Older and wiser

Definitely older, anyway.  But a year on the Select Board ought to provide some wisdom, along with the glamour and riches.  Let's see what that looks like.

My campaign message (still available and detailed here) was: collaboration, prioritization and information.  How's that going?


It was and is a core principle of mine that the Select Board's authority - and capacity for leadership - rests with its ability to work together effectively.  As individual members we have no power.  To me, this means a bunch of things.

We can't be blazing our own trails outside of meetings.  It is easy to think of egregious ways that this can happen, but being vigilant about keeping it from happening in small and inadvertent ways is even more challenging.  I try to check myself on this constantly - especially in the Chair's role - in dealing with staff, in expressing myself in "official" e-mails or letters, to the media, or on this site, and especially, in dealing with the Town Manager.  I also try to keep my colleagues mindful of this.  Each of us undeniably has influence, and we have to channel that influence responsibly - through the full board.  I feel good about how we're doing with this. 

Disagreeing is important; agreeing is more important.  Sharing our thoughts on issues is vital.  Vigorous discussion helps to challenge and clarify our positions.  But at the end of that discussion, we need a Select Board position.  Sometimes that's the majority view.  Other times, it's taking a step back from specifics to refocus on the broader concept on which we have consensus.  Either way, it is directing the forward momentum toward the body's point of larger agreement.  To each of our credit, I think we are doing that admirably.  For sure, sometimes it is necessary - in order to stay true to ourselves and those of like-minds whom we represent - to go on record emphatically opposing the SB's position.  But even then, we do it respectfully and collegially, and then we move on.  The tone of the Select Board is very positive, and though we have a wide spectrum of strongly-held beliefs, we are working well together.  This impresses me.

External collaborations:  There are other bodies with which we need to collaborate, including "formal" ones like other committees, and informal ones, like the business community.  It is tougher to judge how we're doing with this on a large scale, but in general, it feels pretty good.  We interact with other committees mostly at entities like Budget Coordinating Group and Joint Capital Planning Committee (and I am on both) and those seem pretty positive.  As within our own body, it doesn't mean we and they are always agreeing, but it does mean that our work feels productive.   We deal with the business community through licensing, through responsiveness to concerns (parking, permitting, zoning, etc.) through committee liaisonships (Town Commercial Relations Committee, Promoting Downtown Amherst) and through attending events, like Chamber breakfasts.   I think we're doing pretty well with all of this stuff.  We can do more and better, no doubt, but I think we're doing OK.  To really know for sure, one would need to ask reps from the various groups how they view their relationship with the Select Board.  They are unlikely to give me (or the press) an unvarnished answer. 

Town Manager collaboration:  This might be our most complicated and important relationship.  It is complicated for lots of reasons, particularly because the Amherst Town Government Act leaves, oh, a fair bit of room for interpreting the responsibilities and jurisdictions of each position.  Add politics and the evolving sensibilities of the town and the Select Board, and this is not a simple thing.  In general, I would say that we and he are doing pretty well with this.  Larry has been very responsive to concepts put forth with clarity by the Select Board, despite having to endure some protracted efforts to establish that clarity.  The more we try to speak with one voice, the easier it is for him; and the more he reinforces that only the singular voice of the body can direct him, the easier it is for all of us.  He's been Town Manager for three years.  In that time, 4 of the 5 Select Board members who hired him have gone, and he has had to deal with three different Chairs.  His management of the town can't wait for our individual and group learning curves.  All things considered, I think he's handling this very well, and we're all doing the best we can to make a weird system work.


To me, prioritization means directing the appropriate amount of time and energy to issues relative to their importance in a larger context.  It involves a lot of balance - between things we need to react to, and things we want to prepare for; and between things that are important to one of us versus things that are important to the group.  It needs to happen across and within meetings, and it needs to consider both the short term and the big picture.

Agendas:  I feel that we are working with a better-defined structure of what happens when.  We now have a master calendar that helps us to plan and incorporate recurring issues across the year.  We have given increased time and attention to primary responsibilities such as the budget and improving our Town Manager evaluation and goal-setting process.  I try to appropriately time agenda items and then guide those discussions productively at the meetings.  I am generally pretty satisfied with how meetings are going.

Judgment calls:  Priorities are in the eye of the beholder.  My attempts to balance my priorities with those of other members feels OK to me, but my colleagues might feel differently.  Some members of the public think we're spending way too much time on X and not nearly enough time on Y.  I think this is the nature of the beast.

Still far to go:  Do I think everything we address is a high priority, or that we deal with each issue optimally?  HA!  But I feel like we are proceeding purposefully and I hope we're getting better as we go along. 


Providing more information about how Town government works has been my purpose since being elected to Town Meeting three years ago.  (I can't decide now if that seems like a very long or very short time ago...)  People need to know what's going on in order to care about, participate in, and monitor their government. 

Concrete progress:  I am very proud of what the SB has accomplished in this area.  Some of the big stuff:  our packets are now on the Town web site, so the public can see the same info we have; our agendas note key upcoming issues, events and topics; we have made expanded Town Manager Reports a significant element of each meeting; we put forth formal memos detailing our budget policies and our goals for the Town Manager; we are giving higher priority to our committee liaison and representative reports at meetings; we are issuing monthly written reports of our work.  Also, internal information sharing has improved, via the post-meeting list, which summarizes the results of each meeting.  This is distributed to the Select Board office, Select Board members and the Town Manager the day after (usually) each meeting, to ensure that everyone has the necessary information, and to see if we all interpreted the outcomes and expectations the same way (and if not, we know to readdress them at the next meeting.) All good, and again, still more to do.

The flip side:  Ironically, I have been able to provide less info on my web site.  Partially, this is due to time and logistics - really, something has to give.  But partially, it's also because my "voice" has had to change - first, by being elected, and again, on becoming Chair.  Because I'm committed to collaboration as the best path for being productive, that stifles my inner critic -- it's tough to be collaborative and critical at the same time.  This doesn't mean I haven't expressed disagreement with what we're doing or how we're doing it - I do both, here and in meetings - but it does mean keeping that stuff in perspective. Among the biggest adjustments has been accepting that sometimes it's better to keep my mouth shut.

So that's a little check on how my campaign intentions compare to the reality.  What about other elements of this "job?"


There are more moving parts to all of this than people can possibly know.  While "full sunshine" seems like the goal for good government, it oversimplifies the reality.  Sometimes plans and projects would be compromised by making too much information available too soon.  Sometimes information is sensitive for other reasons.  We want this to be black and white:  "The taxpayers have a right to know!"  But it is grayer than that.  Unfortunately, with so many outrageous examples of corruption and waste in government, some people assume that's the norm for all government.  That is sad.  And annoying.

It is easier to criticize how things work than to make them work better.  This is true on its face, but even more so when you consider the structure of how things work.  This is my "it would be different if I were Queen" refrain.  Buy-in and agreement are required for everything, and what seems like a brilliant and obvious idea to you will surely seem outrageous and stupid to someone else - someone whose help you need to make it happen.  Governing by fiat and decree would be easy; democracy and - here's that word again - collaboration - are much tougher.  And that's a good thing.  (Or so I keep telling myself...)

Few people see an issue from other than their own perspective.  I understand this.  Really I do.  But it is among the biggest frustrations of this position.  Whether you think your issue is the greatest crisis facing the town, or whether you think your opinion is demonstrably "right," for me, it is just another on a long and often contradictory list.  Good politicians can make you feel like they share your priority and pain.  I am not a good politician.        

My inclination is to trust.  Too much.  You can probably point to a hundred examples of it on my TM blog, the inAmherst site, and here:  I defer to committees and to staff, assuming that their processes and expertise are sound.  My expectation is that things are under control, that details are being attended to, and that stuff works the way it's supposed to.  Some people I deal with are the opposite, and tend to doubt anything that isn't proven to them.  Reality - surprise! - is somewhere in the middle.  I'm still trying to figure out how to handle this.   

Don't believe everything you read.  Not here.  Not on other blogs.  Not in the newspaper.  There is a startling amount of error, omission and misinformation out there.  A lot of it is minor, but not all of it.  I decided early on that I would just look picky and defensive if I tried to correct every detail I knew to be wrong.  So instead, I just laugh. 

This isn't supposed to be a full-time job.  How people hold down real employment at the same time they serve on the Select Board is a mystery to me.  Or maybe I let the position, particularly as Chair, expand to fill the time available.  But that isn't how this is supposed to be.  I still don't know what parts I should not do, or do less of, but I am finding a better balance between SB stuff and regular life in the last couple months. 

Policy is elusive.  Everyone agrees that the Select Board is the Town's policy-making authority.  No one seems to agree what "policy" actually is.  Or isn't.  There is a lot of overlap with actions, decisions, procedures, details and opinions.  And there is a lot of murkiness as to appropriate areas of policy jurisdiction.  Gaining clarity and making progress in this area is the big challenge for the next year.

Focus on the positive.  I was going to include a section about the things I've screwed up, wish I'd done differently, didn't do at all or otherwise regret.  Nah.  Bad karma.  

Your feedback is most welcome.  And as always, thank you for paying attention.


Larry Kelley said:

Mayor/Council: this time a strong Mayor.

YourAdmirer said:

Congratulations to your dad - though the races were close, he should do a good job in both offices
to which he was elected today!

Eva Schiffer said:

An admirable account of a year's hard work! Thanks for thinking and writing. And keep doing what you're doing!

Penny said:

You continue to GO, Girl! What an excellent and comprehensive update on your campaign message. Your readers will eagerly anticipate next year's conclusive definition of "policy!"

While a "good politician" may appear to share your prioirty and pain, a good administrator/selectman will keep it all in perspective - as you do.

Maybe instead of the Mayor/Council approach, having a Queen might not be a bad idea.

Stephen Braun said:

Thank you Stephanie...your efforts to communicate clearly, to collaborate with others, and to keep your eyes on the prize are refreshing, admirable, and utterly welcome. Keep up the good work!


P.S. Don't you think it would be reasonable for SB members to actually earn some money from the position? Ever since moving here in 2000 I've been aghast at the expectation that people like you basically do the job for free. Is that not insane?

Thanks very much for these comments, and the e-mails I've received.

Steve -- per your Q about money: it does seem a little weird, but since it has always "worked" this way, it would be hard to argue that changing it is a necessity. And the toughest part would be determining the appropriate amount -- just what is this position "worth?" If it's a little more, it's still just symbolic; if it's a lot more, then it's a real expense to the Town. It could be a fun new budget line to wrangle about at Town Meeting though...

Larry Kelley said:

The oldest line in the (evil) book of Capitalism: "You get what you pay for".

Lose the Town Manager (saving $125-K) and let the Mayor (at $80-K or so) have a MAJOR role in the Schools (thus reducing the HIGHLY overpaid Superintendent role--especially in view of what the idiotic SC allowed the new guy coming in) thus saving another $50-K.

No more Town Meeting 15 or 20 nights per year, where paid professional staff on overtime or compensatory time (Police and Fire Chief, DPW, Planning Department etc) have to sit way in the back waiting for their concern to come up night after night.

And no more idiotic zoning decisions that cost hundreds of thousands in legal bills (not to mention taking land off the tax rolls).

Alison said:

I think the Select Board information has become a lot more accessible this past year. Thank you, Stephanie, for your efforts on this front. It is greatly appreciated.



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