Thursday, November 1, 2007

Random wonderings about how Town Meeting is going to go this Fall 2007

Interesting excerpt from the David Brooks New York Times "Happiness Gap" column published in The Republican (Springfield, MA) pg A16 Thursday November 1, 2007:

"In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt could launch the New Deal because voters wanted to change the country and their own lives. But today, people want the government to change so their own lives can stay the same. Voters don't want to be transformed; they want to be defended."

The basic upshot of Brooks' take on some Pew Research Center survey results is that as individuals, American voters are happy with their lives and also expect their lives to get better, although at the same time they believe their country and their government is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

I'm trying to figure out why this resonates with me for local politics as well as for the Presidential election that Brooks is focusing on.

Amherst has some number of folks who want the Town to stay the same as it was the day they arrived -- and given the transient (oops - mobile) nature of our population due especially to the five colleges, that arrival day may be last week, or ten years ago, or thirty years ago, or four generations ago -- and those folks don't seem to want to acknowledge that things in Amherst have changed and will change, like it or not, even since just ten years ago (disclosure: I've been here almost that long).

I'm trying to figure out why the clearly unhappy people, who fight so many of the changes we are challenged to consider as a community, are able to organize their unhappiness so effectively, while many of those who are strongly supportive of some change are too busy to sit through meetings and proclamations based on consensus. Sure, a lot of it in Amherst is the "aristocracy of time," as my friend Rich M refers to it. The people who can "afford" to spend time in all kinds of meetings -- plus the uber-meeting, Town Meeting -- are definitely people of some varied viewpoints, but all together they are admittedly unlikely to be representative of the entire breadth and depth of Amherst-resident views. So much of life is based on who shows up, so...

When it comes to community bylaws, zoning, and budgets, do retired white academics view the issues the same way as a single mother of color who has lived in poverty for two generations or more? Do we need to find ways to have all of us hear from the single mother on an ongoing basis, or is the retired white academic "channeling" his/her hopes for the "downtrodden" enough? What about retired academics of color -- should we worry that they're not serving in our numerous volunteer government positions in representative-of-our-population numbers? What about the number of visibly mentally ill people -- where do their views get meaningfully considered during any part of this process? And what about the college students? Do they get any say?

Do the folks we're not hearing from at meetings, in the newspapers, and/or on the listservs want Amherst to remain the same?

Do they notice the effect of state Proposition 2 1/2 on our town services? Have they suffered any ill effects due to the failure of our 2007 override vote?

Do they want to see some denser development in some areas of town, or do they think it's better to have more areas with a single large house on a two acre lot? Does "denser development" mean small, close together, single family houses? Accessory apartments in already built-out neighborhoods? Mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor, offices above that, and condos above that? Where?

Do they depend on the PVTA bus to get to work, school, food shopping, and/or medical appointments? Do they agree that significant local tax dollars should be spent on serving 5-15 riders at any given time, or are the routes paid for mainly by UMass (e.g., the Old Belchertown Rd bus that goes to Valley Medical) adequate for their needs?

That's just skimming the surface, of course.

Questions like these have indeed been considered in the Comprehensive Planning Committee's Planning Amherst Together process, including a survey, multiple questionnaires, small meetings, large meetings, etc.. Some progress in reaching those not often heard from has been made due to huge amounts of thought and effort on the CPCs part, but we all know that there is simply no way for the results of all those efforts to seem as though they've perfectly captured every single nuance of the issues. I'm something of a perfectionist by nature, but I know the efforts and results of the CPC work enable me to say "the perfect is the enemy of the good." The draft Master Plan is still being worked on, and should get to the Planning Board for their statutory approval a few months before Annual (Spring) Town Meeting. This will give everyone time to consider the many ideas in the Master Plan as they develop their Town Meeting warrant articles.

So why are we going forward with the zoning articles on the upcoming Special Town Meeting (the one we have every Fall, but it's always "special" if it's not the Spring Annual) beginning Monday Nov 5, 2007? Why not wait for the Planning Board to approve the Master Plan?

Because the results have already been made widely available through the town website and a variety of meetings, and ongoing meetings can always be attended by anyone. The zoning articles on this upcoming Special Town Meeting are significant and they can proceed now. For a great perspective, see this week's Amherst Bulletin piece by my friend Carol S.

Back to Brooks and how it applies locally: maybe the folks who are afraid are the ones who want the government to change to ensure their fear remains codified.

We don't need to be afraid of our decisions. We can decide to pass these zoning articles with the necessary 2/3 vote, and move on to making more decisions in the best interest of the viability of our community in both the short and long term. Arguing zoning pieces to death (or referring them, again) takes up time we need for figuring out how to deliver programs and services our residents need during these extremely difficult -- and likely to get far worse before they get better -- financial times. Keep moving forward!