News

Hassling the Hippies?

The Extravaganja festival may survive another year on the Amherst Town Common, but one organizer believes some town bureaucrats are trying a new tactic to derail the event.

Comments (6)
Thursday, February 21, 2008

After last year's Extravaganja festival on the Amherst Town Common, event organizer Terry Franklin stayed up late picking up garbage and assembling the full plastic bags where he could easily pick them up when the dump opened in the morning. When he came back the next morning, though, the dozen or so bags were gone. A few days later, Franklin received a bill from the town for disposing 8,000 pounds of garbage.

That would be a lot of garbage—four tons, the equivalent of a full-grown female elephant. Franklin said he was certain that there hadn't been that much trash.

Being overcharged for trash removal is just one in a series of hurdles the event, which promotes the decriminalization of marijuana, has faced over the years, Franklin said.

"You have to stand up to [Amherst's town government]," Terry said. "Otherwise, they'll whittle you down with petty bureaucratic annoyances and harassments. Every year it's something different. In the late '90s, it was real overt police harassment. They'd show up in large numbers, just for intimidation purposes.

"After 2000, when Amherst town meeting voted to legalize marijuana, they backed off a bit. But every year, it would be something different. Maybe [we'd have] a car on the Common for the sound crew. For the town fair, they've got tractor-trailers out there, but we get grief for our one car. Another year, they said they needed a building inspector to inspect our stage.

"A couple years ago, the police chief didn't want me speaking on stage, because I criticize him personally. So, he's advising the organizers to keep me off the stage, and what are they supposed to do? Argue with the police? I actually had to file a misconduct complaint about that two years ago, and he's backed off since that."

The overcharge for trash removal last year was eventually fixed. Nearly a month after the April 21 festival, Town Manager Larry Shaffer sent Franklin an email, dated May 16, 2007.

"I just got off the phone with Guilford Mooring [Superintendent of Public Works] relative to the issue of charging for 8,000 pounds of trash for the Extravaganga [sic] Festival... the weight was incorrect (the truck weight was not deducted)." He said the bill would be revised, and he followed up with, "I attended Extravaganga and enjoyed the music and the crowd. It was a good event and I am happy to recommend that it continue."

Shaffer didn't return calls from the Advocate seeking comment, so it's hard to ascertain why it took so long to run down the obvious overcharge. Perhaps Shaffer's attention was turned from the mundane details of administering town government to loftier matters, albeit matters for which he is hardly responsible. Why else would Shaffer take the liberty to offer his recommendation that Extravaganja continue?

As a political event, Franklin argues, Extravaganja is protected by the First Amendment. Provided the organizing group follows the required permit procedures and acts peaceably when assembled, it is protected by the constitutional right to assemble. In that context, how Shaffer feels about the Extravaganja and his personal recommendations of the event are irrelevant.

Franklin worries that, despite constitutional protections, efforts have been made by town officials, without involvement and oversight by the town Select Board, to impede efforts to stage Extravaganja on the Town Common. For example, a month after the trash issue was resolved, the Superintendent of Public Works issued the following memorandum:

"Due to budgetary changes effective July 1, 2007, the Amherst Police Department no longer can supply police officers without assessing a fee for certain requested events that are scheduled on the town common. Please contact the office of the Chief of Police so a determination can be made whether police officers are needed for your planned event.

"All requests for officer details must be prepaid before a common reservation is valid.... If contact with Amherst Police Department is not made by September 1, 2007 your permit is determined to be VOID and your reservation date may be reissued to another request."

Though the memorandum was issued in June, Franklin and his colleagues did not learn of the change of rules until November, when they were told that their permit had been cancelled and they would need to follow the new procedures. Franklin's group called members of the select board, all whom were equally ignorant of the new "law." Meanwhile, calls to the police office and Town Manager confirmed that Extravaganja would need to pay overtime for the two officers the police felt were required to monitor the event.

On December 3, 2007 Franklin brought the issue to the Amherst Select Board, the members of which unanimously claimed that they'd been unaware of the change in rules. Board Chairman Gerry Weiss said that the rule would be suspended until he had heard from legal councel and from those town officials who had tried to enforce it. Two months later, neither Shaffer nor the town's lawyer had responded.

In an interview with the Advocate this week, Weiss said it was unclear why Shaffer felt he was empowered to change policy without the board's approval. Weiss said that, given the board's strong reaction against the decision to charge for police details, it was unlikely that such a law would ever be passed—at least not without a lot more discussion.

Weiss assured Franklin in an email earlier this month that "no groups will be charged for police." Such assurances, however, have not allayed Franklin's fears: "With all due respect, if I had 10 cents for every time some government official told me something 'wasn't a problem, don't worry about it,' only to have some subsequent bureaucrat say 'I don't know (or care) what they told you, but hey, it's on the books,' [I'd be rich]."

Franklin said he doesn't want the policy simply "suspended," but taken off the books altogether.

Weiss, meanwhile, contends that Franklin is "pounding at a technicality." In his email to Franklin, he points out that "There are other by-laws and policies on the books as well that aren't enforced for similar reasons—they need review."

The larger question, however, appears to be what role the Town Manager and Public Works Department have in setting policy, and how those officials can enforce rules that not even the Select Board is aware of.

Comments (6)
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It looks like Franklin is getting the run around because neither Shaffer nor Weiss can get their acts together (announce new policy withdrawal new policy) and so rather than admit it, they push back. It's not the kind of public service I would expect for my tax dollars. Shaffer is somewhat of a disaster, like a bull in a china shop. It's pretty clear that he's not authorized as the Town Manager to announce new policy and regulations without formal approval of the Select Board but Shaffer keeps doing it over and over and the Select Board, which is the policy-making entity, doesn't take any action to restrain him. Shaffer is a functionary, and yet he's creating new policy left and right -- SHAFFER is UNELECTED. Someone or more than one on the Select Board may be enabling Shaffer and this town government has run amok. The Select Board, not the town manager, is responsible for setting policy. If the Select Board doesn't keep Shaffer on the reservation they'll be called for an accounting of their policy process and likely be bounced out of office.
Amherst Bulletin EDITORIAL: The Grinch's heart was in the right place Published on January 18, 2008 Shaffer instituted a policy on July 1, 2007, that sets fees for users of town parks, largely to cover expenses to the town. Shaffer created a "town common reservation checklist" that mandates police details for events that draw 75 or more attendees, with payment for such details in advance. Given town budgets of late, that's smart financial management. The Scouts, while a sentimental part of Amherst's history, must be held to the same standard as other groups that use town land, such as the Cannabis Reform Coalition that sponsors Extravaganga, a pro-marijuana rally. How this will play out remains to be seen. Shaffer and the Select Board have tabled the discussion, and put the July 1 policy on hold until Shaffer makes a more formal presentation of his plan. For the record, Shaffer said that no requests for park use were made and no fees were collected during the brief institution of the policy. One question raised is this: Should a Teddy Bear Rally, farmers market or crafts fair have to pay the same fee as a political group rallying for a social cause? In our opinion, the use fee should be kept low and the same for all groups regardless of affiliation. If police services are needed or the public works crews are required to clean up a park, those costs should be assessed separately. Most important, Shaffer must create a fee structure that is clear-cut and ironclad, something that, as some Select Board members noted, would protect the town from legal challenges. Most American town commons, by their very nature, are designed for the use of all people.
Posted by Neil on 2.20.08 at 17:07
Good overall description of the situation. The headline could have been a little less flippant. The 2000 vote was a referendum voted on by all Amherst citizens, not just Town Meeting. But most of all, the article should have given the date of this year's rally -- April 19.
Posted by John Williams on 2.21.08 at 10:00

I find it disappointing that Amherst is doing such a good job of learning Beacon Hill's tactics for disempowering the average citizen. As home to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has a responsibility to set a good example of transparent, responsive government that welcomes peaceful dissent and citizen involvement.

Then again, looking at the amount of wasteful, politically-motivated projects that Amherst engages in- projects encouraged by the local incumbents in the legislature, I guess it's not hard to see where the attitude comes from. Amherst needs help quitting Big Government just like an alcoholic needs help putting down the bottle. The Valley needs change at all levels, new voices who will put citizens' rights and fiscal responsibility ahead of partisanship and cronyism.

I sincerely hope that we will all work to break this cycle of big spending leading politicians to get too big for their britches. I have committed myself to leading a charge for change in the Valley. Together we can reach beyond partisan labels and forge an alliance to bring fairness, openness, and cooperation back to Amherst and the entire region.

Posted by Keith C. McCormic on 2.21.08 at 13:01
Leave the hippies alone. What did they ever do to you? Seriously.
Posted by FF on 2.22.08 at 6:01
So if the town is going to be "fair and balanced" about who pays for police protection, I hope they also apply the waiver to the July 4'th Parade. We have been paying over $1,000 per year since 2002 for a police detail. After all, town officials always make the argument that the Parade is a "political statement" (one they don't seem to particularly like.)
Posted by Larry Kelley on 2.23.08 at 6:18
Thanks Youuu
Posted by Sohbet on 4.10.09 at 14:25
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