Town Meeting Warrant Articles, Spring 2018

Town Council Elections

To fulfill the wishes of the voters, who endorsed the Charter proposals by a 1,000+ vote margin, Town Meeting should ask the Legislature to allow Amherst to hold its first Town Council elections on the same days as the statewide primary and general elections.

Nomination papers would become available in June and candidates would need to gather 25 signatures for filing at the beginning of August. Two local lawyers say that this would be unduly burdensome for candidates who are undergraduates. Why? Because term will have ended.  There are at least two reasons why this argument is devoid of merit.

First, we have a binary choice: either gather signatures during the semester or after the semester has ended. Universities and colleges are either in session or not in session. It’s one or t’other. We are not dealing with Schrödinger’s Cat.

Now, if undergraduate candidates had to gather signatures during term time they might just be able to present a plausible claim. After all, during the semester they have classes to attend and papers to write, etc.  Expecting them to take time out from their studies could (viewing things in a generous light) look vaguely burdensome. But expecting them to gather 25 signatures — not 2,500 — over the course of eight weeks in the summer, when they do not have classes, is not burdensome.

Even if you only manage to gather one signature every 15 minutes, you can still get the job done in one day. If you start at 9:00 a.m. and take an hour off for lunch, by 6:00 p.m. you will have 32 signatures. You would not even have to stay in Amherst overnight. This leads me to the second point.

Students are allowed to remain in Amherst after classes end. They can stay here, or they can visit.  Amherst does not have a border wall or a travel ban. And crossing the town line over the years, I have seen a few unusual sights, but never anything like this.

I will be voting in favor.

Nuclear Freeze

Among the petition articles on the warrant is one that calls for the United States to refrain from updating its nuclear weapons. If the United States opted for a unilateral nuclear freeze, how would Russia respond? We do not have to speculate. Recent experience tells us.

In 2010, the U.S. and Russia signed the New START arms-reduction treaty. Both sides cut the number of deployed warheads and missile launchers. But while the U.S. kept its nuclear arsenal at this reduced level, Russia did the opposite by increasing its air and sea-based nuclear capability.

A recent report published by the Congressional Research Service states:

During the implementation of New START, the number of warheads deployed on Russian missiles and bombers climbed above New START limits, leading some to express concerns about Russia’s intention to comply with the Treaty.  Others noted that this was a reflection of Russia’s modernization program, as it deployed new multiple-warhead missiles and waited until late in the implementation process to eliminate older multiple-warhead land-based missiles.

Russia retired its old weapons only to replace them with new ones. In other words, we tried a unilateral nuclear freeze and it did not work. We froze, they did not.

This is consistent with Russia’s approach to NATO in general and the U.S. in particular. In April 2008, NATO rejected a membership application from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Four months later, Russian troops moved in, carving away two regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By rejecting Georgia, NATO emboldened Putin.

Soon after the Russian intervention in Georgia, and to reassure NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, President George W. Bush said that the U.S. would install a missile-interceptor system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia demanded that the U.S. back down.

Just 11 months later, in September 2009, President Obama conceded to Russia’s demand. There would be no missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. This decision encouraged Putin to go further and act against Ukraine.

Back in 1994, Ukraine (formerly part of the U.S.S.R.) had given up the Soviet nuclear weapons still on its soil. In return, the U.S., the U.K., and France all signed a treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ten years later, Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea.

Despite the 1994 treaty guarantee, President Obama refused to supply Ukraine with arms. Fortunately, in my opinion, last December President Trump approved the sale of sniper and anti-tank systems to Ukraine, and the weapons should arrive shortly.

To summarize: Putin wishes to further undermine the Atlantic Alliance and to erode NATO, and a unilateral nuclear freeze would help him achieve his goal. If re-elected, I will vote against this warrant article.

Noise Bylaw

This petition would prohibit gunfire on the firing range before 9:00 a.m. and after 6:30 p.m. between April 1 and November 1.  I do not know what is so special about these particular hours or this particular seven-month period, and I have not heard from people who use the range.  Right now, I have an open mind on this one.

Rezoning

The effort to re-zone “all areas of town neither served by public water nor sewer” from Outlying Residential to Low-Density Residential probably has a broader sweep than its proponents intend.  I do not know how many properties in Amherst this downzoning would affect, but I do know that the petitioners’ goal is to prevent one particular landowner, Cowls, from building new homes on certain parcels of land in North Amherst.  The petitioners have their own houses (obviously) but do not want Cowls to build any more, at least not in their backyard as the saying goes.

Apart from having the potential to reduce the value of a considerable number of homeowners’ properties, the petition is not consistent with the Town’s oft-stated goal of making Amherst a more affordable place to live for people of all incomes (see below).  When you use the law to render something scarce, the price goes up. This is basic economics. Far from making homes more affordable, this article would discourage new housing altogether, including affordable housing.

If re-elected, I intend to vote against this article.

Affordable Housing Mandate

This petition article targeting home-builders who want to provide new housing units will likely prove counterproductive, if past performance here (and in California) is any kind of guide to future results.  If owners need to obtain a special permit of any kind, they will have to make more of their units affordable (i.e. below market rate).  Could they decide to build the new homes somewhere else instead, in a nearby town that allows them to sell at a price people are willing to pay? Of course!  Home-builders have choices. They can choose to build new houses in Hadley and Belchertown instead of in Amherst.

Once again, a “progressive” proposal will inflate house prices and, therefore, our assessed values and property taxes thereby making Amherst a less affordable place for ordinary people to live.

If re-elected, I will vote against this warrant article.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 25-28% Below 2005 Levels by 2025

This petition bemoans President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and would commit the Town to reducing its CO2 emissions by 25-28% below 2005 levels in the next seven years. The climate is important, to say the least, so I take this matter seriously.

Most reasonable, serious-minded people recognize some objectively verifiable facts about the climate, e.g. (1) the 20th -century average global surface and ocean temperature was 13.9ºC; (2) so far during the 21st Century, the average global surface and ocean temperature has hovered between 14.4 ºC and 14.8 ºC, down from 16.9 ºC in 1997; (3) CO2 is a greenhouse gas; (4) CO2 is one of the trace gases that collectively make up about one-tenth of one per cent of our atmosphere; (5) of the 850 gigatons of CO2 in the atmosphere in a given year, about 40 gigatons (approximately 5%) comes from human activity; and (6) approximately 15% of the CO2 that humans emit by using fossil fuels is attributable to us (i.e. the United States).

So the petitioners are correct in stating that the United States is the “number two CO2 emitting country in the world.” That statement is perfectly true, at least for the time being because in 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States accounted for 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions, right behind China, which emitted 30%.

That said, our emissions are declining. They dropped by 758 million metric tons between 2005 and 2017. In the same period, China’s CO2 emissions increased and so did India’s. Right here in Massachusetts, CO2 from fossil fuel emissions fell from 78.1 million metric tons in 1980 to 65.6 million metric tons in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), largely as a result of our switch from coal to natural gas.

India and China are in the Paris Climate Agreement and the U.S. is not. While U.S. emissions are declining, those of India and China are increasing. These two facts are worth bearing in mind.

So the question is not whether the Town of Amherst reducing its emissions by 25-28% below 2005 levels over the course of the next seven years would have any meaningful impact on humankind’s total emissions of CO2, because the answer is obviously “no.” Amherst’s emissions are a small percentage of those of Massachusetts, which are a small percentage of the U.S. total, which itself is just 15% of the global total. Therefore, the question is whether this proposed commitment might serve any other worthwhile purpose? I will keep my eyes and ears open.

If e-elected, I will listen and cast my vote based on whether the proponents manage to identify at least one genuine benefit vis-à-vis cost. Virtue signalling does not count, by the way. Admittedly the Town Meeting members who vote for this petition will experience the pleasant sensation that accompanies virtue signalling, which is emotionally and socially beneficial to them, I suppose. So jut to be clear, by “benefit” I mean an actual, tangible benefit to other people.

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