Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Placeholder for an Absence: Amherst Town Manager John Musante, 1961-2015

the large flag on the Town Common at half-staff following the funeral for
Amherst Town Manager John Musante, 26 September 2015

Friday, September 11, 2015

9-11 flags fly in Amherst. Now, annually.

It shouldn't be news, but it is. Controversy over the special additional commemorative flags --for we always commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks--ends as we now fly them annually from utility poles in downtown Amherst.

Tired of this controversy, glad it is over. Maybe I'll write about it, maybe not.

* * *

Previous posts on this subject.

The Other 9-11 (s)

Since we have so many flag controversies here in Amherst, let me make clear that Hampshire College, like other major institutions in town, lowers the flag to half-staff on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

That said, the main commemorative event in recent years actually memorializes something totally different: what the organizers call "the other September 11," namely the coup that toppled the socialist regime of Salvador Allende in Chile on that date in 1971.

The organizers generally issue a disclaimer explaining that the purpose is not to minimize the tragedy of the September 11 attacks of 2001, although the juxtaposition certainly serves to contradict the simplistic notion of an "exceptionalist" United States as unalloyed force for good--and, on 9-11, innocent victim. In any case, on a practical level, the programs serve as a way of getting students interested in Latin American studies as the fall semester begins.

I mention all this because it underscores the fact that a given date is often the occasion for many anniversaries, which one momentous event tends to eclipse.

A few years ago, I posted a list of these other 9-11's, and they include some events that were arguably of equal or greater world-historical significance: from the victory of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge (1297), and the opening of the battle in which the Turks were stopped at the gates of Vienna (1683), to the British victory at Brandywine in the American Revolution (1777) and the American victory at Plattsburgh (Lake Champlain) over the British in the War of 1812 (1814).

How many do you recognize?

Pentagon 9-11 flag

Not the least of the many strengths of the National Museum of American History in Washington is that its scale allows it to house and display some immense objects from its collection of some three million items--from the Star Spangled Banner (originally 30 x 42 feet; now 30 x 34) to an entire Ipswich, Massachusetts house.

Another of the largest was just a temporary guest: the great garrison flag that hung from the façade of the Pentagon from September 12 to October 11, 2001. Fittingly, the installation was in Flag Hall, where the Star Spangled Banner was formerly displayed.

I was lucky enough to see it when it was on display from 2002 to 2006.

It was a striking sight whose power the photo can barely convey, though the visitor's head and top of the Christmas tree at lower right give you some sense of the scale.

It is now back home in storage at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair.

* * *

National Museum of American History online exhibit, September 11: Bearing Witness to History.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Town Meeting Follies. The New Hampshire View (2): Quaint Characters

As noted in the previous post, a chance historic preservation and genealogy conversation on Twitter some years ago about antiquated New England town offices led me to a humorous piece on the character of town meeting in New Hampshire Magazine. As I also mentioned, the URL for that piece has vanished, a victim of link rot. But, as they say, when God shuts a door, he opens a window: and so, my recent, unsuccessful search for that piece brought me not only further information on weird and vanished town offices, but also more commentary on the institution of town meeting.

The article is entitled, "Town Meeting and Other Relevant NH Government Relics" and moreover has the descriptive and charming subtitle, "Like programs on the History Channel, some civic traditions are profound while others are ridiculous, and just like the folks who preserve them, they all have stories to tell."

As I said last time: to share this material is not to voice an opinion on the move for a "Charter vote" that would conceivably abolish Amherst Town Meeting (and my own prestigious and lucrative position on the Select Board: as former Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe used to say on bad days: "82 cents a day."). The purpose is only to share more comparative material on our civic and political institutions. On the whole, I think Amherst comes off looking pretty good. As I like to say: "it could always be worse."

Still, you may see some things that you recognize here. Take a look at this "Town Meeting Cast and Crew" and see what you think. Any familiar types?

Town Meeting Follies. The New Hampshire View (1): "I Hate Town Meeting"

Given that we have launched into the great debate over the proper form of local government, I am hauling pertinent past posts (or parts of them) out of the vaults.

Several years ago, in the course of a Twitter conversation with a fellow historic preservationist about obscure or obsolete New England town offices (the one in question was that of "hog reeve"), I came across this humorous portrayal of a mildly undemocratic, corrupt, and dysfunctional town meeting. It was originally published in New Hampshire Magazine back in 2008, and the URL appears to be a victim of proverbial "link rot," so I am glad I grabbed a portion of the text at the time and can share it here again.

Lest anyone leap to any invidious conclusions: I am doing so simply to illustrate the range of character of and opinion about New England town meetings. As one of the labels for the post should suggest, we in Amherst are fortunate to have a Town Meeting that--whatever one thinks of the views expressed at any given time--is serious, ethical, and managed by skilled Moderators. We should be grateful for that, because: "it could always be worse."

Still, you may see a few traits that you recognize.


I hate town meeting.

Town meeting is a laboratory sink for psychologists.

Every dreadful facet of human nature reveals itself at these gatherings. One must have the emotions of a sociopath to escape town meeting with one's soul intact.

I remember a town meeting in Temple years ago where the Police Chief, Russ Tyler, was attacked for using his cruiser too much. Poor Chief Tyler used his own car as the cruiser. He saved the town a lot of money using his own car.

But the mob at the meeting was sure he was getting away with something.

I remember thinking, "You people are crazy to be yelling at the Chief like this. He has a gun."

But Chief Tyler also had great heart. He was a straight shooter and a nice guy (although he did look like that sheriff in the old TV ad who says, "Boy, you're in a heap of trouble.")

In the end, the meeting vented itself and the Chief got his budget. But what heroic self-restraint that man showed.

Towns are made up of people who do not trust one another. It is and has always been "us and them."

The "new" people settle here with an idyllic view of living in a small town. They come from places where no one knows each other. Here they expected to find love.

What they find, of course, is resentment. The old Yankees don't trust the newcomers. Usually the newcomers are Democrats.

Some newcomer always stands up at the meeting and says something like, "My name is Ralph Lumpman and Loraine and I moved up here last fall from Darien. We bought the old Cosgrove place on Swamp Road. And I'd like to say that our moderator tonight is doing a bang-up job and I think we should give him a round of applause."

Then all the people, who recently moved to town, clap.

And there is always someone who informs the moderator that the flag is on the wrong side of the stage.

Town meeting gives people license. No one is expected to practice restraint.

Everyone is there to tell it like it is.

For 24 years of my life I was a small-town newspaper reporter and did news on the radio station in Peterborough.

I have attended over three hundred town meetings.

In my 50-plus years of going to town meetings I've seen a lot of changes. Years ago most towns were controlled by the families who owned the mills. In Milford it was Charlie Emerson; in Jaffrey it was D.D. Bean; in Wilton it was the Abbots; in Dublin, Robb Sagendorph.

If you didn't work for these men, someone in your family did. I used to watch D. D. Bean sit in the front of the hall at the Jaffrey Town Meeting.

Mr. Bean owned the match factory, in Jaffrey. When an article important to him came up he would turn and look back over his seat and note who voted "for" and who voted "against" the article.

Robb Sagendorph was the publisher of Yankee magazine and the Old Farmer's Almanac up in Dublin and he had double clout. Robb Sagendorph was also the moderator. If he didn't like an article he would close down discussion.

"We have had enough jawing about this matter," he'd say. "It's time to vote." 

Artifact of the Moment: "Souvenir de la Libération": France, 1944

As the anniversary of the start of World War II draws near, time to squeeze in one more piece on the endgame. Recently, it was Okinawa and Hiroshima in the spring and summer of 1945.

This time: the liberation of Paris, August 25, 1944.

Dia.: 40 mm. Rim dia: 61 mm. Length: 311mm
It is a British brass shell casing, decorated and inscribed, "Souvenir de la Liberation." I bought it from an English antique dealer couple who were visiting a colleague here in the US and had brought a few items to sell during their trip. I haven't researched is as thoroughly as I would like, but unless I am way wide of the mark, it is a shell from a 40 mm Bofors L60 gun (1 , 2) which was widely used by both sides.

As a piece crafted to celebrate and recall the "Liberation," it presumably dates from sometime between D-Day and August 27, when De Gaulle told the Resistance that their work was done, or soon thereafter.

Many would term it "trench art," which Paul Cornish's photo essay on the Imperial War Museum website defines as "objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare": originally applied to works by soldiers of the First World War, but now even beyond that period. He further notes,  "Many examples of trench art were also made by local civilians for sale to soldiers" and "after the war. . . for sale as souvenirs to the visitors to battlefields and cemeteries." Given that this one is French, and taking the inscription into account, I would assume that it falls into that latter category of works made by civilians for the general market. That said, the fact that the word, "Liberation" lacks the appropriate accent aigu on the "e" (é) could perhaps (though probably not?) suggest a foreign origin.

a flower

the dove and dawn of peace
Although it was sold as a topical item tied to the events of the day, it has somehow survived for over 70 years, thus indeed preserving the memory of a moment that seemed to herald the dawn of a new world.

Naive, we may think. Barbarism and intolerance have not disappeared. Europe was powerless in the face of the genocide committed against Bosnian Muslims and has also failed in the face of subsequent horrors. And yet, as this stamp issued for the 50th anniversary of the end of the war reminds us, something of that hopeful moment did become a reality.

[updated images]

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Town Meeting: "We’ve been at this since 1780, we kind of have it down by now"

Or in our case: 1759. (Well, 1735, if you date the history of Amherst Town Meeting from the time when this was simply the Third District of Hadley.)

Given that a Charter vote to reform our system of government is now on the table (if not yet the ballot), I'll dig up some goodies from the vaults.

As noted recently, one of my favorites is this clip from the classic "Newhart" show in which comedian Bob Newhart plays a man who, with his wife, moves to rural Vermont and fulfills their dream by purchasing a classic country inn.  In this 1982 episode--"All Hail the Councilman"--set soon after his arrival, he seeks a stop sign for a dangerous intersection near the inn (more on that in a later post) and is encouraged to run for "town council."

Although the gathering that he attends is called a "town council," it actually functions like a traditional open town meeting except that the members elect one another (what? they couldn't get any real New Englanders to advise them on this?!). Then again, perhaps that confusion or hybrid form is completely apropos, given the choices now (or soon?) before us.

In any case, although one complaint about Amherst Town Meeting is that we spend too much time talking, part of the humor here nonetheless also rings true: the speed with which we approve most budget articles, and our inveterate tendency to take stances on foreign policy matters on which we cannot possibly have any practical influence. Oh, yes: and there is the crank in the back of the room who always brings forward his pet motion (I'll leave it to you to decide whether we have an equivalent here). And a bonus: dress code.

Questioned by Bob as to why the votes on expenditures proceeded so quickly, handyman George Utley (played by real-life close friend Tom Poston; see below) responds:
We’ve been at this since 1780, we kind of have it down by now.
When Bob is surprised that "town council" meets only once a year rather than once a week, George responds:
What would we talk about every week?
Do we "have it down"?
Once (well, twice) a year--or once a week?
What do you think?



* * * 

Fun facts to know and tell:

Tom Poston--said to have "appeared in more sitcoms than any other actor"--was a World War II pilot whose aircraft carried paratroopers on D-Day. In addition, he was married to Suzanne Pleshette, who played Bob Newhart's wife on the predecessor series, "The Newhart Show."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

And so it begins: Charter proponents seek change in the form of Town government

On Thursday afternoon, members of a new group, whose existence had long been predicted, rumored, or mentioned in hushed conversation, came out into the open. "Amherst for All" officially announced its presence by filing papers for a ballot initiative that would create a Charter Commission to review and (presumably) change our form of town government.

Charter supporters gather before visiting the Town Clerk (blogger Larry Kelley at right)
Front row: Yuri Friman, Michael Alpert, Andrew Churchill, Niels la Cour (and son: behind, left), Adam Lussier (with clipboard), John Kuhn, Richard Morse
Rear row: Jerry Guidera, Jackie Churchill, Peter Vickery
at the Town Clerk's office
Town Clerk Sandra Burgess explains the signature-gathering process

Poll positions

Town Clerk Sandra Burgess took the time to explain in great detail to the group (joined by Town Meeting member Clare Bertrand, who arrived later) what constitutes a legal and verifiable resident signature. 3,215 such signatures would be required to get this measure on the ballot next year. As Larry Kelley notes: last time, that took nearly two years, whereas this time, the organizers are shooting for the spring election, which is but seven or eight months away. But as he also notes, we now live in the age when internet access is taken for grant and new social media amplify and speed up the conversation.

A side-issue is the date of the spring election: traditionally, it takes place between the last days of March and the opening days of April, but this year, another option is to make it coincide with the presidential primary, whose date of March 1 is mandated by State law. There are arguments on both sides. Some think it would make sense to combine them, for the sake of efficiency and better turnout. Clerk Burgess expressed strong support for keeping the two elections separate, arguing that combining them would (because of the technical requirements of local and state ballots) in fact not result in any monetary savings and, rather, simply overstress Town staff. (The last time such elections coincided was in November 2008, when, however, the presidential contest caused more residents to volunteer at polling places.) The issue will soon come before the Select Board, which has the authority to set the date.

Scrap Town Meeting or throw all the bastards out?

Everyone "knows" that this pro-Charter movement is primarily an anti-Town Meeting movement, and that it would replace our current system of government with a mayor and city council, right? The first is clear. The latter, not so much. 

The desiderata, according to the website, are:
Accountability, Representation, and Year-Round Decision-Making.
The last of these looms largest in the explanation, but the former two are the proverbial elephant in the room. Clearly, Town Meeting is the main target of all three:
Our government structure isn’t built to keep up with these challenges and maintain our great quality of life. We have a Town Meeting that meets twice a year.  We have a five-member Select Board and a Town Manager.  Too many issues have to wait until the next Town Meeting to be addressed – and if a proposed solution needs some tweaking, maybe the next Town Meeting after that. 
Another passage at least implicitly references former Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe's editorial on the problem of executive authority and accountability:
with leadership diffused across the Select Board and Town Manager, it’s hard to know who’s in charge.  Who represents us with the state, the colleges, businesses, and citizens?  Who can we hold accountable for meeting the many challenges of maintaining our quality of life?
On the other hand, the organizers claim to be agnostic about the precise nature of the alternative arrangement:
We don’t know what the right government structure is for Amherst.  That’s why we support electing a representative study group to take a look at it.  Whatever the final proposal looks like, we think it should meet a few clear standards – it should be year-round, representative, and accountable.
I think we can take them at their word. We should after all remind ourselves that the last (unsuccessful) Charter proposal indeed proposed replacing Town Meeting and the Select Board with a mayor and council--but also retained the institution of a professional, appointed Town Manager, which Amherst has had since 1954.

What are the issues?

I wouldn't presume to analyze this in depth here: just a snapshot and some guesses.

We've been through this before, in 2003 and 2005, when Charter initiatives came within a hairsbreadth of winning. Many of the underlying issues are the same, though the dynamics as well as the players are, I suspect, somewhat different.

Last time, it seemed, Town Meeting was the focus of much of the dissatisfaction. Critics charged, for example that it was inefficient, consumed with process and deliberation rather than action (and too eager to take on issues beyond the local realm). The Select Board was unpopular in many quarters, as well. Critics accused it of the double sin of inefficiency and intrusiveness: it was seen as meddling and micromanaging.

This time, I think, the active hostility is directed principally at Town Meeting. There is the perennial complaint that it spends too much time talking and is too slow to reach decisions, but I think it is more about the substance. In the last three to five years, Town Meeting has become increasingly polarized around a set of issues that could be broadly grouped under the rubric of "development": from zoning changes to the permitting of major new downtown construction projects (and of course, the ill-conceived and stillborn "Retreat" proposal for commercial student housing). Only the zoning changes strictly fall within the remit of Town Meeting, but ill will over the other issues clearly shapes the course and character of our debates.

At the risk of oversimplifying for the sake of clarity:

One faction sees large new downtown construction projects and measures promoting greater density in village centers as jeopardizing Amherst's comfortable "rural" or "small-town" feel. It accuses Town Hall (especially the Planning Department, and to some extent the Town Manager) of turning a deaf to ear to residents' fears over loss of neighborhood character and instead catering to the interests of developers. The role of the University and the problem of off-campus student housing is a closely related concern. Among some, the distrust extends to all at the "front of the table"--i.e. the appointed Planning Board and Finance Committee and elected Select Board--accused of thinking and voting in lockstep. As a result, this faction sees Town Meeting as a watchdog that should view major planning and economic development proposals with great skepticism, and in many cases, block them.

The other faction sees economic development and increased density in village centers as a form of smart growth: the only way to begin to shift more of our tax base from residential (currently: 90%) to commercial property and to address the housing shortage that is pricing many would-be residents--including young families--out of town. It sees the other faction as creating a toxic atmosphere characterized by incivility and lack of trust between residents and government. As a result, it despairs over the possibility of change, believing it has become nearly "impossible to get anything done," meaning, for example: pass comprehensive as opposed to incremental legislation in crucial areas such as planning and zoning.

As a result, following last spring's Annual Town Meeting, one heard increasing concerns that our system of government was caught in a sort of gridlock with no solution in sight.

Obviously, Town Meeting encompasses a wide variety of individuals and people, including many who belong to no "faction," and even those associated with one of the aforementioned groupings do not necessarily vote together on all issues. Still, these seem to be the dynamics driving much of the renewed interest in a Charter vote.

Then again, I am not part of this Charter movement, so you'd have to ask them. I'm sure we'll soon find out.

I don't intend to provide detailed coverage of the issue in these pages (hyperlocal blogger Larry Kelley seems to be taking care of that). Rather, I just want to note it, because I've been talking about Town government, and this could radically affect what all of us do in the civic realm (including my own post as an elected official).

For the record: no one on the five-member Select Board has publicly discussed or taken a position on this initiative. We have been elected to carry out the duties of our office, we have a great deal of work to do, and it is on that work that we are focused.

*  *  *

Fun facts to know and tell:

Contrary to concerns raised in a recent op-ed piece by veteran Finance Committee member Marylou Theilman, the Town would not be obligated to pay present Town Manager John Musante half a million dollars (or whatever fearsome sum some have in mind) in the event that a Charter change occurs. Town Counsel confirmed to the Select Board, and we stated in our press release on his contract renewal and salary, that our original interpretation of the original 2010 contract holds: 9 months' severance pay if the contract is terminated.

So, at least you can cross that issue off your list as you ponder the change in form of government. Debate away, in the confidence that the determining factor will be the effectiveness of government rather than the bottom line.

Footnote (can't help myself):

Props to the Amherst for All website designer (whoever he or she may be) for a clean aesthetic and good navigation (you can't always take those essentials for granted, even nowadays)--and some interesting image choices.

Start with the organization's logo:

Smart choice: not just the iconic 1889 Town Hall (as both landmark and seat of government, with the word, "Amherst," mostly but not entirely below it), but also individual houses: underscores the "for all" and "for everyone" message. And, given that much debate in and around Town meeting has focused on both affordable housing and the threats posed to existing neighborhoods by predatory rental conversions, it reminds us of the substantive issues under debate.

Finally, although the length of the image series is dictated by the need to match that of the text below, there is just something about the two-tiered horizontality of the icons that to me subtly underscores the message, "for all" and "everyone."

(Of course, one might instead choose to read the Town Hall and houses as the Town Manager and five Select Board members, since that's one theoretical outcome of a Charter Commission, as well. Okay, clearly time to stop this.)

Another example: the top of the page borrows from the Town's promotional slogans: a great place to live, study, work, play.

But for "a great place to study," the image used is that of the beloved Jones Library, thus referencing a Town civic institution rather than having to choose between the University of Massachusetts and the private Amherst and Hampshire Colleges. Smart move.

On the other hand, inclusion of that atrocious hippie-flavored student mural near Rao's and the Bangs Center (admittedly, I think I know some people who took part in creating it) toward the bottom of the page? Not so much. Or maybe that is a very subtle way of indicating the need for a break from the ways of the past?

{corrected; apologies: a trackpad error caused the post to go up before it was complete}

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Follow-up on the Town Manager Evaluation

Citizen blogger Larry Kelley was kind enough to respond to my piece on the Town Manager evaluation (since I had referenced his).

I started a long reply, but then it occurred to me that both halves of the exchange might serve the public better as a separate post.  So here goes.

Larry Kelley said...

Well I did use a question mark with my title "Trouble at the top?"; and notice I went out of my way to find a photo where both the Town Manager and SB Chair Alisa Brewer seem to be sharing a lighthearted moment.

A fighter pilot is trained to scan the horizon and ignore everything that should be there making it easier to spot a tiny dot -- enemy fighter or incoming missile -- that should NOT be there.

When LBJ won the NH primary in 1968 by 49% to 42% over Eugene McCarthy, the headlines could have stated: "LBJ wins by decent margin" or "Is LBJ in trouble?". I of course would have used the latter.

After the tumultuous years for the Select Board during the reign of Anne Awad and Gerry Weiss the institution has become, for lack of a better word, boring (other than the 9/11 commemorative flag fiasco of course). So any hint of discord or friction is made even more newsworthy.

If UMass or Amherst College were to suddenly address grade inflation with new stricter criteria it would shock the first transitional generation of students to come under the new evaluation methods.

Perhaps now that average citizens and town employees know the Select Board takes its job of evaluating the Town Manager so seriously, and that he is not above criticism, the number of people submitting evaluations will increase next year.

* * *

Citizen Wald replies:

No problem, Larry. As I said, I assumed you stressed the negative because it was more newsworthy (dog bites man is not much of a story).

the options should not be just either a pat on the back or a pink slip

I just wanted to clarify for the public that the Town Manager (unlike LBJ) was not in trouble, for that's the point: the options should not be just either a pat on the back or a pink slip. The possibility for strong, constructive criticism should be something that we accept as normal and healthy. In fact, it also lends more weight to the positive things we have to say. 

Amherst has been served well by the institution of Town Manager--and the evaluation process

Speaking more generally, I might add: Amherst has been served well by the institution of Town Manager ever since it was introduced in 1954. The evaluation process is intended to ensure that this continues to be the case.

Since you bring it up: I would like to stress that, in each of the six years during which I have been involved in the process, the evaluation was performed with great care and seriousness. Obviously, the views and manner of expression of each Select Board member will vary. It is, for example, quite possible that one member issues a "needs improvement" rating while another chooses "satisfactory," and yet they may be offering much the same judgment in their prose remarks.

This is why it is so important that residents consider the full evaluation process and documentation and not just the composite grid, which can give a false sense of numerical precision. Now, obviously, not everyone has the time or inclination to read the (this year) 11-page Evaluation Memo or even to watch the discussion on television, not to mention, plow through 91 pages of total material. And that is why we look to the press to provide thorough and nuanced coverage.

These newspaper reports are pretty much bare-bones stuff. As I said, I completely understand the pressure to get out a prompt summary of the evaluation text and meeting: that is the nature of the trade. But does that have to be the end of the story?

Consider these numbers: Scott Merzbach's piece on the Town Manager evaluation came out with characteristically admirable promptness and clocked in at around 950 words. By contrast, Matt Vautour's piece on the UMass basketball team's trip to Europe (and I like basketball and the Eiffel Tower as much as the next guy) ran to about 1100 words, and Cheryl Wilson's nice feature on the renovation of the landscape at Edith Wharton's home, "The Mount" (you all know I am a fan of both gardens and historic preservation) weighed in at almost 1700 words.

Given the importance of the role of the Town Manager in our political system, would it not be helpful to have a follow-up on the evaluation, which, written without the pressure of the looming deadline, could use a few more column-inches to add some depth and detail?

PS As for the Select Board being boring, I take that as a compliment: as I tell people, that's the way we like it. We should not be the news.

[correct text: accidentally had two editing panes open before]