April 28, 2008 Select Board Meeting

Monday, April 28th, 2008, 6:30 p.m. Music/Language Room at the Middle School

Present:  Select Board members Gerry Weiss, Anne Awad, Alisa Brewer, Diana Stein, Stephanie O’Keeffe; Town Manager Larry Shaffer

Public Comment

Kevin Joy of the Amherst July Fourth Parade Committee said that the committee had sought a permit last week to conduct the 2009 July Fourth parade, and were told that the Town had filed a permit to hold a parade on that day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.   Mr. Joy said that the filing of the Town’s permit and the hours therein appeared to be a definitive determination by the Town Manager that the Town would take over that parade and that no other parade would be allowed on that day.  He asked that the Town Manager state for the record that the current parade committee would no longer be running the July Fourth parade in 2009.

Mr. Shaffer said that there is still time before the 2009 parade and that he is happy to discuss with the parade committee how the parade might be run, and suggested that they talk about it.  He said that the issues involved are very important but that the corrections for those issues are very small, and that he is happy to talk about it and would welcome a solution.

Mr. Joy said that the permit had already been taken out by the Town, and read the last paragraph of the Town Manager’s press release regarding parade plans, and called that “pretty definitive.”  Mr. Joy spoke of how long it takes to plan such a parade, suggesting a year to a year and a half.

Mr. Joy showed a document containing three paragraphs of expectations and regulations for parade participants.  He said that he had been asked to consult on the Town’s 250th Anniversary celebration parade, and had reluctantly agreed.  He said that he received a 13-page document of that parade’s regulations, and read from part of it about marching units being able to carry a banner with only the group’s name and without any corporate sponsorship, that only the parade-approved banner would be allowed and that no additional signs, placards, literature or other messages would be allowed to be shown, distributed or shouted, and so forth.  He said there were many pages of such regulations and said that he believed that they were more restrictive on people’s rights than the regulations put forth by the July Fourth parade committee.

Mr. Weiss said that the Select Board would need to determine what role if any it had in the issue, and that it would need to schedule time to do that, probably in June after the conclusion of Town Meeting, if we were to opt to address it as a Select Board.

I said that I thought we should do that and that an open and televised discussion of the issue would be helpful for the public to participate in and watch.  Ms. Brewer said that the rules for 250th parade need to be addressed, and that they may have been put together by that committee without knowledge of the July Fourth parade issues.

Mr. Shaffer agreed that the 250th parade rules need to be looked at, and said that as keepers of the public way, that the Select Board certainly has a role in the parade discussion and that it is in the Select Board’s authority to be involved with this issue if it so chooses. 

Ms. Awad said that while the Select Board controls the public ways, the Town Manager controls parade permits, and that the Select Board doesn’t control what takes place on the public ways once a permit for their use has been issued.  She said she completely supports the Town Manager’s filing for a permit for the 2009 parade.  She said she isn’t sure that the Select Board should engage in a public discussion on the issue, unless it does so as a public forum that invites people from both sides to present their concerns and arguments.  She said she didn’t think the Select Board should vote or express opinions when receiving those comments.

Ms. Brewer said she wanted consideration of whether or not the Select Board would officially participate in the parade to be part of a future discussion.

Article 10 – Regional School District Assessment Method  (6:38)

Mr. Weiss read a description the article, talking about how the assessment method in the Regional Agreement for determining each town’s share of the regional expenses needs to be approved each year, or else the expense assessment would default to a Department of Education formula.  Elaine Brighty, Chair of the Regional School Committee, said that all towns that are part of regional school districts must do this if they want to use any method other than that of the State. 

The Select Board voted unanimously to recommend this article.

Article 11 – Amendments to the Regional Agreement

Ms. Brighty explained Part A of the article, and how a Regional Subcommittee with members of Select Boards, Finance Committees, School Committees and others from each of the four towns had met to consider possible amendments to the Regional Agreement.  Shifting the cost of bus transportation for the elementary schools from the regional budget and to the individual towns was a unanimous recommendation.  The impetus behind the change is the request by the DoE (now called the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ms. Brighty noted,) that such costs be charged to the budgets that actually incur them.  She said that the shift would mean an increase to the elementary school budget of $325,487 and would decrease Amherst’s assessment for the regional budget by $360,000, and would amount to a net savings of $35,882 for Amherst.  She said Pelham would save about $12,000, while Shutesbury and Leverett would face increases of $33,000 and $14,000 respectively.  She said the Region would still bid the contracts, so that the large combined regional and elementary contract receives optimal terms. 

The Select Board voted unanimously to recommend Part A of Article 11.

Ms. Brighty explained that the Regional Subcommittee also considered and unanimously recommended increasing the cap on the Region’s Excess and Deficiencies account – like the Town’s reserves – from 3.5% of the operating and capital budget to 5%.  She said that this region is the only one in the State at 3.5%, and that all state laws and regulations are based on the 5%.  And just as with the Town, that percentage affects the bond rating and the cost of borrowing.  

The Select Board voted unanimously to recommend Part B of Article 11.

Untimed Item:  Special Liquor License  (6:47)

The Select Board voted unanimously to approve a special liquor license for an April 30th event at UMass.

Untimed Item:  Committee Appointment

Mr. Shaffer recommended the appointment of John Gerber to the Conservation Commission for a third term.  There was some discussion about the policy of limiting people to two terms, and how that is a rule of thumb rather than a law, and that when the situation merits, a third term is approved.  Mr. Shaffer said that the technical nature of the Conservation Commission and its need for expertise and continuity – Dr. Gerber is its Chair – recommended reappointment for the third term.

The Select Board voted unanimously to support Mr. Shaffer’s recommendation of reappointment.

Untimed Item:  Minutes

We discussed minutes, first with the intention of approving some, but instead discussing the process of recording and approving them.  Mr. Weiss said that Ms. Stein had recommended that a draft of the minutes be sent to all Select Board members for corrections, and then sent back to the office for inclusion in our packets.  Ms. Stein said she thought that would help with accuracy and said she wanted to have the minutes approved in a more timely manner.  I mentioned that I had suggested at the April 7th meeting that instead of having the full Select Board make corrections, that I would be willing to do a preliminary edit before they went to everyone.  Mr. Weiss said that individuals might recognize corrections related to themselves that I might miss. 

Ms. Awad said that a discussion should be had about the recent expanded style of minutes, and how that might be reconsidered to allow for the shorter and simpler version that state only the required elements such as votes and actions taken.  Ms. Stein said she preferred the expanded form, but wanted them to be done more expeditiously.  Ms. Brewer said she also preferred the expanded minutes, and said that guidance related to Open Meeting Law recommend inclusion of more than just the required elements.  She said that if there is no motion or action made in relation to a topic, it would not otherwise show up in the minutes, and there may be no record that a topic had been addressed, sometimes multiple times, by a body.

Ms. Brewer suggested that Mr. Shaffer might be able to alter the staff work flow in a manner that would allow for still-expanded yet briefer rough draft minutes to be sent out quickly to the Select Board.  Mr. Shaffer said that rotating the responsibility of minutes among staff meant that none had the benefit of learning the issues and establishing consistency, so he would consider assigning one staff member for the task.

Operating Budget – Elementary Schools  (6:50)

Superintendent Jere Hochman and School Committee Chair Andy Churchill talked about the Elementary Schools’ budget.  Mr. Churchill reminded the Select Board that last year the Elementary Schools had only a 1% budget increase, and that this year, without the inclusion of the switch in transportation costs, this year’s budget represents a 4.7% increase, and that the schools are trying to recover from multiple years of significant cuts.  He praised John Musante, Rob Detwiler and the other members of the Budget Coordinating Group for working together to create agreed-upon budgets for Town Meeting.

Dr. Hochman opened by describing the budget process the schools go through, and the documents that are generated along the way, including the Data and Direction report and the Budget Assumptions for revenue and expenditures.  He then went trough the Elementary Schools proposed budget (this document, although the one presented at the meeting had a different title and date on the front cover.)  There were a few questions and clarifications, and then the Select Board voted unanimously to recommend the Elementary School budget of $20,689,430.

Operating Budget – Regional Schools  (7:11)

Ms. Brighty similarly presented the budget for the Regional Schools (this document, again with a different title and date.)  She noted that the increase for Amherst in the Regional Assessment is 3%, in accordance with the Finance Committee guidelines, and that the full budget increased about 3.7%, without the transportation change.  She also noted that the Regional budget, unlike that of the Elementary Schools, includes capital items.

Dr. Hochman noted that the budget is presented to and voted on separately by all four towns in the region.

After a few questions and clarifications, the Select Board voted unanimously to recommend the Regional School budget of $28,587,639 and an appropriation of $12,756,744 for Amherst’s share, and that if Article 11 is approved by the other towns, the smaller figures representing the transportation cost shift would be recommended.

Article 9 – Library Revolving Fund

Library Director Bonnie Isman said that the Library Trustees would request that Article 9 be dismissed, and may bring the article back in the future.  Mr. Shaffer said that he and Mr. Musante had attended the Library Trustees’ recent meeting on this subject, and that the Trustees needed to work through policy issues related to raising revenue through collecting fines before a recommendation on a revolving fund could happen. 

Ms. Brewer recommended that the topic be dealt with in the fall and settled in time for inclusion in the Town Manager’s January budget proposal. 

The Select Board unanimously voted to support dismissal of the article, and Ms. Awad said that she did so reluctantly and with protest because she said she does not support the Finance Committee’s position on the issue.

Article 2 – Transfer of Funds to Pay Unpaid Bills

Because there are no unpaid bills, the Select Board voted unanimously to recommend dismissal of this article.

The meeting adjourned at 7:28 p.m.  The next Select Board meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 30th in the music/language room at the Middle School, prior to Town Meeting.  Originally, the meetings on the 28th and 30th were scheduled for 6:15 p.m., but because the agendas had accidentally been prepared with a 6:30 start time, we will meet at 6:30.  Beginning on Monday, May 5th, all pre-Town Meeting Select Board meetings will be scheduled for 6:15. 


neil said:

Thank you Stephanie.

neil said:

Mr. Shaffer is a public servant who has made new policy, with or without consultation with his boss Mr. Weiss. Why can’t the public obtain a copy of his rationale in writing? What are the moral, legal or political justifications and how does he weigh the competing interests of the Parade Committee, protest advocates and other interested parties such as the parade-going public? I ask these questions not as a rhetorical device but because if Mr. Shaffer would provide the rationale, the policy and whether it is grounded in well-reasoned principles could be tested by public review. Certainly most of the work has already been done, it’s just a matter of committing it to paper. The public - those of us who must submit to the policy - await.

The position held by protest advocates is absolute. They claim an absolute right to protest in the Parade Committee’s Independence Day Parade. Neither Mr. Shaffer nor his boss Mr. Weiss disagree. Neither Mr. Shaffer nor Mr. Weiss have asked protest advocates to consider an alternative form or forum for protest on that day. Both Mr. Shaffer and his boss Mr. Weiss require the Parade Committee to concede their free speech and their right of association to the demands of protest advocates.

Select Board members Ms. O’Keefe and Ms. Brewer want town government to discuss and debate the new policy on its merits, to understand Mr. Shaffer’s policy requirements and the reasons for them, to understand the Parade Committee’s purpose and the merit or lack of merit in excluding protest marchers, to understand protest advocates’ demands and to explore how protest advocates’ demands can reasonably and satisfactorily be met. I think Select Board members O’Keefe and Brewer are on the right track and I endorse the transparency and reasoned analysis they advocate. Please, sign me up for more of their style of government.

I was confused by the Select Board meeting minutes. Should I believe Mr. Larry Shaffer’s press release

and Amherst Leisure Services Parade Application for 4/7/9 9AM-5PM
that make it clear the town of Amherst has decided to disenfranchise the Parade Committee because the Parade Committee chooses to not include protest marchers or what Mr. Shaffer said in the Select Board Meeting?

“Mr. Shaffer said that there is still time before the 2009 parade and that he is happy to discuss with the parade committee how the parade might be run, and suggested that they talk about it. He said that the issues involved are very important but that the corrections for those issues are very small, and that he is happy to talk about it and would welcome a solution.”
What Mr. Shaffer means is that he "is happy to discuss with the parade committee how the parade...[must] be run” as a condition for getting the permit to run it on July 4, 2009. For Mr. Shaffer the “issues [separating the town and the Parade Committee] are very small” but he is being coy and he won’t spell it out. I will: Allow the 7/4/9 parade to be used by protest advocates and the town of Amherst will issue the Parade Committee a permit, otherwise the Parade Committee will be denied. I wonder if this condition as a matter of town policy is compelled speech and as such, misuse of authority.

It is clear Mr. Shaffer and his boss Mr. Weiss believe protest advocates are morally, legally or politically right and the Parade Committee are wrong. Mr. Shaffer and his boss Mr. Weiss cannot wrap their heads around the fact the Parade Committee has free speech rights too and that when balancing “competing interests”, a list of good solutions does not include giving the whole baby to one party.

Convinced of their own rectitude, Mr. Shaffer and his boss Mr. Weiss’ believe a conversation with Mr. Joy would rightly be a one-way street: Concede to protest advocates’ demands or the Parade committee will be denied a Parade permit for 7/4/9. Mr. Joy might consider sending Mr. Shaffer and his boss Mr. Weiss court decisions on freedom of speech and right of association. Mr. Joy did one better. He gave Mr. Shaffer and his boss Mr. Weiss a copy of the Amherst 250th Anniversary celebration parade rules.

The Amherst 250th Anniversary celebration parade rules do not allow protest in the parade. And still, neither Shaffer nor Weiss recognize or agree that a parade celebration does not demand the right to protest. A blue ribbon panel of Amherst citizens produced the rules for the Amherst 250th Anniversary celebration parade, not a group of conservative-minded Amherst citizens like those who constitute the Parade Committee.

Here's my best assessment of Mr. Shaffer and his boss Mr. Wiess' official policy:

The Town of Amherst will not issue the Parade Committee a permit to conduct their Independence Day Parade in 2009 unless it consents to concede its right of association.
The Parade Committee's right of association has no authority when balanced against protest advocates right to exercise free speech including protest in the Parade Committee's Independence Day parade as marchers.

Let’s get Mr. Shaffer's policy rationale in writing and go from there.

neil said:

Accusations of Discrimination, Pretense, defending and implementing Amherst's new July 4 Parade policy

AMHERST - The private group that has staged the Independence Day parade since 2002 may not be able to do so next year.

Town officials decided last week to take over the parade for next year, which will be the town's 250th anniversary, but parade committee officials said that if this happens, they will also run their own.

The town, however, has taken out a permit for July 4, 2009, that extends for the entire day, effectively blocking the parade committee from running its own show. […]

Board member Stephanie J. O'Keeffe asked for a public discussion of the parade issues at a future meeting, something that would probably happen in June after the annual Town Meeting.

"We have to decide what role the Select Board wants to play," said its chairman, Gerald S. Weiss.

Selectmen have control of public ways, but the town manager issues permits.

Last week, O'Keeffe said she thinks the private group "should be allowed to have their parade their way."

Weiss, however, said, "I support (the town manager's action) completely. I think it's the best resolution. I've said for four years we cannot be participating in a discriminatory event."

Political issue clouds parade
By Diane Lederman, May 01, 2008

Mr. Weiss calls the Parade Committee’s Independence Day parade a “discriminatory event.” Discrimination is a charged word in our society like “racist” or “cracker”. We’ll examine the assertion.

All who agree to Parade Committee policy may participate as marchers. Parade Committee policy applies equally to all participants. The policy prohibits protesting by sign or shouted slogan. The Parade Committee's stated purpose is that the parade is a celebration of our country’s Independence, the service of police, firemen and veterans; and specifically not a protest parade. No one is prohibited from participating as a marcher on account of his or her race, religion, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The only basis for excluding participation in the parade is consent to comply with the parade policy that, among other things, disallows protesting.

If you are black or Caucasian and you agree not to protest, you can march. If you are Catholic or agnostic and you agree not to protest, you can march. If you are of any ethnic background or any sexual orientation and you agree not to protest, you can march. If you are Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green Party and you agree not to protest, you can march. The only discrimination is discrimination against people who do not consent to participate within the guidelines set forth by the Parade Committee. People participating along the parade route as audience have no restriction on their conduct other than what is expected of people in society at a public gathering.

In what sense, does Mr. Weiss claim the Parade Committee parade is a “discriminatory event” and since when does disallowing protest equal discrimination? We don’t allow protest in our children’s classrooms, in movie theaters or at Select Board meetings. We don’t even allow people to yell “fire” in crowded movie theaters. Free speech is not an absolute right, whether at a parade or elsewhere. Free speech is balanced against competing interests. In this case, it is balanced against the equally valid constitutional right of association. Check it out for yourself. It’s real and it has yet to come up in coverage of this issue, in Mr. Shaffer policy announcement, in Select Board minutes or in newspaper coverage.

Mr. Weiss’ accusation is unfounded. He should stick to the facts and refrain from using inflammatory and pejorative language when referring to the Parade Committee’s event. It is inaccurate, unfair, and it reveals his lack of respect for their purpose, their point of view and their judgment.

The fact is, some Amherst residence want an Independence Day Parade that allows protesters in the parade. The fact is, the Parade Committee does not want the parade to be a protest parade. For protest advocates and for Mr. Shaffer and Mr. Weiss, the opportunity to protest along the parade route as spectators, the opportunity to organize a protest rally, or the opportunity to organize a separate protest parade does not satisfy their need. Why is that?

Their solution is to demand that the Parade Committee allow protesters. If the Parade Committee does not, the Town of Amherst will have town government conduct a 2009 Independence Day Parade that will allow protesters to march. The decision is made at the cost of approximately $10000. All of this is within town government’s misguided authority to decide. It is a decision that caters to protest advocates rather than the moderate middle, a moderate middle that doesn't believe our Independence Day parade must, as matter of obligation or good judgment, include protesters as marchers; a moderate middle that would prefer an Independence Day parade that is a celebration and not a protest.

What should be clear is that this issue is not a matter of righteousness – about who is right and who is wrong - but a matter of finding the right balance between valid competing interests.

I submit that this is a complex problem requiring the best efforts of our wisest elected leaders, not a matter for our un-elected town manager to decide on his own, or on his own with input from one person, his boss, a like-minded individual who has wrongly claimed the Parade Committee’s parade is discriminatory. The Parade Committee has a valid and respectable position. Protest advocates have a valid request that should be provided for. A solution that provides for one and not the other is misguided and autocratic. Larry Shaffer’s policy is a poorly decided solution. The best solution will respect the rights of both parties.

The most troubling conduct by far was how the town manager moved to exclude the Parade Committee from obtaining a 7/4/9 parade permit by filing a fraudulent application for a 9AM to 5PM town parade permit, which is nothing less than unethical pretense.

Mr. Shaffer started the clock on this issue by announcing the new policy. Since then it has been part of the news cycle on a frequent basis locally and around the nation. The sooner the Select Board takes up the issue on the merits, in the spirit of meeting both parties interests and respecting both parties rights, the sooner this issue is resolved. I suggest the Select Board not to wait until June.

Richard Morse said:

I know that many folks these days think that Mr. Shaffer and Mr. Weiss are joined at the hip politically. But, the more that I think about the way that this has been done, especially with the little preemptive maneuver regarding the 2009 parade permit, the more that I conclude that this is just not Mr. Weiss's kinder and gentler style nor that of anyone else on Select Board, save perhaps Ms. Awad, who seems these days to be trying to get quietly to the end of her current term.

To me this is less a matter of rights than it is a matter of power politics. Mr. Shaffer is a newcomer to town who has brought with him his tone-deaf, overbearing political style, and it doesn't quite fit in our town. There's an atmosphere of distrust developing around him, and I'm hearing it not just from the oft-ridiculed flag-wavers like Mr. Kelley. When he takes thinly veiled rhetorical swipes at our long-respected police chief, as he did the other night, Mr. Shaffer contributes to a growing credibility problem.

I think Neil’s analysis in his most recent comment is quite excellent. And both sides would do well to lose the super-charged rhetoric each is using to try to establish the moral high ground. They are simply talking past each other.

I hope that what has happened in the last week or so is the beginning of the public discussion and policy determination on this issue. Better late than never. I was heartened by Mr. Shaffer’s response to Mr. Joy. Mr. Shaffer could well have dug in his heels and repeated what he said last week – that the Town would be running the Fourth of July parade. He did NOT say that. He said let’s keep talking about it.

And to that, I would (and did) add: let’s do it in open public meeting.

It is my hope that all concerned can keep their eyes on the real goal: a parade our community can be proud of and enjoy. We can’t change anything that has gotten us to this point – bad process, bad behavior, bad attitudes, whatever. But we can try to do only good and smart things going forward. That will require some tongue-biting, pride-swallowing and most of all – mind-opening. Let’s try it. Otherwise, the only “victory” available to either side will be Pyrrhic.

Townie said:

Well said Stephanie. It points to the primary reason you were recently elected to serve on our Select Board: you have a thoughtful, balanced approach to issues such as these that cuts through the heated rhetoric and gets to the underlying problem as well as the possible solutions that are hiding underneath the steaming piles of words. In this case, we have talked ourselves into a corner, where arms are crossed petulantly and either/or statements from both sides of the debate have frozen the discussion. I believe, as you do, that there IS a compromise solution hidden somewhere and if folks can manage to put their verbal guns down for a while we might, as a Town, find that solution. Our town is just too small to be settling our problems this way, pitting neighbor against neighbor in an antagonistic fashion, and I for one would like to see us start looking for that common ground on which we can meet and settle our differences with civility and mutual respect. A real ground-breaking thought, I know. Dividing these discussions into good guys vs. bad guys type skirmishes may make for entertaining reading in the papers and in the various blogs that are now everywhere, but it never solves the real problems and it always comes at a cost. It's easy to paint "the bad guys" with a broad two-dimensional brush, blaming "them" for everything from the budget deficit to global warming, but the fact is that each of us is more complex than that, having both our "good" moments as well as our "bad." All we can hope for is for those around us to cut us some slack when our warts show through and stay in the conversational ring long enough for us to make things "right" again. If we can make that promise to one another I can't imagine there being any problems that we, as a Town, can't solve together. If on the other hand we continue to harp on our differences of opinion, shouting them louder and louder in the hope that sheer volume will change minds, I see nothing but dark days ahead because our problems are only going to be getting more daunting, more complex, and more polarizing as time goes on. Here's hoping that your more sane, balanced approach wins converts and we can find a solution that allows us, as you said, to put on "a parade that our comunity can be proud of" because I'm assuming that is after all the primary goal here...isn't it???
Keep up the good work, Stephanie!



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