Robert Greeney: 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?
Amherst is deeply divided over zoning and development. The new Town Council must foster a spirit of unity, community and collective dialog. It must not contribute further to division, animosity, anger and disrespect. The new Town Council must establish itself as a fair an open-minded arbiter of the public will. It must coordinate and focus the collective wisdom in executable plans and policies that are widely accepted as the result of fair and inclusive deliberations.
The current highly controversial downtown developments are a continuation of poor practice. Absurdly, some people blame Town Meeting for this divisive outcome. As a Town Councilor it will be my high priority to cultivate participation, inclusion, and the respectful coordination of competing viewpoints into executable plans and projects that can be widely embraced
Maintaining services, forwarding four large capital projects including infrastructure and parking and keeping tax increases within reasonable limits will be a major challenge for the new Council. Compromise and creativity will be needed.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
I helped raised four children and have been a teacher and mentor to many many students. I served more than ten years on Town Meeting. Positive and constructive outcomes result from listening, understanding and trying to appreciate all aspects of controversial and problematic situations. The ability to engage diverging views in constructive dialogue lead to superior outcomes. Amherst has the expertise, the creativity, the vision, and the commitment of citizens to manage well the challenges it faces. Coordination, consideration and compromise are required. I would welcome the opportunity to be part of the agency to do just that.
The Town faces many challenges with inadequate and outdated public buildings and infrastructure.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?
Correcting the situation at Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools should be the highest priority. The urgency is such that I would support any reasonable well-crafted plan of an inclusive committee of planners. Happily, we currently have that in place. It seems, we are well positioned to get MSBA support for the emerging plan. The need for a South Amherst Fire Station and a new Public Works facility are clear. The new Town Council must decide what we can afford and how to accomplish that as soon as possible. I would support immediate action within the confines of what current Town finances are able to support. Modest renovations of the Jones Library and the two branch libraries should also be supported. Plans for extensive library renovations need broad support before moving ahead. Roads, sidewalks and infrastructure need consideration. Parking must be included in prioritizing and planning for large capital spending needs. Unfortunately, large downtown residential buildings with little parking will greatly exacerbate the need for parking without contributing toward that large capital need. This needs immediate correction.
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?
Amherst needs a unifying vision for our town. The process of taking the current Master Plan and forging it into widely supported guidelines for future development should be started immediately. It should be a comprehensive one to two year engagement. This will be the Council’s best chance to demonstrate good practice, and a good opportunity to foster unity and community. A path toward building trust, the process must be broadly inclusive and participatory. The outcome must be seen widely as the best collective wisdom of all participants. Many people worry that the new Council will not be broadly representative and open to all ideas. They worry that this new Council, with unprecedented power, will be biased toward a narrow agenda. They worry that their voice will not be heard. The new Council must earn the trust and support of more than a minority or marginal majority.
Personally I am supportive of the Master Plan, but it needs to be refreshed with active citizen engagement. However, even widely accepted ideas are subject to broad and conflicting interpretation. For example, the development and “infill” of the downtown and village centers is a widely supported idea. The current reality of “infill” is not what many, likely most, supporters of “infill” had in mind.
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?
Throughout my comments here I have emphasized the need for participation and inclusion in decision making. Public Forums are the best way to cultivate and harness the collective wisdom. Most importantly we need those forums to begin in the early formative stages of all major policy and capital spending initiatives. Public Forums allow opposing views to be expressed in each other’s presence. This live interactive, in person exchange is a good way to get opposing views to be considerate of each other. Building consensus takes active' intentional and meaningful effort to unite and find common ground. Feeling connected and a valued member of the community is elemental in our quality of life. The new Council must set the tone and hold a high standard in public debate and deliberation. If citizens believe that participation in public forums is meaningful and influential, attendance will be strong from all constituents. This is the best way to cultivate meaningful inclusion, participation, and community unity. Electronic forums and surveys can also be useful as a secondary tool and a backup for those unable to attend the live forums.
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?
The failure of the recent elementary school proposal was not a failure of Town Meeting, it was a failure of inclusion and participation in planning and decision making. A plan that was widely controversial and divisive from the beginning was forced ahead in the name of urgency. No surprise it ended in leaving half the town angry and bitter. Had the proposal past the collocated schools would have been built, but the other half of the town would have been left feeling angry and ignored. The new Town Council must learn to practice inclusion, participation, deep listening, and the ability to cultivate consensus in disagreement.
In the final Town Meeting vote I supported the project in the interest of minimizing damage in a divisive proposition. As an individual I did not favor the plan. It was highly divisive from the beginning and throughout the process. Any plan that leaves half the town unhappy should not be implemented. Given the urgency of the situation the buildings should have been fixed long ago. We could have saved the town money and avoided 12 years of students subjected to “unacceptable” conditions by not waiting for MSBA funding. I support the current plan which is being fashioned in an open and inclusive manner.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
Amherst is book and plow. Over time more book and less plow, but always the unity of both. The quality and character of our town and village centers, the pastoral beauty of farm and open space, and our historic buildings and neighborhoods are assets to our residents and to the colleges and universities. The rich and vibrant academic, cultural, social and athletic contributions of the colleges and university are essential to the quality of life we all experience. Mutual support and respect leads to outcomes beneficial to all. Ongoing attention and the cultivation of deep personal connection and respect is the best path to a functional supportive relationship. The Council and Town Manager in conjunction with state political representatives must actively advocate for fair and proportional support from these well-funded entities.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
I would like all voters to know that the 13 member Town Council you are about to elect will have unprecedented power. Please read candidates’ statements, watch the posted videos, talk to your trusted friends and neighbors, and make your best informed judgment. Once elected continue to engage in public forums and contribute to the future of our community. Consider that a Council of diverse candidates working together to build unity and community through the practice of inclusion, participation, and constructive deliberation, will lead to the best outcomes It would be an honor to be part of such a team.
Enter the future with open mind, open heart, and open hands.
Be cautious, be bold, work together, young and old.
Look and listen, suspend belief, withhold judgment until all speak.
Build unity, community and buildings.