Questions & Answers
Do you have questions about this proposal? You should! Here are some of the toughest questions we’ve fielded. Another great source of information about the charter proposal is the blog ABetterAmherst.org, written by Nick Grabbe and Mandi Jo Hanneke, which offers a wealth of constantly updated insights and information on this proposal – including a lively forum for debate and commentary.
Amherst is already managed well – why change things?
On a day-to-day basis, we do pretty well – and the new charter keeps our professional manager, to maintain that competent day-to-day management. But discussions with residents revealed that many are concerned about Amherst’s future. We have a number of unresolved problems, including tax rates, housing, development, and several expensive Town building projects coming due at once. We need a form of government that can meet regularly, connect the dots on key issues, and keep up with the challenges we face. A Town Council that meets regularly and year-round, and is small enough to deliberate while representing all the voters, is the missing piece we need.
Why would we move away from the traditional New England town meeting?
Amherst Town Meeting is very different from the traditional town meeting that is practiced in small towns like Hadley, Leverett and Shutesbury. These towns have an open town meeting, in which any resident can participate and vote, usually in a one-day session. Amherst hasn’t had an open town meeting since 1938, when it adopted “representative” town meeting. In Amherst Town Meeting, a group of 240 people is the decision-making body for the town. Non-members who do not go through the election process and commit to attending 10-15 night sessions a year are not allowed to vote. So our government is already very different from the Norman Rockwell image of the humble farmer showing up to speak his mind – we haven’t had a traditional New England town meeting for almost 80 years.
Aren’t 240 Town Meeting members more representative of Amherst residents than 13 Town Council members?
Actually, no. It’s a matter of scale – 240 seems like a large number, but it’s not very big compared to 37,000 residents. What matters is whether those 240 people represent the town as a whole. Many Town Meeting members are in effect self-appointed, due to low voter turnout and a large number of seats – 61% of Town Meeting candidates run unopposed and the average voter turnout for these elections is 11%. Most Town Meeting members say they don’t see it as their job to represent the viewpoints of constituents at all – they say that simply by voting as they wish, in a large group, they represent the town. “If you don’t feel represented,” they often say, “join Town Meeting – it’s easy to get in!” But not everyone has the time or ability to do so due to work, health, family, language, and other factors.
The new proposal is designed to represent all the voters, not just the 240 who will show up for long meetings. Each voter elects 2 District Councilors and 3 At-Large Councilors, who will compete for their votes, and who will have to reach out beyond their personal networks to get elected. Councilors will meet regularly, hold district meetings with constituents, and take input year-round. Rather than a large mass of Town Meeting members voting however they want, all residents will have easily identifiable Councilors who see it as their job to represent the people.
How will 13 Council members be more accountable to voters than Town Meeting?
With 24 Town Meeting members per precinct now, it’s hard to keep track of who represents you and how they voted on key issues. Town Meeting also isn’t subject to open meeting law, so groups of members are free to discuss votes and plan voting strategy outside of the public eye. Plus, members aren’t prohibited from voting on matters that directly affect them as conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to Town Meeting. Meanwhile, if you don’t like what your representatives have done on your behalf, it’s difficult to vote them out. Many voters don’t get a real choice of candidates, because there are so many Town Meeting openings (61% of Town Meeting candidates run unopposed – are essentially self-selected) and because rarely do Town Meeting representatives campaign on issues. As a result, voter participation in elections is very low – 11% average voter turnout, and only 7% in 2013! In fact, 96% of Town Meeting incumbents are re-elected by this low-turnout.
The new charter puts a spotlight on the governing process, enabling the Town Council to better reflect the will of the townspeople. Holding elections in November for a limited number of positions will increase competition and voter participation. Councilors will have to say what they stand for and compete for your vote. Voters will be able to evaluate candidates during campaigns and replace councilors after two years if they are dissatisfied. With council meetings occurring regularly throughout the year, residents will have more opportunities to get organized and make their voices heard. And unlike Town Meeting, the Town Council will be subject to open meeting and conflict-of-interest laws. It will be clear to residents who represents them, establishing a tighter link between the people and their representatives.
Where did this council-manager form of government come from?
Actually, the council-manager form is one of the most popular systems in the country. It combines the accountable political oversight of an elected governing body and the effective, day-to-day management of a professional town manager. More than 105 million people in the U.S. (about 1/3 of the population) live in municipalities that operate under the council-manager form. Other places in Massachusetts using this model include Barnstable, Bridgewater, Cambridge, Chelsea, East Longmeadow, Franklin, Randolph, Southbridge, Watertown, Winthrop, and Worcester.
Why didn’t the Charter Commission recommend a mayor?
Some charter commission members wanted the political leadership of a mayor, while others felt the professional expertise of a town manager was key. In the end, a majority felt that a council-manager form that keeps our professional management while updating our citizen representative structure was a good fit for Amherst at this time. This proposal fixes Amherst’s biggest problem: government that only meets occasionally and doesn’t accountably represent the will of the people.
Why didn’t the Charter Commission just fix the problems with the current form of government?
There are some problems in the current form of government that we just can’t fix within the current structure. For example, by state law Town Meeting can’t set its own agenda. Instead, it has to wait for the time-consuming “warrant” process to be completed and the Select Board to call a meeting before members can meet and vote. Town Meeting also isn’t able to participate in shaping proposals as they are developed; that work is done by various boards, committees, and staff. Town Meeting is only able to come in at the end, to vote up or down on proposals from others.
For its part, the Select Board has the time and the structure to really examine issues for as long as needed and come up with thoughtful proposals. But they can’t act on those proposals; they have to hand them off to a large group of people, many of whom are considering them for the first time, to vote up or down after maybe an hour of Town Meeting debate. The new proposal combines the best aspects of our current Select Board and Town Meeting while eliminating some of the real structural problems that these bodies face.
Won’t competitive elections for Town Council increase the role of big donors in our elections?
Competitive elections are a good thing – they help inform the public about key issues, generate more participation in voting, and clarify what the people want. Also consider what it takes to get elected in Amherst. Our campaigns aren’t susceptible to TV ads or other expensive ways of getting noticed. Candidates for town-wide office basically need some lawn signs, a newspaper ad, a website, a brochure, and maybe some cheap Facebook advertising. There’s not much else to spend money on. And any contributions over $50 will be made public – if a candidate were to receive big donations, that could be perceived negatively by many voters. District Councilors need even less, as they only have to reach voters in two precincts.
With competitive elections, the outcome will be determined by candidates’ positions on issues, outreach, and personal contact with voters, not by campaign contributions. Finally, the new charter adds several new ways to help lesser-known candidates run for office. A Community Participation Officer is designated in the town administration to help interested residents figure out how to get started, and a new elections webpage will give publicity to any candidate who collects the signatures to run.
I have seen changes to our downtown that I don’t like. Under the new charter, would we have more of this?
Those recent changes happened under our current form of government, which lacks a central focus on what we want our town to look like. With the Council approving a master plan for Amherst and placing zoning decisions in that broader context, we will actually have a public and comprehensive conversation about these issues, instead of important planning and zoning decisions being made piecemeal and out of sight.
The charter seeks to promote democracy, not development. Under the new charter, the voters will choose Council members, who will bring their understanding of what the voters want to decisions on the master plan, zoning changes, and Planning Board membership. If voters don’t like what Councilors decide, they have an opportunity every two years to throw them out. So the rules for future development in Amherst will better reflect the public will.
Can the Councilors set their own pay? Why are we paying them anyway?
We set the Councilor stipend at $5,000 per year, approximately halfway between Greenfield’s stipend of $2,000 and Northampton’s $9,000. The stipend isn’t enough to live on, but we feel it appropriately recognizes the time commitment that will be necessary. In addition, it increases access to elected office for those with fewer resources, who may need to pay for childcare, mileage, and other expenses. It is important to note that Councilors can’t simply increase their own stipend without facing the consequences – no proposed stipend increase can take effect until after the Council members face the voters in the next election. Since this would likely become a campaign issue, it provides a disincentive to increasing the stipend.
Will the new form of government cost more than the current one?
We estimate that town staff will save a total of 90 fewer nights by no longer attending Town Meeting sessions, while staff time supporting the Council is not likely to be significantly more than that spent currently supporting the Select Board. In addition, numerous town staff have told us how most town business comes to a halt in the month or two preceding Town Meeting, as warrants are prepared and large amounts of material are developed and sent out to bring Town Meeting members up to speed. A more nimble Town Council will free up staff to do more of other types of work, including pursuing additional revenues from state, federal, and nonprofit sources.
Remember, we are dealing with a town budget of over $88 million, according to the most recent Finance Committee report. Even if none of the $75,000 in new stipend costs were offset by the other factors mentioned above (highly unlikely), that would increase our annual budget by less than one one-thousandth! It won’t raise our taxes, and better representation of the people is worth it.
Will Amherst become a city if the charter passes?
Amherst will still be Amherst, regardless of what our form of government is called. With a more representative, year-round, and accountable structure, it simply will be a better reflection of what the townspeople want. Massachusetts General Law has provisions that apply to either “cities” (those with a council form of government) or “towns” (those with a town meeting form). So in the state’s technical definition, Amherst will have a city form of government, but the proposal states that we will still be known as the Town of Amherst. Nearby Greenfield is among the 20 Massachusetts municipalities that have councils instead of town meetings but are still known as towns.
Are we moving from a bottom-up to a top-down power structure?
We don’t have a bottom-up power structure now. We have a disjointed and somewhat hidden power structure, where citizen decision-making is divided between a Select Board and a Town Meeting, and where members of the legislative body are not bound by Open Meeting and Conflict-of-Interest laws. Too many discussions of key town issues take place out of the public eye, including in private email groups set up by Town Meeting members. We have a Town Meeting that is understood by those in it, but that is a “black box” for many other residents outside it, who are frustrated that their government is too time-consuming for them to participate in, but too unaccountable for them to influence.
This proposal updates our system to be more responsive, more accountable, and more effective. It expands the base of our power structure by making that power accessible by all the voters. It offers a full range of opportunities for participation, including voting, public forums, district meetings, citizen committees, citizen initiatives, and elected service. By restoring the key democratic relationship between the people and their representatives, it empowers the voters and enables an ongoing conversation among all of us about what we want Amherst to be.