Amherst, Let the Sun Shine In
by Michele F. Marconi
Sunshine provides us with much needed Vitamin D.
Sunshine and the light of day also have magical disinfecting qualities when focused on government operations.
The Town of Amherst is in need of a healthy dose of sunshine.
The business of government is the people’s business.
The public’s right to know the process of government decision-making and to review the documents leading to determinations is basic to our society.
Information should not be shrouded with a cloak of secrecy or confidentiality.
Government business is the people’s business.
Government information is public information.
Land use and zoning are perhaps the most important local government functions. In Amherst, these decisions are veiled in secrecy and withheld from the public.
Instead of fostering discussion and open debate, development projects are held very close and unveiled in public only when required by law.
Perhaps by design to suppress public input.
It takes a year for a developer to plan and design a project of any size significance. During this time, the developer is meeting with town officials behind closed doors.
Unbeknownst to the public.
One year later, the public is then given five days notice of a meeting of the Zoning Board or the Planning Board.
That doesn’t sound fair, now, does it?
The process is lacking in fairness, transparency, and accountability and is an affront to basic democratic principles.
And in need of a dose of sunshine.
It would be welcome if this New Year could begin with a spirit of openness and disclosure as the town’s new norm and guiding principles, with residents concerns given equal consideration in decision-making and with overt actions taken by the town to inform the public.
Such as: Put public information online. Expand the information on the town’s website and make it searchable, downloadable, and usable. Use GIS mapping to plot projects by parcel upfront .
And change the mindset to remove the shroud of secrecy and disclose project plans to the public at the earliest reasonable time.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent writing the comprehensive plan.
It’s really quite good.
And it’s online.
But its not being followed.
The zoning code is online and searchable.
But the Zoning Board of Appeals considered variances from more than 100 projects in 2013 and approved all but less than 10, many without discussion.
So what good are the online laws and plans and vision statements if they are waived for every project?
Because, in essence, then, there are no rules.
It is just this deadly combination of secrecy, rule-waiving, and lack of transparency that is the cause of all the teeth-gnashing.
The downsized Amherst Town Board has the opportunity to take the first step and make a down payment on a commitment to openness by informing the public of all development projects in the discussion stage. And then to inform the public on a monthly basis.
Sunshine and the light of day are very sanitizing.
Let the sun shine in.
- Michele F. Marconi, Friends of Mike’s Pond
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