Shalini Bahl-Milne: District 5
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?
In speaking with over 350 people in District 5, I have come across these dilemmas for the new Council:
a) Financing the capital projects—schools (including universal Pre-K), DPW, fire services in South Amherst, and Library—and infrastructure (deferred maintenance for roads, sidewalks, etc.) without burdening property owners. This includes providing sewers to neighborhoods in South Amherst.
b) Addressing the nature of development. Given that we have less than 4% land for commercial development and our property taxes are already very high, we need additional sources of revenue to invest in the necessary capital projects and maintenance. Downtown development is a good source of revenue (the two new buildings are expected to contribute $800,000 to town revenue) and adds vitality to our downtown area that supports Amherst’s local businesses. However, the Council will need to look into ways to incentivize and encourage developers to make the sidewalks attractive for pedestrians and families, offer outdoor seating and dining, and other design elements that will contribute to a thriving downtown that is accessible to everyone.
c) The parking shortage downtown, which may require new solutions such as the creation of a Parking Authority or public-private partnership to build a new parking lot.
d) Unaffordability of workforce housing in Amherst and balancing housing needs for students with those of people working in town.
e) Creating policies and strategies for inclusion and equity to enable diverse populations to participate in our local government.
What relevant experiences and qualities would you bring to the Council that would help it work through these dilemmas constructively and effectively?
I trained to be a Chartered Accountant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, have a PhD in marketing, and own a local business—I understand complex budgets and big-picture thinking needed to connect the dots and make responsible decisions for long-term sustainability and the well-being of Amherst residents, including the most vulnerable populations – children, immigrants, income-eligible families, seniors, and people with disabilities.
I also practice, research, and teach mindfulness, which has trained me to listen to different perspectives, collaborate, and navigate challenges with an open mind and heart. I have worked with diverse groups of people, including community members, high school teachers, students, and businesses and can help find solutions to address competing needs.
As a woman of color who’s lived in three cultures—Indian, Middle Eastern, and American—I bring a diverse perspective to the inaugural Town 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?
My priorities for capital improvements are, in order: Fort River and Wildwood schools, DPW building, fire services in South Amherst, and the Library. This list is based on the criteria created by the Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC) to prioritize capital projects involving an imminent threat to the health and safety of residents, employees, and property. Currently, the health and safety of children, teachers, and staff is at most risk in the two schools, followed by risks to employees in DPW building, constituents in South Amherst needing ambulance services, and library patrons.
The JCPC has created a “citizen request form” to hear from residents their capital spending priorities. This is an important tool to understand residents’ challenges impacting the quality of their life in Amherst. I will keep District 5 constituents informed of this opportunity to surface capital projects important to them.
We may plan in a certain way, but how the projects get implemented will also depend upon when the state funding and grants become available.
Engaging residents and keeping them informed in a transparent and timely manner is part of a healthy capital investments planning process.
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 the following elements of the Master Plan with suggestions for implementation:
1. Balance economic vitality with open spaces and maintaining Amherst’s existing community character. The new Council can use appropriate tools such as form-based zoning, conservation easements, and incentive zoning to encourage developers to adhere to Amherst’s character and promote higher-density mixed-income and mixed-use developments in downtown and village centers.
3. Provide affordable workforce housing to meet the needs of all residents while minimizing impacts on the environment. The Council can use a mix of tax incentives, inclusionary zoning, and state aid to provide affordable and workforce housing.
4. Diversify and expand the economic base. The new Council will need to explore policies and regulations that encourage the diversification and expansion of its economic base in a manner that meets communities’ needs.
5. Enhance Town-Gown relations and cooperation. The Town and UMass and Colleges have a symbiotic relationship. The Council can encourage UMass and the Colleges to share the capital projects' costs.
6. Environmental stewardship. The Council can create a comprehensive plan to make Amherst a carbon-neutral community with steps to minimize energy wasted in buildings.
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?
Understand the barriers to participation: We need to first understand the factors preventing diverse populations from participating by speaking with them where they are. We can utilize the services of local nonprofits such as Family Outreach to reach out to different populations. We also need to strategize about inclusion and equity to empower people to contribute at their highest levels.
Create a sense of place: Before people, especially immigrants, people of color, and underrepresented populations, are expected to participate in town politics, they need to feel a sense of belonging. Holding neighborhood/block parties involving local businesses, artists, storytelling, community murals, and such collective practices can create a sense of place that feels inviting to diverse populations to engage in ways they can best contribute.
Creating online and offline channels of communication: The two District Councilors can provide two opportunities at different places and times for residents to meet with them. Special-issue meetings can be highlighted to encourage all residents to participate and share their opinions and concerns via the online channels and at public meetings. These channels can be used to share latest facts and information with transparency and regularity.
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 voted yes for the co-located schools in 2017. There were pros and cons to that plan. I decided to vote yes because the alternative was much worse for many children. It deprived many income-eligible children from accessing free Pre-K and left the children and staff at Fort River and Wildwood in extremely unhealthy conditions.
I will support the School Committee to implement the plan it arrives at in consultation with hired experts. This would include supporting the School Committee in any way to engage residents in the different stages of planning and implementation, ensuring that the residents’ concerns are communicated to the School Committee, and answering any questions the residents may have about the school project.
What ideas do you have for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of Amherst’s being a college town?
1. Improve the town-gown relations using best practices from other towns. For example, U. of Vermont’s partnership with Burlington to give $8.5 million for capital projects in town can be an example for us to pursue similar partnerships.
2. Provide the infrastructure for incubation and start-ups emanating from the colleges.
3. Promote internship opportunities to students in town government, local businesses, nonprofits, and urban planning.
4. Promoting partnerships between different stakeholders for business and social innovation.
5. Promote the fine arts and cultural activities on campus to the community and vice versa.
6. Promote public-private partnerships for on-campus student housing.
7. Explore successful landlord ordinances in other towns such as establishing a point system to track ordinance violations at rental properties (such as noise violations) and apps for landlords to rate students to make students more accountable.
8. Figure out ways to reach out to students and residents to understand their concerns on an ongoing basis. Creating a students’ ambassador team that will engage with residents and students on an ongoing basis is one option.
Anything else you would like voters to know?
My work as the founder of Downtown Mindfulness and KnowYourMind.training has been dedicated to making mindfulness-based solutions accessible to individuals, schools, and businesses. I help people develop skills to make their lives—and their communities—better. In this capacity, I have worked with thousands of individuals, schools including the regional high school, all the way up to fortune 500 companies. I encourage you to look at my work and published research before I decided to run for Town Council. I hope you will see that my campaign and promise to serve as your Town Councilor is consistent with the work I have been doing to make this world a better place for all beings.