At-large Candidates on Sustainability and Diversity

At-large members on the Amherst Town Council represent the entire town and will be on the ballot for the general election for all Amherst voters to elect. There will be three At-large members. 

Question 1

Amherst, Northampton and Pelham are currently discussing Community Choice Energy. Is this an idea you support? What are the advantages and disadvantages that you see?

Alisa Brewer As a Select Board member, I did support the Town Manager investigating these opportunities, and the Select Board eagerly awaits those findings, although we've realized the timing is such that it may not happen until the Town Council is in place (we only have a few Select Board meetings left). We were disappointed with the performance of HCOG/HCG programs in the past, so hopefully everyone has learned from those challenges; I would not expect to affiliate with HCG until their house is in order. I would expect the Town Manager and the new, soon to be populated Sustainability Committee to do significant outreach so that our residents are familiar with the details so that a robust and sympathetic public conversation can take place in full public view. I would expect the advantages Titelman listed: renewable power generation, greater energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, lowering long-term electricity rates and making the electric power system more resilient to severe weather or changes in fossil fuel prices, and I also appreciate the ability to support newer technologies like battery storage. The biggest potential disadvantage is how to effectively manage the cost to residents: we simply cannot have our lowest income residents paying more than they pay now.
Robert Greeney I would enthusiastically support this idea if the arrangement were cost neutral or better. I might even support the idea at a higher cost given the benefits of supporting local regional energy resiliency and the environmental benefits. If the cost is substantially higher or there are any other financial risk factors, then the arrangement would need to be carefully examined.
Mandi Jo Hanneke Community Choice Energy is an idea I support. Giving residents a choice for who supplies their electricity generally has a net benefit, since it creates competition. Further, it allows residents to make a choice on something other than cost, including which provider purchases the most electricity from renewable sources. When I lived in Colorado, I was able to choose to purchase all of my electricity from renewable sources, even though it cost me slightly more. Here, it’s hard to find information on the choices I have. Further, affirmatively having to make the switch results in less people doing so. With CCE, residents would not only have a choice of electricity providers to be able to choose based on cost or other factors, like which one provides the most energy from renewable sources, but their default provider would be the community-based one. Given that a CCE program, as currently being discussed between Amherst, Northampton, and Pelham, would be run by local residents, it would potentially be more likely to choose to purchase more energy from renewable sources, since residents have already expressed a desire to transition to more sustainable forms of electricity use. Also, it would not prevent residents from adding solar to their own houses, as net metering would still be available. At this time, I don’t see any disadvantages to offering CCE, but as the matter progresses further along, there may be some that are brought to my attention.
Robert Kusner It's an idea I would consider seriously, and in principle it's worth our support – of course, "the devil is in the details" so we should see and understand those details in an any particular situation. A related idea is a municipally-owned utility: some communities with these provide excellent, reliable electric service at a very low price, because they have a very low overhead (I briefly lived in Palo Alto 30+years ago under such a system and was very pleased with it). If similar model with CCE can bring not only low price/overhead, but also significant long-term environmental benefits, we should engage with that. We already see installation of large solar arrays covering roofs and parking lots at UMass, and I think that's a growing trend in the right direction; there are many more places in the Amherst area – especially the commercial zones in Hadley, which is not on this list of 3 communities – which would support similar solar installations. But I'm much less sanguine about the conversion of farm and forest land to this use, and if we are going to work with CCE, then we should guard against that adverse impact.
Jim Pistrang Yes, this is an idea I support. The advantages include the promise of green energy at competitive rates and the inclusion of energy from local sources, leading towards the goal of reduced community greenhouse gas emissions. I do not see disadvantages per se, but the idea will need to be carefully studied and discussed by the community before it is implemented.
Andy Steinberg A Community Choice Energy program can provide clean energy to the Town and it's residents at a lower cost than they now pay for electricity. By working together as three communities, we can have a program that is large enough to achieve these goals. Our electric bills includes the costs to purchase power and for the network that delivers it to our homes. CCE is about the purchase of power. We will negotiate as a group to purchase cleaner energy at a lower cost. Individual homeowners can choose to not participate, but there will be little reason to do so. As a member of the Select Board, I encouraged Amherst's participation in initial discussions with Northampton and Pelham. If elected to the Council, I will look forward to moving this initiative forward.


Question 2

How will you explain to voters the initial costs and long-term savings of new Town-owned buildings under the Zero Energy Municipal Buildings bylaw?

Alisa Brewer

This bylaw reflects both the deeply held values of our community as well as the dedication of many many hours by individuals to make a workable plan out of our vision. We are the first community in the Commonwealth to take this step, and there will no doubt still be some issues we did not predict, so there may need to be some tweaks made to actually put our values into practice while enabling us to provide the facilities our community wants. Those tweaks would absolutely not be made without a full public discussion, as required by Open Meeting Law.

As our voters learn about a solid long-term financial plan to address our several major building initiatives, I do not think it will be that difficult to convince people that short-term costs may be a bit higher but that long-term savings are real, not speculative. We do have to be very, very clear about the difference in costs, however, not just say "it will cost 0%-15% more." Voters are likely to accept the costs as long as they feel they are not making too great of an impact on lower income residents vs those who already pay $7500/year in property taxes without much difficulty (much grumbling in some cases, but often not much difficulty). Our new Sustainability Committee, which will serve as the umbrella organization for all aspects of our work on this critical issue of climate change, will no doubt include representation from Mothers Out Front, and will look to Mothers Out Front for substantive assistance in explaining these challenges to our residents in a variety of ways over a long period of time.

Robert Greeney Highly energy efficient buildings, even if initially more costly, in the long run become cost effective. Reducing our need for energy without compromising functionality is an important priority. Reasonably crafted mandatory guidelines promote creative design and innovation. This bylaw is an investment in our future that is reasonable in cost and appropriate in scope.
Mandi Jo Hanneke

I am committed to supporting the Town’s purchase and use of energy that is generated from renewable sources. The Zero Energy Municipal Bylaw that was passed by Town Meeting is one way of helping the Town move towards generating all of its own energy use itself, whether it generates long-term savings or not. And, any explanation of the associated additional costs or potential savings must include an explanation of why the Bylaw is important and what the Town is doing to work towards more sustainable energy use.

The Zero-Energy Bylaw may not be the most efficient way for the Town to move towards 100% renewable energy use. For example, installing solar arrays on the capped landfills would provide much more energy for the Town, covering many more buildings than any small installation of solar panels on one building can. By building a large solar array (or looking into hydro-power at the Puffer’s Pond dam or wind turbine installations), the Town may be able to generate all the electricity it consumes with just one project. Sometimes, a larger project is better.

Yet, at the same time, I believe it is important when building new buildings to build them in the most sustainable way possible. That includes not just ensuring that they use the least amount of energy as possible for heating and cooling, but also that we install energy-generating equipment where logical, like on roofs. But, I recognize that not all projects will have the ability to install such equipment in a large enough quantity to generate the total energy needed while also keeping the installations to as small of an additional footprint as necessary (like putting them just on the roof). Adding ground-mounted solar panels to each building project, and thus taking up much appreciated grass and open space on each project’s land, just to ensure that the project generates all of its electricity doesn’t seem to make as much sense to me as installing a larger array off-site that can provide electricity to that building and many others. When looking at zero-energy and renewable energy policies, we need to consider economies of scale, too— not just items on a project-by-project basis.

We need an energy policy in Amherst that looks at the end-goal — reducing the Town’s carbon footprint to as little as possible — and then creates and establishes a comprehensive plan to get there. While the Zero Energy Municipal Bylaw is one cog in the wheel, it can’t be the only cog, and we must be willing to enact other policies to get there and we must be willing to modify that bylaw if at any time the bylaw no longer serves the comprehensive plan as intended.

Robert Kusner As a Town Meeting member, I voted for the original version of the bylaw, after asking its sponsors to consider including provisions to also require rehabilitation of existing Town buildings (e.g. the police station, which has a roof with excellent solar access) along the same lines. As a Councilor, I would work to implement such an expanded bylaw: this would be even more friendly environmentally, and it might afford a bit more flexibility and economic rationality in the event not every new building can achieve zero-net energy on its own. I would explain initial costs and long-term savings using a long-term cost-benefit analysis (along the lines Chris Riddle shared with Town Meeting), on both a financial and environmental basis. In fact, since getting the last fraction of energy-use near zero may be much more costly than the first fraction, the flexibility of an expanded bylaw which also counts the gains made in rehabilitation should help sustain community support on both the financial and the environmental counts, as well have better outcome on both fronts.
James Pistrang The Zero-Energy bylaw, initially passed by the 2017 Fall Special Town Meeting and modified by the 2018 Annual Town Meeting, is a significant action taken by the town to mitigate climate change. The bylaw covers new town projects that equal or exceed a cost of $2 million. It is anticipated that the cost of a new zero-net energy building might be as much as 15% more than conventional construction costs. It is also anticipated that these costs will be recovered through the cost savings of lower energy over the life of the building. A report on the energy savings payback period should be required as part of a project plan.
Andrew Steinberg I was part of the Working Group that drafted the current Bylaw, an initiative of which I am proud. The Bylaw requires the Town to design a Zero Energy Capable Project and then purchase Renewable Energy Systems that cost no more than 10% of the cost of the Zero Energy Ready Project. The Zero Energy Capable Project will be an energy efficient building, something we want for anything the town builds in the future. The Renewable Energy Systems will most likely be solar panels. Their cost is decreasing. We should expect that their cost will not exceed 10% of the cost to construct the building. The savings from not having to purchase expensive electricity in future years will be less than the cost to pay the debt for the additional expense to make the building zero energy. After the debt is repaid, the Town's benefit will be even greater.


Question 3

What are your ideas for making Amherst more affordable for low and moderate income renters and owners?

Alisa Brewer

There is no easy solution to this challenge or Amherst would have already solved it! We are rightfully proud of being one of the few municipalities (of 351), that have over 10% of our units qualify for the state's 40B SHI, but we know there are still many people who work here who would prefer to live here but cannot under current market conditions. We also have residents who would like to downsize but cannot find the right size and cost unit. An enormous proportion of Amherst's buildable land is either owned by our educational institutions or in agricultural protection, making the remaining land too valuable for traditional builders to build anything like "starter homes" of the past. The current market rewards owners of outdated single family homes who rent to multiple college students rather than to small families.

We need to come to agreement about where smaller units could be built in locations buyers or renters want to live, with accessible, dependable public transportation -- rather than building for one parking space per resident -- and then provide some kind of financial benefit to partnerships willing to build those units.

Robert Greeney We need to set realistic goals in this area. Everyone supports this idea but then ignores the potential costs to the town and its tax payers. Profit making development projects must make a reasonable contribution, direct or indirect, to this type of housing. Publicly funded projects must be considered and researched. The Amherst Affordable Housing Trust Fund will be central in most public initiatives. The new Council must emphasize the importance of this priority for the town manager and town planners. Federal and state funding options need be investigated. Grassroots initiatives such as the Amherst Community Land Trust (ACLT) must be supported and encouraged. Creative and innovative ideas will be needed from several fronts.
Mandi Jo Hanneke 

Affordable housing in Amherst is not only one of the most important issues facing Amherst today, but also one of the toughest issues to solve. Any approach to making Amherst more affordable will require a multi-prong, comprehensive strategy that includes a variety of areas. This includes at least three items: (1) diversifying the Amherst property tax base; (2) increasing the housing supply in Amherst across many types of housing; (3) using best practices in design and planning to ensure that any new buildings maintain the character of the town, both in look and feel.

Currently, Amherst’s tax base is over 90% residential. Due to this high percentage, any state-allowed commercial property tax rate adjustments have a very minimal effect on the residential property tax rate. If Amherst is able to increase the percentage of commercial properties in Town, that state-permitted tax rate adjustments might have a greater ability to lower the residential tax rate.

Amherst’s housing supply has been nearly stagnant over the last two decades, despite significant growth in both resident population and student population at UMass. This has resulted in economic pressure on the housing supply—and increase in demand without a corresponding increase in supply drives prices up. According to the 2013 Housing Production Plan, there are significant needs for the following:

  • family rental housing, particularly for families with very low income;
  • smaller affordable units for individuals;
  • appropriate housing for students to reduce demand on the housing market in Amherst;
  • preservation of existing affordable rental units;
  • affordable home ownership for families of low and moderate income; and
  • housing for at-risk and special needs residents who require special services and handicapped accessibility.

As a Town, we need to address all of these significant housing needs. Doing so in a responsible manner may help to make housing more affordable in town. And of course, we must aim to preserve the character of Amherst, while simultaneously working towards making housing more affordable. This means we should not sacrifice our commitment to open space, recreation and conservation land. We should also adopt form-based zoning, which provides the planners in Town a means of ensuring that new building projects fit into the character of the neighborhoods in which they are built.

Robert Kusner This is a very complicated issue, especially with respect to the development of even more housing: it's an issue which divides the town, and some creative consensus-building is desperately needed. To start, there are some positive aspects of the "Master Plan" which deserve our attention and affirmation. So while it's inappropriate to commit to any particular strategy in any particular zone, I want to point out that, even with our current housing stock, there are things we can do (and which I tried every year I was a member of the Amherst Select Board a decade ago): we can make real estate taxes more progressive, exempting a base portion of owner-occupied homes from the assessment; achieving a similar effect for low- and moderate-income renters is more complicated, but the Council is supposed to be better suited to thoughtful deliberation, so an early test can be to see if we accomplish that. We already have a large housing stock in the Amherst area, with many more bedrooms than actual people, so we should be also able to make housing more affordable with some simple cultural shifts. For example, with an aging population, one way to accomplish affordability goals for both owners and renters could be various forms of house-sharing. I'd welcome the opportunity to brainstorm with interested folks about related ideas (plenty of my own, but it's better to test them out in real time with others who share these goals). [Please also see my answers to the questions in John Hornick's recently-circulated survey.]
James Pistrang I would like to continue to modify the town’s inclusionary zoning bylaws, reducing the exceptions that are currently in place and requiring large projects in town to set aside some units for low and moderate income renters. I would also like to see substantive talks with UMass regarding the prospect of public/private dormitory projects on UMass property. More and better options for student housing will in turn decrease the pressure on our neighborhoods and open more options for low and moderate income renters and owners.
Andrew Steinberg

(1) Stop conversion of single family housing to student rentals by encouraging construction of other attractive housing options for students, on and off campuses. (2) Encourage the development of new, affordable housing by enforcing inclusionary zoning; using the town's tax incentive program as we did with North Square at the Mill District; where appropriate allowing for building of smaller housing and requiring less land per unit; and assist the Affordable Housing Trust and others to build affordable housing. (3) Minimize increases in property taxes and advocate for more progressive taxation.

None of these steps will be easy to implement or we would have done so long ago. But we must continue the effort.


Question 4

If elected, what will you do to increase racial and class diversity in town government - from Council to committees?

Alisa Brewer

I was part of the team that several years ago revised the CAF (Citizen Activity Form, I didn't get my way to change it from Citizen to Resident) to reflect optional questions including home ownership, and changed the "sex" from binary M/F to an open box. Oddly some residents assumed this meant we would NOT choose renters, when in fact we actively pursued renters!

Our recent form of legislature was not in fact effective at increasing racial or class diversity despite many efforts on variety of fronts, before and after TMCC existed. Our first field of Town Council candidates is coming from the existing structures, where very few people of the global majority and very few people of limited income felt included or empowered. We look forward to learning from other campaigns like yours how to diversify participation.

The new Town Council must work together with an adequately resourced Community Participation Officer to ensure we actively engage our residents through multiple avenues throughout the year, not only for required District Meetings and Forums. We need to meet people where they are, not expect them to come to us -- Town Hall has been doing better at this, for example, with Groff Park renovations meetings occurring in the apartment complex people walk from.

We need to explain how the roles of our appointed and elected officials interact so residents can see why they would even want to be part of influencing municipal decisions given all the constraints on their time each day. *Broad based* neighborhood associations -- not the same five "usual suspects" -- could go a long way toward engaging those voices we don't normally hear directly and encouraging them to be part of ongoing campaigns for candidates and for issues.

Robert Greeney Appointments to boards and committees should reflect the full diversity of our town. This will be the most important method of addressing the current lack of diversity. Board and committee members informed and practiced in public service are likely to run for town government office. Financial support for child care should be available when needed. Public forums must be widely advertised and again include child care options. Public forums must be held in the early planning stages of any important initiative where public input can reasonably be included in the planning. The perception that public forums matter and have an impact on policy and decision making must be demonstrably practiced.
Mandi Jo Hanneke I will work to recruit and encourage diverse candidates to apply for committees. I will take a comprehensive approach to the appointing power of the Council, ensuring that appointees to committees are not only qualified, but also represent a diverse cross-section of Amherst. I will work towards fully funding the Community Participation Officer position, then ensuring that the person appointed to the position puts a priority on involving a more diverse group of residents in Town government. This includes not just encouraging diversity on committees and the Council, but also ensuring that the Council and Town have partnerships with apartment complexes, leading non-profits, and businesses in order to host meetings, forums, informational sessions, etc. in locations and at times that are more likely to draw non-traditional participants in our government. Through the Community Participation Officer’s requirement to report to the Council, I will also be able to continue to make regular requests to Town staff, boards, and committees to ensure that they reach beyond the traditional times and places to hold meetings, in order to “go where the people are”.
Robert Kusner As noted in my LWV statement, increasing the political diversity of Town committees is among my top 3 tasks; the extent to which race and class diversity can contribute positively to this is considerable. Let me re-direct this a bit, by adding that we also need to do even more to attract a diverse staff to all departments of the Town and the Schools. And if the question is also what do I personally bring to Council diversity: genetics is complicated, and so it may come as a surprise (as it did to me!) that my largest "genetic fraction" is Pashtun, folks from the apple-growing mountains and steppes of central Asia, with some central and northern European – and even a bit of Neanderthal – tossed in for good measure. And having lived more than two-thirds of my life with a spouse whose father was a Howard University graduate (and his father, a plantation worker in Hawaii), and whose mother was from a California farming family which spent the WWII years in an internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry, I feel their experiences color my outlook as much as do the experiences of the woman, a child refugee from the heinous pogroms which wracked the Russian Empire in 1905, who raised me: my father's mother. She never attended school herself, but studied with her little sister when the younger came home from school, teaching herself how to read and write. Those auto-didactic skills were passed on to her grandson, who's been teaching himself and others for over half a century (I started early), and who will continue to put those skills to work for the people of Amherst.
James Pistrang I will work with the Council to reach out to underrepresented groups in our community and make sure that their opinions are sought and their voices are heard. It is not enough to simply invite people to meetings and expect attendance. Council members must seek out opportunities to meet with diverse segments of our population to become familiar with the issues that are important to those communities.  Once members of a group are engaged in the process and trust the process, it is far more likely that participation at the committee or Council level will follow. It is important to remember that no individual from a minority group can speak for that group as a whole, any more than an individual from a majority group can. A person's race or economic status is the not the only thing that defines them. I intend to listen to the wide range of voices within our community.
Andrew Steinberg We must begin with citizen participation. The Charter provides four mechanisms that will assist: (1) holding at least two District Meetings each year, (2)the Town Manager will establish a Residents' Advisory Committee to appoint Multiple-Member Bodies, such as committees, (3) the Manger will establish policies and procedures to actively encourage a diverse pool of applicants for Multiple-Member Bodies including committees, and (4) the Manager will appoint a Community Participation Officer to "increase participation in local government by diverse residents...." If successful, these efforts will prepare and encourage a diverse group of candidates to seek election to the Council. We must also recognize that younger people often have greater challenges to have the time to participate due to work and home responsibilities. We should look to the Community Participation Officer to consider how to assist people to overcome this barrier.


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