knows me well or has worked with me will tell you that any time I consider an issue, my first instinct is to consider it’s impact on those with less privilege than me and this is how I would approach council decisions
The Town faces many challenges with inadequate and outdated public buildings and infrastructure.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?
Personally, rebuilding the failing Wildwood and Fort River school buildings is my priority and I sincerely hope that there will be demonstrable support from the community indicating it is theirs as well. That being said, my obligation as a town councilor would be to determine the community’s priorities; work with the council, town manager, finance director, and relevant board and committee members to come up with scenarios and timelines that are fiscally possible; gather community input and proceed accordingly. I am reluctant to rank the capital improvements because these things don’t operate in silos - they are interconnected - an override is likely needed, will it be for schools and libraries, what exactly will we be asking the voters for? We have very limited land - we need to connect the dots on large projects and ideally we won’t have to do them one at a time, especially if we take advantage of any grant money we receive.
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 overarching goal made clear in the master plan of addressing growth while maintaining quality of life holds true and although the plan is outdated and in need of revision we ought to treat it as a working document that informs our decisions and preferences with regard to zoning and development because with all the other high priority issues facing the council, an immediate, comprehensive revision of the plan may not occur immediately.
To respond to concerns over recent growth downtown, particularly with regard to the look and feel of buildings, I hope the council will prioritize consideration of enacting form based zoning.
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?
This inaugural council may not reflect Amherst demographically and I see that as a mandate that councilors actively seek to hear, understand, and represent viewpoints and experiences that may not be their own. Councilors will need to get information to the people, including people that are not going to engage in person which means also focusing on easy to digest print and digital materials to convey critical information and timelines.
A specific idea I have for engaging the diverse range of families we have in Amherst involves partnering with the school district on a civic engagement project that would teach kids in grades K-6 about the new council - culminating in a “mock council” event that would bring many parents, including those unable to vote, to town hall while providing a rich educational opportunity and building stronger connections between the council, school committee, town hall, and our elementary school families.
I hope the council will push for the community participation officer role to be a distinct hire and not settle for the responsibilities to be added to an existing town staff member’s role.
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?
My role as a counselor with regards to a school construction proposal or any major capital project would begin way before a funding vote. It would be my job to closely monitor the deliberations of the school committee, engage in conversations with the community, and participate in efforts to inform voters about what is being considered and what they will be asked to vote on.
As a voter I voted in favor of the new co-located elementary school building twice. I also voted in favor of it as a town meeting member. As a town meeting member I was committed to upholding the will of the voters and had the override failed at the ballot I was prepared to vote against in town meeting even though I personally supported the plan.
It is not the job of the council to second-guess or undermine the efforts of the elected school committee or the will of the voters. If the council had the opportunity to vote on funding for a project with an education plan supported by educators and the school committee, the support of the town manager, and passed a town-wide override vote I cannot imagine a scenario in which I wouldn’t support it.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
College students are our most significant asset and they deserve a local government that appreciates that. I understand concerns about student impact on quality of life in neighborhoods and downtown but rather than trying to keep students out, we ought to focus on ways to welcome them in. We need to build stronger neighbor to neighbor relationships and collaborate to address concerns.
There are ways the town can continue to partner with Hampshire, Amherst, and UMass in addition to seeking financial contributions. How can faculty and researchers already doing the work help us in terms of public health education on adult recreational marijuana? Can we use UMass parking lots not heavily used on evenings and weekends for overflow parking for school and town events? I’d really like to see pursuit of public private partnerships, specifically with Amherst College for a parking facility of some sort and UMass for housing.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
I care deeply about our town - serving on town council is a way I can positively contribute to the community. As a working mom to a six year old, I will give voice to young families which are crucial as we shape the future of Amherst.