Brand new year, same old issues

Three weeks "off," and I feel like a kid dreading the start of school after vacation.  Well, that's how I felt until I opened my packet and got my whopping SB pay check, which really makes it all worthwhile. 

Yes, Monday night we resume our meetings, after a long hiatus.  I had imagined catching up on the web site, finishing up some old minutes, etc., during the break.  But instead - nothing.  Or as much nothing as I could manage; I still had a couple of SB-related meetings and commitments.  But as best as I could, I tried to do other things, which was great.  This was the longest opportunity that I've had to not deal with Select Board stuff since before I started my campaign. 

Uggh.  No wonder I needed a break.

But I'm back, rested and ready.  Fresh start, new year, and all that jazz.

A couple of things:

This week marks the beginning of having the Select Board packet materials available on-line.  Monday's packet is here.  Thanks to Kate Seaman and help from the I.T. folks for making this happen.  They are still tweaking exactly how it will work, so it may evolve a bit.  But the idea is that Kate will create a PDF of each week's meeting materials (not the mail, not the notices, not the newsletters and other random stuff that gets delivered in our packets but aren't relevant to the week's meeting) and post it to the Town site when she posts the agenda.  If we receive more materials at the meeting (and if we remember to give her copies) she will create an updated PDF for that meeting, after the fact.  I hope people find this helpful.


The dog hearing issue continues this week.  All those materials are part of the packet PDF, so if you read those, you will pretty much have all the same info on the subject that I have. [Correction, 11:20 p.m. on 1/5/09 -- That is not all the material I have; it is a subset, missing some key documents.  Sorry about that.  Next week we'll have a grand tome on the entire matter.]  I had thought I might write a major post on that whole thing, but I've decided not to do that.  Instead, I will just re-state my position on the issue, which I tried to make clear at the December 15th meeting:   the hearing was a real legal proceeding, where all parties were present and witnesses spoke under oath.  I feel strongly that the only people qualified to judge the evidence are those who were present at the hearing.  Anyone drawing a conclusion based on the summary in our packets, or the newspaper's summary of that summary, is doing so without complete information.  I defer to the Town Manager's recommendation on this issue because he has the complete information, and the Select Board does not, because we designated him to hold the hearing instead of us. 

Having designated the hearing, I see our role as roughly analogous to the NFL's instant replay rule:  in the Select Board's review of the situation, there should be incontrovertible evidence that the Town Manager's recommendation on the matter is wrong; otherwise, the ruling on the field (his recommendation) stands.  What would be evidence of his recommendation being wrong? (There's a difference between it being wrong and not agreeing with it.)  To me, it could be a flawed hearing (that not all relevant parties were present or heard from, for example;) or if we were to ask him a question about the situation, such as "Did you consider X?" and he said no, and that such a consideration might have changed his recommendation.  In other words, I need a reason to reject his recommendation, and I need that reason to be based on real information rather than general opinions about dogs, behavior, bites, liability and so forth. 

You might think that I am basing this on my personal pro-dog biases, but I'm not.  Rather, I am basing it on my bias for good process.  I do love dogs, and because of that, I had to think long and hard about my ability to be part of this - either in conducting the hearing, or in dealing with the Town Manager's recommendation.  My concern was whether I would be able to support euthanizing a dog, as a hypothetical worst-case scenario.  As awful as that would be for me, I decided that if I were not able to support that possible outcome - in this or any other dog hearing - then I would have to recuse myself.  Otherwise it would mean that my mind was partially made up ahead of time; I would be taking one option off the table before I knew a single fact, so I would not be able to make a fair and impartial judgment.  Having thought through that, and decided that I could consider even that most extreme outcome, I decided I could be unbiased.  (Imagine if I found myself as the lone defender of a recommendation to euthanize the dog!  Uggh.)

My goal with all things Select Board is not to seek a particular outcome I would like, but to try to ensure a good process so that the outcome has real legitimacy, whether I like it or not. 

When I leave all this frustration behind to go find a deserted island where I will be Queen, it will be the opposite:  the outcomes will always be tailored to my liking, process by damned. Until then, I am stuck here nurturing my inner bureaucrat.  Never would have imagined that to be my alter ego.  Life is full of surprises.


One of my goals is for the SB to have a budget discussion each week.  This week's will be about the FCCC report.  It will be our first chance to discuss the whole report together, and it will be sharing our general thoughts and impressions, identifying questions we want to follow up on, and so forth.  I think that the more we inform ourselves about budget issues on an on-going basis, the more constructive our discussions and budget policy recommendations can be.  Are there enough different ways to talk about the budget to sustain a weekly, or near-weekly, conversation?  Time will tell. 

The Town Manager's proposed FY10 budget will be released by Friday, January 16th.  Because Monday the 19th is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the Select Board will hold a special meeting on Wednesday, January 21st just to discuss that budget.  It will be at 6:30 p.m., in the First Floor meeting room.


Because real life just doesn't present enough conundrums (ha!) I found myself making one up. 

Suppose I were to win $20 million on a lottery ticket.  Amherst is facing what looks to be minimally about a $2.6 million shortfall for FY10, a gap that is expected to increase significantly once the Governor's budget comes out.  What would I do?   

It would be very awkward to be a sitting SBer and a major benefactor of the Town.  It would also be very awkward to win millions out of pure luck, and watch the Town suffer.  It would also be pretty useless to "fix" the shortfall this year with a quick cash infusion, but without any changes - that would only buy the Town some time while pushing the gap to next year.   There would have to be a creative solution.

Or maybe that $20 million would be my ticket to that deserted island, and I could leave the rest of you to deal with Amherst's budget woes.  (I'd think of you often and remember you fondly.) 

Ahh yes, how to deal with a major jackpot.  To have such problems... 


Larry Kelley said:

Kind of funny, in a Magazine/News writing 101 sort of way, that you lead with talk about your whopping quarterly Select Board pay check: $75 gross, and $64.74 after taxes and withholdings that somehow "makes it all worthwhile.” I assume that was self-deprecating sarcasm (nice touch of course).

And close with the daydream about winning $20 million and anguishing between bailing out the town with a few million of it (at least for this coming year) or buying that deserted island (where I’m sure you would have wireless installed).

Meanwhile you spend FAR too much ink (or is it bandwidth) ruminating on a (bad) dog hearing. Hmmm. Perhaps that quarterly payment of $64.74 is W-A-Y too much.

Budget Crisis said:

I would have to agree. And too much time during the meeting itself on the dog issue rather than on the budget. Next time, please move the critical budget discussion to the FIRST place in agenda rather than the last so you might actually get to discuss it. Without a balanced budget plan in place, everything else is just noise.

John Coull said:

Larry (and Budget Crisis),
Stephanie is not "ruminating" about the dog hearing, rather explaining her thinking and support of the process. This is her strength and her real value to Amherst citizens. We can expect equally reasoned explanations of her actions on budget matters and the process that leads to them.
No Bias Here,
Her Dad

Neil said:

First I want to say that I agree that Leah - the German Shepard that bites people on bicycles and roller blades - is an issue that should NOT occupy Select Board time. It is a problem that affects a neighborhood and should be processed swiftly by the SB. You're up to our arse in alligators with challenges, move on to the next problem, please.

Nonetheless, I disagree with Shaffer's recommendation and I will explain why. The town, in its Animal Control Officer, had already given the owner specific instruction that would have prevented the third dog bite and the owner did not comply with the instruction to muzzle Leah when outside nor did the owner use the leash to draw the dog away from the 8-year-old girl, nor did the owner take the dog to behavioral training.

All of these requirements were stated by our Animal Control Officer to the dog owner and understood by the dog owner prior to the time the 8-year-old was bitten by Leah (all from Shaffer's hearing notes.) The 8-year-old was the third victim of a dog bite by Leah. The animal control officer had given the owner the instruction prior to when it bit the girl.

It is also noted the Leah was adopted and had been neglected. In my mind, that fact is all the more reason to muzzle the animal when it's outside and to take the dog for behavioral training. We must not allow our compassion for our pets to blind us to an owner's responsibility to keep their pets from harming people.

This dog owner had already received firm and clear instructions from the town Animal Control Officer after it had bitten two people before the child was bitten. Why is that firm and clear instruction not enough? It should be enough, and if it is not, then we undermine the authority of out animal control officer and we so at a cost to us. When the officer's reasonable and appropriate prescriptions are not heeded, and the animal continues to be a threat (or even a nuisance) to other residence, there should be consequences, not just the threat of consequences.

Looking at the police reports and Shaffer's notes on the hearing, it's clear our town safety personnel including police and animal control did their jobs thoroughly, competently and using good judgment. Town residents can feel good about funding this quality service including the officers who reported to the scene to take dog bite reports and the Animal Control Officer who did her job extremely well. I was impressed with her judgment and clarity. They all responded in entirely appropriate ways. Good, right? We have competent civil servants. But wait, instead of taking the advice of the Animal Control Officer (which is not recorded in Shaffer's hearing notes) or the Chief of Police (which is not recorded in Shaffer's hearing notes) we decide to suspend banishing the dog "until such time as"

"the dog has ... bitten another person" or
"outside without a muzzle on or on a leash"

If there is a better way to undermine the authority of the Animal Control officer, I don't know what it is.

The Town Manager's motion does not require the dog owner to follow up on Animal Control officer other prescriptions for Leah, namely 3) to keep the dog away from people on bicycles, roller blades or skateboards; and 4) to the get the dog some help, specifically behavioral training.

Why are those requirements not clearly stated in the motion? After all, they were contemplated, decided upon and agreed to. Is behavioral training part of the agreement and also a term for suspending the banishment or not?

Given that the Animal Control officer had already ordered Leah's owner to
1) "keep the dog on a leash" and
2) "muzzle" and keep the dog
3) away from wheeled modes of transportation and
4) get some help [behavioral training]
when Leah bit the 8 year old girl, and now Amherst is doing it again, it seems that Amherst is bending over backward and at the same time undermining the authority of the Animal Control officer, and well as disregarding the advice of the Police Chief.

Please feel free to forward this comment to whomever may be involved in resolving future issues of this nature.

Alison said:

I appreciated reading Stephanie's reasoned comments on the dog issue in this blog (although I, to, agree with Neil's assessment of the ultimate conclusions), but was very dismayed to see how much time the SB devoted to this issue at the meeting on Monday when less than five minutes was devoted to a discussion of the budget. The budget affects all residents and, in my mind, should be prioritized and come first on the agenda. I hope to see the relative importance of the various agenda items prioritized more appropriately for next week's meeting.

Thanks for all the feedback.

I disagree with Alison's assertion that we spent less than five minutes discussing the budget. We spent less than five minutes discussing why we need to talk about the FCCC report. (That item was postponed.) We talked about the budget for most of the meeting. The whole road repair project plan was a dramatic example of the implications of our current and future budget situation, and how we're going to deal with that. The discussion of the Select Board's letter to the State's Special Commission on Municipal Relief was about the causes and effects of our budget situation and our advocacy to the State on how to help us address it. Practically every topic of the Town Manager's report was about issues brought about by the budget situation, and different ways of addressing them -- discussions with Amherst College regarding their financial contributions to the Town, finalizing the Hadley ambulance contract, the state of the snow plowing budget for FY09, the collection of additional info to aid a future recommendation on one of our major pending capital projects: new fire station plans. Et cetera. The budget and how to deal with it was front and center all night.

The dog issue has required more time than I would have preferred as well, but that was the amount of time the SB needed to achieve a decision it could be comfortable with. That's life. Part of good process is not letting artificial deadlines (like the time allotted on the agenda) hijack decision making.

I felt like the meeting went pretty well. Everything was on time until the dog issue ran long. The FCCC report discussion was the only timed item that got postponed. And a couple of untimed items had to be postponed as well, but that is the nature of untimed items.

Per Neil: I had thought the reports from the dog behaviorist were part of the dog info in the PDF, but they were not. I'm not saying that they would change your mind, but only that there is additional printed info on the subject that you haven't seen. (And plenty more non-printed info from the hearing that none of us saw... OK, I'm done making that point.)

Thanks to all for paying attention.

Alison said:

Good points, Stephanie! I tuned in late so missed much of that and/or was hoping to hear a more comprehensive discussion of the budget rather than hearing about the smaller parts (i.e. Amherst College, plowing budget left) in isolation. Looking forward to a more detailed discussion next week!

Nancy said:

Even without seeing the "other" documents, Neil's synopsis of the situation is legitimate. Had the Animal Control officer's recommendation been followed, the 8 year old would not have been bitten.

Obviously, two bites were more than enough. Now there are three and possibly the child's quality of life will be affected for many more decades. It's patently absurd that providing the dog with opportunity to recover from his/her earlier neglect takes precedence over people's safety.

Neil said:

Stephanie: Thanks for all you do. Godspeed.

Marcy said:

Have to say that Neil's original comment really made me chuckle. He devotes his first paragraph to a firm chastising of the SB for being too preoccupied with the dog issue, requesting that they "move on to the next problem, please", and then spends about ten more paragraphs rehashing the dog issue and all the ways in which he is unsatisfied with its resolution. Doesn't sound like moving on to me. And therein lies the conundrum. How as a community can we free our town officials to focus on the most pressing issues facing us when we, ourselves, tend to be the one’s keeping them stuck in old territory? We need to be willing to let go before we can expect them to move on.

Neil said:

I reject Marcy's judgment that my post poses an obvious and laughable conflict. Asserting that the Select Board has higher priorities and should spend its time on them does not preclude an analysis of how this decision was made and what can be learned from it.

My recommendation is that the Animal Control Officer request a hearing promptly after a dog bites two people and not wait until it has bitten three people. Anyone can request a hearing about a pet that is biting people and pets that are a nuisance.

That an 8 year old girl was bitten by this dog Leah after two previous dog-biting incidents and an intervention by the Animal Control Officer is wrong.

Our animal control officer intervened after two bites and the owner did not do as she was instructed. That's why I think a hearing is in order after two dog bites ...because 8 year old girls and other residents should not be put in harms way because of an irresponsible dog owner. You might feel differently if it were your kid.

Larry Kelley said:

According to a reliable source this morning, a letter of banishment is going out this afternoon. End of story.

N-O-W maybe Queen Stephanie and her Merry Court can move on to more pressing matters.

Might need new sources, Larry.

Larry Kelley said:

Yeah well maybe all the press attention (you would think they too would have better things to cover) made her change her mind.
"Quite frankly me dear, I don't give damn."



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