What People Are Saying...
DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE/AMHERST BULLETIN Endorse YES!: Amherst voters should replace outmoded and clunky form of government....
Friday 23 March, 2018 • Click Here to read in Bulletin
Amherst voters Tuesday should replace an outmoded and clunky form of government with a streamlined new system leading to more thoughtful deliberations, greater accountability and improved transparency. We urge residents to vote “yes” on the recommendations made by a majority of the Charter Commission after 18 months of study.
The most critical change would substitute a 13-member Town Council for Town Meeting, with 240 elected representatives, and the five-person Select Board. The position of professional town manager would be kept to perform most administrative duties for the town.
We believe that the smaller number of councillors meeting regularly throughout the year would be more knowledgeable about the issues and accountable to the voters than Town Meeting representatives who normally conduct business over the course of several nights twice a year during the spring and fall.
Town Meeting is not representative of Amherst’s diversity, nor does not it act as a true legislative body because its agenda is set by the Select Board, which places articles on the warrant, or by citizens who submit petitions. Town Meeting approves or defeats those measures, but it cannot change or delay them to another session.
The Town Council would set its own agenda through resolutions or ordinances proposed by councilors, send them to sub-committees for study, hold public forums to guage citizen reaction, consult with the town manager and other professional staff, and shape its final decisions through amendments and other fine-tuning – perhaps over a period of several weeks or months.
As it stand, if constituents want to discuss issues with their Town Meeting representatives, they must contact the 24 people who have been elected, often without opposition, in their precinct. Too many residents report that it is frustrating to communicate with so many people, and not all are receptive to hearing from constituents. Some Town Meeting members choose not to participate in an email system that would make that chore easier.
Under the proposed new government, voters would elect three at-large councilors and two from each of five districts. We believe that will encourage more vigorous campaigns and better inform residents about the candidates and their position on the issues. After the election, it will be easier for constituents to communicate with five councilors, rather than with 24 representatives.
The new government would be more transparent because councilors are subject to the state’s Open Meeting Law, while Town Meeting representatives are not.
Amherst adopted representative Town Meeting in 1938 when it was a town of about 7,000 people with 4,000 registered voters. Today, Amherst has nearly 38,000 residents and 21,056 registered voters, and the town continues to shift toward a younger, more racially diverse population. Town Meeting has not kept up with those changes. In 2015, the median age of its members was 63, compared to the median age of eligible voters, which was 34. And there are about three times as many non-white eligible voters in Amherst than non-white Town Meeting representatives.
Some charter opponents argue that Town Meeting provides “checks and balances” by not marching in lockstep wit the rest of town government. However, the danger is that the current system allows a minority of Town Meeting members to make decisions that are out of step with the will of the residents and most town officials.
That was the case Jan. 30, 2017, when Town Meeting failed to authorize borrowing for the co-located elementary schools project, despite voting 123-92 in favor. The measure fell short by 21 votes of the required two-thirds majority. Opposition by 92 Town Meeting representatives – fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Amherst’s registered voters, the entire Select Board, and four of five School Committee members, costing the town a $34 million state grant.
It’s time to stop tinkering with Town Meeting in an effort to improve a legislative body that was devised for a different era. We invite those Town Meeting members who want to remain involved to run for the new council or volunteer to serve on come of the dozens of boards or committees that will be left in place.
We hope other residents who believe they do not now have a voice in Town Meeting consider seeking a seat on the Town Council so it reflects the community’s diversity.
We urge all voters to participate in Tuesday’s town election and to modernize Amherst’s government by voting “yes” on the charter.
Friday March 23rd, 2018
ANDY CHURCHILL: Be on the lookout for flying spaghetti...
Tuesday 6 March, 2018 • Click here to read on AmerstBulletin.com
Opponents of the charter proposal are throwing all kinds of spaghetti at the wall, to see if some wiggly argument will stick and create enough uncertainty for voters to say maybe it’s safer to stay with what we’ve got.
The rhetoric has gotten pretty hot. One opponent compared charter supporters to the communists in Hungary. Another said we were like paranoid anti-communist Joseph McCarthy. Wait, what? They can’t both be right!
So, maybe we should pause, take a deep breath, and review what the new proposal actually does, and why.
1. It keeps what works now. The proposed charter retains our town manager, for professional expertise in day-to-day municipal management. It keeps our almost 50 boards and committees, where residents help develop town policies and procedures.
It maintains citizen oversight (“checks and balances”) over professional staff — and even increases it, since all town manager appointments will be confirmed by the people’s representatives. And it keeps our grassroots citizen initiatives and our established budget and finance committee roles.
2. It replaces our 240-person Town Meeting and our five-person Select Board with a 13-member Town Council. You can think of it as a slightly larger and more representative Select Board, but with the power to approve budgets, bylaws and other proposals.
Like the Select Board, the Town Council is small enough to have in-depth discussions on complicated issues. It controls its own agenda, so deliberations can be as long as needed for full understanding, and as timely as needed to meet grant deadlines and other time-sensitive opportunities.
Like Town Meeting, the Town Council has representatives from all parts of town. Ten of the 13 would be district councilors, elected from five districts, two councilors per district, with each district made up of two of our current voting precincts. The other three at-large councilors would be elected townwide.
3. It adds some new features to encourage broader participation and better planning. These include: election day in November instead of in the spring; town forums annually on the budget, the master plan, and the schools; and district meetings for two-way communication between residents and town councilors, at least twice a year.
Also, the elected town councilors would be required to publicly discuss and adopt a comprehensive plan for Amherst. This would provide public engagement in Amherst’s future direction and build a foundation for planning and spending decisions.
(For more info on the proposal, see the excellent, bite-sized blog abetteramherst.org.)
4. It has future charter review built in. The Charter Commission worked for 18 months, with extensive public input and support from the most experienced local governance consultants in the state. But to make sure the charter keeps serving the needs of Amherst, a commission to review it and propose improvements is required in 2024, and every 10 years after that.
This council-manager form of government isn’t some risky experiment. It’s a time-tested way of combining elected citizen leadership and effective day-to-day management. It’s used all across the country, serving one-third of the total U.S. population and more than half of communities with populations over 10,000.
In Massachusetts, it’s working in big cities like Cambridge, in little towns like East Longmeadow, and in Amherst-sized places like Barnstable, Bridgewater (home to a state university campus) and Watertown.
So why all the hand-wringing and spaghetti-flinging over this modest, pragmatic proposal? After all, Amherst will still have a town manager handling the day-to-day operation of the town, whether residents vote “yes” or “no” on March 27.
Bottom line, it’s all about Town Meeting. Amherst jettisoned the Norman Rockwell-style, open Town Meeting back in 1938, in favor of our 240-person “representative” Town Meeting. But how representative is it, really?
Do you know who your 24 precinct representatives are? Do you know how they voted on key issues? If you didn’t like how they voted, could you vote them out? For too many Amherst residents, the answer to all of these questions is “no.”
Meanwhile, we’re facing big challenges. Tax rates, family vs. student housing, commercial development, open space, multiple expensive town building projects coming due at once — these are interconnected issues, requiring thoughtful, systematic deliberation to ensure a bright future for Amherst.
Leaving these decisions up to a group of 240 people making snap decisions twice a year in a middle school auditorium seems unlikely to produce an optimal result.
Our representative Town Meeting is the biggest problem we face in terms of how our government works. We can fix this by voting “yes” on March 27.
In the meantime, be on the lookout for flying spaghetti.
Andy Churchill, of Amherst, is chairman of the Charter Commission, a former School Committee chairman and a Town Meeting member since 2002.
LA RAJA/VAN ERVE: Town Meeting does not mean more democracy and representation...
Supporters of Town Meeting (TM) argue that it provides more democracy and better representation. We cast doubt on these claims based on research and statistics in Amherst.
TM is more democratic only if you believe that the participation of 240 citizens counts more than participation of voters. Town Meeting government depresses turnout. In Amherst, average turnout since 2008 has been 11%. Across Massachusetts it is 21% for council governments compared to 13% for town meeting. If Amherst switches to council elections it can expect a similar turnout increase, which means roughly 3,800 additional voters would participate in elections. People tend to participate more when they experience political campaigns to remind them to vote. Not so with discreet TM elections.
An additional bonus of higher turnout is that the voters will be more reflective of the population. Our research shows that the small slice of residents who show up for TM elections mirrors the members of TM (older, homeowners, white, educated). One of us has written a dissertation that studies turnout in Massachusetts towns, which shows that electorates for councils are more representative of the entire town. Like any American election, it’s still not perfect, but much better than TM electorates.
In sum, the argument that town meeting creates more democratic participation is misleading. One could easily argue it creates less participation (especially for people who don’t look like town meeting members). We acknowledge there is a trade-off: do we want intense participation by the few? Or common participation by the many?
One key to choosing between this trade-off is to understand whether TM is more or less representative of the electorate that isn’t participating. At least TM might reflect the silent population that does not participate. Despite claims by supporters that TM is more representative of the town than other forms, our research suggests it is not. Political scientists like to distinguish between descriptive representation (officials looking like voters) and substantive representation (officials supporting policies preferred by voters). On both kinds of representation, TM has questionable outcomes.
We have addressed the highly skewed nature of descriptive representation in past commentary. We cite a few here: The median age of eligible voters in Amherst is 34; TM is 63. Homeownership among Amherst residents is 55%; TM is 91%. These differences can be meaningful because they often lead to substantively different policy choices. For example, TM members who voted against funding for building a new school tended to be older by several years and less likely to have children in the home.
Under a healthy democratic system, even if descriptive representation is not great, you should get decent substantive representation because your official should have an electoral incentive to represent your interests. This is especially true on salient issues like schools, which affect a large portion of the community. A majority of TM members voted against funding a new school even though a referendum showed a majority of voters approved it.
However, we are less concerned about the outcome of the school vote than whether TM members actually represented their precinct voters. On this score, we were troubled to see large discrepancies across precincts in how TM members voted and what voters in their districts preferred. In 5 out of 10 precincts the TM members voted substantially against voter preferences. The two most egregious cases involved precincts 2 and 10. In precinct 2, 49% of voters approved school funding, but a whopping 86% of TM members did so as well (a difference of 37 points). On the flipside, in precinct 10, 53% of voters approved the funding, but only 19% of TM members approved it (a difference of 34 points).
You might ask, how well are TM members representing their constituents? It is certainly plausible to argue, like John F. Kennedy, that sometimes leaders need to make tough choices that put them at odds with their constituents. The leader, after all, has information and a broader perspective the voters may not. It would be a stretch, however, to say that TM members who went against their constituents were profiles in courage, even when acting on their understanding of the public interest. For this to be so, TM members who opposed the preferences of their constituents (assuming they knew what they were) had to fear losing the next election. That is not the reality of TM elections, since turnout is so low and the individual threat of losing a seat virtually nil.
As voters contemplate whether to support the charter reform, they should ask, compared to what? The strongest case that has been made for the TM status quo is that it is more participatory and more representative. This is a dubious claim. It is “participatory” if one is referring to the small slice of residents who are in TM and the 11% who vote for them. In reality, TM depresses broader participation, and the body itself is not representative of what Amherst voters look like. More critically, important policy decisions run the risk of not being representative of what residents want because there is no way to hold TM members accountable for decisions that reject voter preferences. TM members should worry more about what voters think, including those they don’t know personally. That is unlikely to happen without genuine elections that come with a council system of government.
Ray La Raja, Professor of Political Science, UMass
Wouter Van Erve, Graduate Student in Political Science, UMass
STEVE ABDOW: Opportunity to communicate with elected representatives will increase greatly...
I am the kind of voter who communicates with my elected officials. Most of the time, I honestly believe that my communication efforts have an impact. Not so with representative town meeting. I have tried to communicate with the TM reps in my precinct. I’ve never heard from any of them. Some don’t vote the way I ask them to. There’s basically no accountability to the members of the precincts.
Since I don’t want to serve on TM, there’s no way to have an impact in my town with the current form of government.
I’m all for the charter. With the new form of government, which includes competition for elected positions, my opportunity to communicate with my elected representatives will increase greatly. My voice and vote may have an impact. Currently, I feel they do not.
NINA MANKIN: My experience of Amherst town meeting will make me vote in favor of the charter...
There used to be a t-shirt displayed in the window of Hastings with a cartoon of a kid on it and a tagline that said “Future member of town meeting.” I grew up in Amherst and while I didn’t completely understand how town meeting functions, I did recognize that it was my legacy, if that’s what I wanted, to be part of it.
I joined town meeting almost a year ago in the wave of residents who had worked on both sides of the new schools issue and witnessed the power town meeting has to effect our lives and those of our children. I was hoping for thoughtful and lively debate on important issues. What I have experienced over the last two sessions is an astonishingly inefficient and divisive body driven by (my estimate) 20 very vocal people with a fundamental mistrust of town government, a mistrust so deep that it overrides the kind of consideration and analysis of issues I was hoping for. I have experienced a culture that would rather be righteous than confused by facts, a culture in which factions decide issues well in advance of the general forum so that true debate is impossible; a culture in which individuals can make changes that effect the lives and pocketbooks of our citizens through emotional arguments that foster what I have experienced as a disturbing “group think.”
I grew up believing in the positive force of participatory democracy – to protect our common good and give voice to every citizen who seeks to be heard. Sadly, my experience of Amherst town meeting will make me vote in favor of the charter to abolish it this March 27th.
LILIAN KRAVITZ: The time has come for change...
I am an immigrant whose parents and grandparents moved to the United States in 1953 because they believed in democracy and a better future for themselves and future generations. I moved to Amherst from NYC, and they all followed me here, because of the way Amherst Residents live and think. We loved this vocal, involved, opinionated, artistic, athletic, inclusive and diverse town.
In order to insure that everyone is included in a more equitable and informed manner, I am convinced that Amherst needs to vote Yes for the new charter. I was once a Town Meeting member and I experienced first hand how it works, not a pretty picture. As a result I do not believe Town Meeting represents the voters of this town adequately. I am not angry because I know that for many people, and for many years it worked and is steeped in tradition. However, I believe the time has come for change, for many reasons.
We now have a Charter proposal, which has been 18 months in the making, with 56 open sessions and 14 listening sessions. This proposal gives us a council that will meet year round. They will have the time to become well informed about the issues that we face, they will have time to deliberate, and make thoughtful decisions in a timely manner. Not just twice a year, or to which, on average only 68% of it’s members attend. This Charter keeps in place the parts of our government that work well for us and gives us an opportunity to improve where we have encountered hindrances. It still ensures lots of opportunities for public discussions and citizen participation at open forums and council meetings. Our elections will be in November, when we expect them, and thereby increasing participation. With fewer representatives, meeting year round, we will have more and better opportunities to know who our representatives are, what their opinions are, how to reach them, and what they are working on. We will be more informed voters and participants.
I believe that each person’s vote will be heard and carry more weight with the Charter and to me that is what democracy is all about. Amherst is a progressive town, and now it needs to show that it understands progress, equality and effective government and join me in voting YES on March 27th.
LYNN WEINTRAUB: Charter would streamline our decision-making process...
Over the years, so many town meeting members have put their time and effort into guiding our town. It’s easy to see why they would have strong feelings about ending this system of government and shifting to something unfamiliar, untried. But times have changed, and it’s clear, at least to me, that a representative town meeting can’t meet our needs effectively anymore. Instead of trying to keep things the way they’ve always been, I have always had a keen interested in finding at ways to make them better. I believe the proposed charter would streamline our decision-making process, be nimble and responsive, and add an important layer of accountability. So I am voting yes on the charter.
I hope you will join me.
KARLA RASCHE: This isn’t the Town Meeting I grew up with...
This isn’t the Town Meeting I grew up with.
I’ve been attending town meetings since before I was able to vote. I grew up in a small town in central Massachusetts, and my parents brought me along with them. I couldn’t wait to participate when I was an adult.
So when I moved to Amherst six years ago, one of the first things I did was check into our own town meeting. That’s when I discovered representative town meeting. I had no idea there was any other type than the traditional, open version I grew up with. When I looked at the list of “representatives” from my precinct, I didn’t recognize a single name. The whole system seemed impenetrable. And I’m busy. So I dropped it.
I’ve talked to dozens of other voters who feel similarly excluded from our government due to the club-like nature of Town Meeting. That’s why I’m so excited to vote in favor of the proposed changes this March. Candidates running for a 13-member Town Council will have to introduce themselves to their precincts, and they’ll need to run on a clear platform.
Whether you’ve been in town for five months or fifty years, you’ll be able to educate yourself on the candidates and the issues and make an informed decision. That’s how democracy should work.
ELISA CAMPBELL: Would you be outraged?
Imagine that you are reading about a town in, say, Alabama, where the average age of the elected officials is 61.2 years, although the average age for registered voters is 34.5. The deciders are 95% white; among registered voters, 79% are white. While most of the voting-age citizens are tenants (51% of registered voters), the body that determines the town’s policies and budgets is overwhelmingly (80%) composed of homeowners.
Would you be outraged? What if the people exercising power claim to be representatives, even though they often win office in elections with no contest and don’t have to listen to or even reply to the concerns of the voters in their precincts?
Those are Amherst’s numbers in recent years, not some town in an area we tend to think of as discriminatory. There are many fine people who are active in town meeting; I hope they will continue to serve in town government. I am surprised at how different our perceptions are of how our local government is structured, and what the results are. We have learned to look at results for both race and gender discrimination; we need to look at results in politics, too. Our local government does not represent us demographically or politically.
In Massachusetts, every committee is subject to both the Open Meeting law and laws about conflict of interest. Town Meeting members are not. While the Open Meeting law forbids communication about issues among members outside of public meetings, some town meeting members frequently develop “positions” before the meeting. Town Meeting members may speak and vote their own financial interests without declaring their interest; for example, owners of rental property vote on by-laws regulating rentals or allowing the construction of new rental property which could be a competitor for their own.
For these, and other reasons, I support the proposed Charter; I hope you will join me.
AARON HAYDEN: Excited at the prospect of a having a proven system of governance...
I have experienced how special Amherst is among the 350 some odd towns in Massachusetts as a firefighter, from Planning Board, the Select Board and many committees. Each gave a glimpse at the breadth of people who come here to live. We hail from many diverse histories from the first settlers to the most recent tech industry entrepreneur. And as we’ve grown from an agricultural town to university town the question of how to represent our needs and wishes to the enterprise we call Amherst is important today as it was 270 or 80 years ago.
The fundamental municipal questions remain, and today we have elected friends to consider the most fundamental of all questions: How can we engage more of our neighbors in representing what the Town needs.
For a long time we had a system based on feudal English political practices. When Town Meeting was started it was OK that any, but only, white male land owners were represented in the Town’s governance. After great national debate, and with great reluctance on the part of those men, women were also allowed representation.
Now we are experimenting with a form of Representative Town Meeting. This version splits the Town into 10 geographical precincts each with a different version of the Amherst challenge.
RTM has the important benefit of making it easier for more citizens to get representation into the Town’s governance – the most important benefit. Today one doesn’t need to actually get to Town meeting: Rather, once each year you have only to vote for someone you know will represent you. These representatives, essentially, pledge to do the work of presenting your interests to the Town by going to town meetings twice a week for several weeks in the Spring and again in the Fall, debating the issues and then voting.
As the Town progressed the issues it faced grew more complex and the RTM spun off committees of dedicated hard working neighbors, the 250 or so, who, in their spare time, work to understand the issues and the processes for their resolution. These town committees augment the State mandated Finance Committees, Planning Boards and Conservation Commissions, all of which help Town Meeting have constructive debates and make informed votes.
Judging by the voting records in Town, RTM has not recently engaged our representation – And we should be very concerned that our neighbors are not being represented in our Town government. Without their vote, whatever the benefits of having a 240 members, a representative town meeting it can not represent them.
There is some widespread understanding of this problem as many of us voted to go through the arduous process of determining if there is another way that will get us engaged in representing ourselves again. I appreciate the good work of the Charter Commission in putting together another system.
I believe their proposal will get out the vote and encourage more of us to get heard in our town government. It still requires us to vote once a year for representatives (is that really so hard?) and keeps the structures and processes in place for engaging our working through issues. It is a benefit that we can really pay attention to who we choose to be our three representives in our precinct and Town wide. Three people we can know, because we’ll see whether they get to meetings, what they are saying and how they vote. People we can hold to requirements for transparency in their campaigns, and to honesty in their rhetoric and decisions by simply voting each year. And people we can call directly to voice our concerns.
If we are not engaged in voting for our town government we can be sure the outcome will not represent us. If our system isn’t engaging us as voters we can be sure that system is not representing us. I am excited at the prospect of a having a proven system of governance and by the prospect that more of my neighbors will be voting as a result.
Only by voting can we be represented. And today our system is not getting the vote. See you at the polls on March 7th.
ERIC COCHRANE: We need a government that can adequately represent how much we’ve changed...
While there may have been a time when “representative” Town Meeting made sense for Amherst, our town is now way too large for part-time government. We are a town of roughly 37,000 people with a government of 240 members who meet only twice a year. With the current population and a budget of $88 million dollars, this system is arbitrary and archaic, and a change in government is long past due. This is why we need to vote Yes on March 27 th for the Charter proposal.
Supporters of Town Meeting argue keeping the status quo is important to maintain representative democracy, and that a council government would be unrepresentative. When one looks at the elections and operations of the town government, that argument does not add up. Town Meeting members are not subject to conflict of interests or public meeting laws. In town elections, turnout can be an appalling 7%, and the vast majority of Town Meeting members run unopposed, resulting in a 96% incumbency rate in Town Meeting elections over the past decade. One third of Town Meeting members do not even show up to vote on critical issues concerning our town. It also excludes non-members from taking part in decisions, contrasting from the open town meeting systems in place in smaller towns like Leverett and Shutesbury. Can you even name any of your precinct’s 24 Town Meeting members? I would not call this system representative or democratic.
Other towns have made changes in their form of government to good result. Framingham, formerly known as the “largest town in America,” recently scrapped their town meeting for a city council government. One result of this overhaul is the election of Margareth Basilio Shepard, of Brazilian descent, to their new city council. Here too, we want representation for our diverse community, which includes people of all races and ages and we are all invested in the progress and advancement of the community. Currently, Town Meeting is overwhelmingly white, and older than the town average age of 39.
The Charter would also allow for ranked choice voting in town council elections. This system of voting would increase voter turnout, as has happened in municipal elections in Minneapolis, where last year two transgender people of color won seats, and in Cambridge, where this system of voting is already in place.
Amherst has changed dramatically since the establishment of Town Meeting in the 1930’s. We need a government that can adequately represent how much we’ve changed and allow Amherst to be productive and aspire to be even greater than w already are. That’s why on Tuesday, March 27, I will be voting Yes on the Charter, moving Amherst into the modern era, towards a positive future.
DEBORAH LEONARD: Will be voting on March 27 for a government that is answerable...
There are many situations in which ‘he who speaks loudest gets heard’. But the existing governing structure of Amherst is Representative Town Meeting, a government structure in which ‘he who gets to speak at all gets heard’.
I am thankful to the current and past Town Meeting Members for their service. I believe that many of them take their responsibility to ‘vote their conscious’ to heart. But they don’t represent me, and what speaks to their consciouses isn’t my needs, nor is it anything that I can systematically or reliably have an influence on.
So I will be voting on March 27 for a government that is answerable to me as a voter.
Deborah Lee Leonard
SUSAN TRACY: We deserve a full time government...
As a Town Meeting member, I have been dismayed by our inability to address the significant issues facing us – starting with the need for new schools and other new public buildings. I think that the Town Meeting is plagued by inherent structural problems that stand in our way of effective governance.
From the start, the self nominating process for Town Meeting members discourages candidates from canvassing their precincts and meeting people they don’t know which means they aren’t sharing their perspectives on the issues with those they ostensibly represent, nor are they learning what their fellow citizens think. In reality, they represent themselves.
However, some of the Town Meeting’s 240 members have divided themselves into factions whose members stake out their positions, dismiss town committee and board reports, and disparage the views of the opposition. As a result, when controversial issues are on the floor, Town Meeting is marred by rancor and mistrust rather than informed and respectful debate.
Finally, our budget process is structurally problematic and has encouraged suspicion about the intentions of the budgetary committees among some Town Meeting members. Because it is impossible and impractical for citizens to review the budget at an early stage in its development, Town Meeting members are left either to ratify everything in the budget or amend selective items in the budget at the Meeting. The more intrepid members amend it, but as they spend money in one category, they don’t cut that amount from another category. Often, they request that the money be taken from the “Reserve Fund”, undermining its purpose and leaving it to the Town Manager and the Finance Director to “fix it”.
Having read the Charter proposal, I think it addresses each of these structural issues superbly. Amherst, with its population of nearly 40,000 has evolved beyond the capacity of the Town Meeting to govern it accountably and effectively. We deserve a full time government that is nimble and responsive to events and to citizens. The new Charter provides numerous gateways for citizen participation, and is the best way for us to move into the future together.
LINDA & KENNETH COHEN: Former Town Meeting Members Will Vote Yes on the Proposed Charter...
We have been Amherst residents since 1990 and we were both members of the Town Meeting for a number of years. So we have first hand experience with our current town governance. The Town Meeting is inadequate for a town that has grown to 38,000 residents and has an $88 million dollar budget. The Town Meeting is wonderful in concept, but does not meet the needs of Twenty-first century Amherst.
We have supported past efforts to have a mayor and a city council. We are now supporting this initiative as a reasonable compromise. An elected 13 member council that meets year‐round will make more timely, thoughtful, and informed financial and planning decisions than Town Meeting’s biannual marathon sessions. And there will be accountability. You will be able to vote for candidates whose positions you know and can hold to account. In sum, we will be enthusiastic YES votes for the Charter change on March 27 and urge other Amherst voters to do the same. A Yes vote is a vote for the future of Amherst, not the past.
Linda and Kenneth Cohen
SARAH GOFF: Supports positive change in Amherst government...
I have lived in Amherst for 11 years and, despite trying, I still can’t quite figure out how to have a meaningful voice in town government here.
As a member of a two-working-parent family with two young children, I can’t necessarily make it to Town Meeting regularly, and it seems that my presence there might have limited impact even if I could.
The more I talk to people in town, the more I find that I am far from alone in this feeling. A year-round government staffed by accountable representatives would be better able to make well thought-out decisions that enable more voices to be heard in the decision-making process. It would also allow for better long-term planning and financial strategizing.
I am hopeful that voters will look to the recent demonstration of what can be accomplished by exercising our right to vote when we want to make change and come out in March to support this positive change.
JANE WALD: Charter will help to chart a steady course for Amherst’s future...
An elected legislative Council will strengthen our capacity for timely and coordinated improvements to the quality of life for Amherst residents. Capital planning and follow-through is but one example of ways in which a Council/Manager form of government can maintain consistent and informed focus on enhanced services and educational opportunities for all of Amherst’s residents.
Amherst has wrestled with funding for new schools and expansion of our public library. Both programs sought to leverage substantial state grant resources to ease the burden on Amherst taxpayers for decades to come. But these aren’t the only major capital projects on the Town’s horizon. The Department of Public Works occupies an unimproved century-old trolley barn; town residents have been waiting for a new fire station for well over a quarter of a century.
Schools, DPW facility, fire station, and library – all are complex projects involving multiple stages of planning, financing and grant funding, sometimes property acquisition, contingency plans, and unforeseen complications. Because Town Meeting assembles infrequently, our representatives have limited opportunity to dig deeply into the intricacies of such projects and make informed judgments about their cumulative trajectories and impacts. Checks and balances between Town Meeting, staff, and boards/committees don’t work well because of the structural imbalance of attention, application, and input from each branch.
Comprehensive long-range planning by an elected council of representatives, accountable to us, the voters, and executed faithfully by a Town Manager will help to chart a steady course for Amherst’s future.
Town Meeting member
KAY MORAN: Proposed charter provides for more public participation...
Before retiring in 2003, I covered Amherst’s Town Hall and Town Meeting for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I have been a member of Town Meeting since 2005 (also for three years in the early 1970s), and I served on the Finance Committee for 12 years and chaired it for three.
So I have a pretty good understanding of how Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting works.
It is not representative of the town’s residents, as anyone watching a session can see. Proportionately, there are many more white heads and white faces – including mine – than in the general population. It doesn’t even represent the will of the voters. In November 2016 a clear majority of voters, more than 2,000, approved town spending for a state-approved, state-subsidized plan to replace two deteriorating school buildings. In January 2017, a minority of Town Meeting members – just 92 people – torpedoed that plan.
Town Meeting’s members are largely invisible. Many members – including me – have never had to compete for their seats, because in many precincts there are not enough, or just barely enough, candidates. Constituents usually don’t know who their representatives are. Some Town Meeting members have even declined to receive emails from constituents through the mechanism set up by the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee.
The 13 councilors proposed in our new charter would be much more out in the open. For one thing, you could watch 13 people in action much more easily than 254 Town Meeting members. It’s true that you can find the attendance and voting records of Town Meeting representatives on the town web site, if you’re willing to slog through voting records for each session while simultaneously examining the Town Meeting warrant to decipher what each vote was about. Voting and attendance records of 13 councilors would be much easier to access.
Amherst residents don’t have a real voice. In an open Town Meeting, registered voters can sit anywhere they like and vote on every issue. People who live in Amherst are entitled to speak at our representative Town Meeting only if the moderator calls on them. But they have to sit in the back of the auditorium, and they can’t vote. Even if Town Meeting members know how their constituents want them to vote, they don’t have to do it.
Town Meeting is slow. Budget issues, land acquisition or sales, zoning amendments, and other bylaw changes happen only twice a year at the required annual Town Meeting in the spring and the special Town Meeting that is usually scheduled in the fall. The warrant for those meetings must be set several weeks in advance of the first session. If something new comes up requiring Town Meeting approval, another special Town Meeting has to be scheduled.
A council that meets twice a month would be far more nimble at responding to town needs. Councilors who meet that often would gain a greater understanding of the day-to- day workings and needs of the town than Town Meeting members get. Currently, dozens of proposals on a Town Meeting warrant must be decided within a few weeks by people who haven’t previously been paying attention, don’t fully understand the details, and often haven’t read the written information sent to them.
The current system makes budget development difficult. Because of Town Meeting timing requirements, annual budgets are drafted in January, well before the town knows how much state aid it will get, and voted on by Town Meeting in April or May. A big chunk of Amherst’s revenue, about 18 percent, comes from state aid. Under the proposed charter, budgets would be proposed in March, with final budget approval by June 30. The extra two months would allow for a more accurate estimate of the amount to expect from the Commonwealth.
The proposed charter provides for more public participation in town government than there is now. It would require the council president to call at least two public forums a year to get feedback on the master plan and on the budget.
Town Councilors representing each ward would have to hold at least two public meetings a year to hear and talk with their constituents. A public comment period would be required at all meetings of the Council, the School Committee, and the Library Trustees. Right now the Select Board and the other two committees may schedule time for public comments, but they don’t have to.
Under the proposed charter, the Town Manager would appoint a community participation officer to encourage and provide support for residents who want to participate in our local government. We don’t have anything like that right now.
Furthermore, Section 8 of the proposed charter sets up procedures for town residents to call for open meetings to consider any proposal; to petition the Council, School Committee, and/or Library Trustees; to submit initiative petitions; and to veto decisions of the Council.
I’m going to vote for this charter to give Amherst residents a greater voice in our town’s government.
RAY LA RAJA: Accountability in a democracy only works well when there is electoral competition...
AMHERST — A recent commentary here in the Valley lamented that Amherst Town Meeting is a rambling, unfocused mechanism that takes much longer than it should to make decisions. We agree that governing is not terribly efficient in Amherst, but that is not our main concern with it.
We are troubled by the fact that a legislative body that is elected by fewer than 1 in 10 registered voters is not truly representative.
Our analysis indicates that Town Meeting members are a rather unique set of residents compared to the rest of the Amherst population. Our study includes college-age students who live in Amherst, but not on-campus students.
Given the popular conception of Town Meeting as a pure form of democracy, our argument that it is unrepresentative may come as a surprise. After all, the ultimate authority for political decisions in Amherst is not assigned to professional politicians or bureaucrats but to the citizens themselves. These are the very people we might think of as friends and neighbors.
To be sure, some basic statistics imply that this is a government of the people. Considering that there are 240 Town Meeting members in a town with a population of about 37,000, there is one member for every 157 residents. That is pretty good, especially when compared to the U.S. Congress, where each member represents more than 700,000 people.
However, to claim that Town Meeting is close to the people of Amherst is misleading when we dig deeper.
On several demographic dimensions, it is hardly representative. The average age of eligible voters is 39 years old, while that of Town Meeting members is 59. Regarding race, 79 percent of voters are white, 6 percent black and 5.5 percent Hispanic. By contrast, Town Meeting members are 93 percent white, 1.2 percent black and 3.7 percent Hispanic.
Regarding wealth, we have few statistics, but we do know that 49 percent of eligible voters are homeowners, while close to 80 percent of Town Meeting members own their homes. Clearly, our political decision-makers don’t have the same attributes as the rest of Amherst.
There is also a mismatch with respect to political preferences. It is widely acknowledged that Amherst is a progressive town, with voters having preferences that lean decidedly left of the ideological center.
Using data generated by Catalist, a voter research company based in Washington, D.C., we determined that Town Meeting members are much further to the left than the constituents they represent. Catalist ranks individuals on a scale from 1-100, where 1 is most liberal, and 100 most conservative. In Amherst, Town Meeting members average 15 points on this scale, indicating an intensely liberal slant, whereas the average voter is much more moderate and scores 45 points on the same index.
So while Amherst does not have the polarized politics we see on the national stage, we can hardly say that our town’s political elites (yes, that means you, Town Meeting members) accurately represent the rest of the town.
These discrepancies in representation raise important issues of democratic legitimacy. The strongest claim for having a representative Town Meeting is that it reflects the will of the people rather than professional bureaucrats, politicians and special interests.
But is this true? Our data suggests that Town Meeting in Amherst is fairly unrepresentative both descriptively and substantively.
This would be less disconcerting if we had confidence that residents could effectively hold their Town Meeting members accountable. In most healthy democracies this accountability is ensured through elections. Elected officials lose votes if citizens are dissatisfied with their performance. But this classic electoral mechanism does not work well in Amherst Town Meeting for a few reasons.
First of all, Town Meeting elections lack even the most basic information that would help voters hold members accountable. Most residents don’t know who is running, what they stand for, or how they voted in previous sessions. So how does the voter make a decision?
This leads to a second problem. If you don’t know who is running, why turn out to vote? In the 2013 Annual Town Election, voter turnout to elect Town Meeting was just 6.6 percent (a typical figure). In contrast, the average turnout in municipal elections in similar-sized cities that have mayor-city council governments was 22 percent — still low when compared to national election turnout, but almost four times higher than turnout in Amherst’s local elections.
In Amherst, those who vote tend to know those who are running for office. Our analysis shows, not surprisingly, that these voters share the same demographic and preference profile of Town Meeting members. In other words, the voters and members run in the same social circles, while non-voters do not.
Finally, accountability in a democracy only works well when there is electoral competition. But in Amherst it takes only a few votes to secure a spot and many races go uncontested.
The reality of politics is that perfect representative institutions do not exist. Therefore, we must consider trade-offs depending on the things we value. With respect to town meeting there is pride in a New England tradition that has stood for centuries. This unique form of local government is a significant mark of our political identity and heritage. Town meetings also provide a forum for civic engagement among those interested in politics, even more so than mayoral systems.
Thus, it is a civic training ground for a subset of citizens, and provides a context for some to speak out publicly.
On the other hand, the mayor-city council form of government has alternative positive features. First, there is, paradoxically, greater transparency in governmental decision-making. It is far easier to hold accountable a few elected leaders rather than 240 individuals we know little about. Second, decisions are more likely to get made on behalf of the majority. City councilors who try to block a policy would face majority voter wrath if the policy they try to obstruct is broadly popular. In contrast, members of Town Meeting face no such threat, and a minority faction can rather easily filibuster policies by showing up at poorly attended town meetings to defy potential supermajorities.
Finally, there is more room in mayoral-council systems for compromise because the arena involves a manageable group of decision-makers who interact repeatedly. In Town Meeting, by contrast, members rarely see each other outside designated meeting times, which encourages interaction that is more about mobilizing factions rather than deliberating and compromising with those who disagree.
These are a few comparisons between two governmental systems. We could make more. We are not necessarily advocating that Amherst change its system of government, but raising awareness that Town Meeting is not the representative body many claim it to be. If the residents of Amherst would like to increase the amount of information and accountability in the system, we suggest that candidates affiliate with political parties with names that allow voters to distinguish where they stand relative to other candidates.
Right now, voters choose randomly or select members based on their personal networks, which doesn’t seem fair to residents who don’t know people running for Town Meeting (the very people who don’t seem to be represented much in Town Meeting). Of course, introducing political parties might create the kind of fractious politics residents want to avoid. But our sense is that such fractious politics exist as an undercurrent and that making these fault lines more transparent to voters might improve democracy and accountability in our town.
Ray La Raja
Wouter Van Erve
Ray La Raja is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wouter Van Erve is a graduate student in political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
DR. KATE ATKINSON: Excited about this opportunity for Amherst...
When I first moved to Amherst, nearly 20 years ago, I liked the idea of Town Meeting. It seemed a way to make sure that every voice was heard. But when I had occasion to attend, I was discouraged to see how ineffective it was. There were complicated issues to discuss, and TM members didn’t seem to have read the materials but rather mostly commented on what other people said.
When I decided to build a new doctors’ office in town, I was truly appalled at how dysfunctional the TM process appeared to be . Most towns would be happy to have a primary-care doctor’s office within walking distance of a neighborhood, but people testified on far-fetched issues, stating that I would be “dumping toxic waste” and that the only way to get to the office was through a residential neighborhood (not true, it is right off Route 9) and how primary-care doctors don’t make a lot of money, so “we wouldn’t get much tax money from her.” These things were actually said!
This made me start questioning the process. I realized I didn’t know who my representatives were or where they stood on the issues. I didn’t feel represented at all.
My medical building took two years longer than necessary to complete and my costs were driven up by $100,000 because of Town Meeting and the ZBA. The property taxes on my building are $30,000 a year, so the town lost $60,000 in revenue. In my mind, the whole process was a lose-lose.
These things that happened made it clear to me that we need more centralized leadership. We need people elected who want to learn the governmental process, become informed of the issues and work in a collaborative manner with other representatives.
I often hear people say that the charter is pro-business. Well, I do run a small business. I provide medical care to Amherst families and I also live in this town, have had children in the Amherst school system, and care deeply about our community. I’m not a developer. I’m not Wal-mart. I’m a small-town Family Doctor who wants what is best for Amherst, which does include finding ways to keep our small local businesses and not drive them out of business (which I have watched happen in droves since living here!).
I’m against big development. I like Amherst’s small-town feel, and was dismayed to see that Town Meeting allowed those huge structures downtown. I hope that a smaller, well-informed leadership will take into account the needs of a diverse population, and I think it’s unlikely they will be pro-development, because they will be elected by Amherst voters. And I think a slick developer will be less able to push through a project if we had a more informed and active group of leaders.
I reviewed the basic concepts of the charter, and it looks like the best of all worlds, a smaller government that is more representative, meets regularly and hopefully stays informed of the issues they vote on, and if people aren’t happy they can be voted out. I originally wanted a mayor, like Northampton has, but now I see the advantages of having more voices than simply one.
This is a pivotal moment for Amherst. We’re in dire need of more effective leadership. The 13 council members will be from different parts of town, and the charter will allow for checks and balances but not be the utter chaos of Town Meeting, where everyone feels they need to speak.
I’m really excited about this opportunity for Amherst and I hope we are able to pass this well-crafted proposal.
CONNIE KRUGER: The size and complexity of Amherst in 2018 warrants another change...
I hope to be out of a job by December 2018.
I’m referring to my “job” as an elected official on the Amherst Select Board.
On March 27, Amherst decides if it will change from our current representative Town Meeting with 240 elected members and 14 ex-officio voting members, to a 13-member council. I’ve made my decision in favor of the new council and town manager form of local government.
This is the legislative body that must pass the annual budget. However, the town’s budget is shaped through an exhaustive process that involves many boards, committees and professional staff. The Select Board starts the process with budget guidelines for the Town Manager. These broad goals reflect our understanding of community priorities.
The Finance Committee then develops its budget guidelines. Budget work is also done by the Budget Coordinating Committee and the Joint Capital Planning Committee — all served by volunteer citizens, some appointed and some elected. A final balanced budget is presented by the town manager in January.
By the time this budget gets to the annual Town Meeting in the spring, it is a delicate jigsaw puzzle. Town Meeting doesn’t want to just be a “rubber stamp,” but amendments from the floor often create a perilous situation. Would you want to run an $88 million organization by “crowd-sourcing” spending decisions? I am not saying that Town Meeting members are not capable of understanding the budget, but rather the size and complexity of our “corporation” begs for a different way of doing business.
I am optimistic that the proposed 13-member council would be able to work in an environment of trust; that isn’t the case now in Town Meeting. Recently, it passed a bylaw requiring all town building projects — new as well as substantial renovations — to meet zero net energy requirements.
Even though the elected Select Board and the appointed Finance Committee recommended waiting until some technical flaws could be addressed before passing this bylaw, Town Meeting did not have enough trust in our local officials to wait, even though we shared the overall goal of wanting to meet zero net energy standards. The language in the bylaw as passed may preclude any building projects.
The short explanation of the conundrum is that a building must be certified as zero net energy before a contract is signed, but no professionals will do this until the building is up and operating. Should the final building project not meet this standard, then more money must be appropriated and changes made until this standard of zero is met, regardless of what spending constraints this might place on other areas of the budget. And it assumes Town Meeting will approve these additional expenditures.
The proponents of this bylaw understood these concerns, but felt it was more important to drive “a stake in the ground.” I don’t think pounding symbolic stakes in the ground is the best way to govern.
Others have spoken in great detail about the disappointment of the failed elementary school funding vote, so I will be brief on this topic. Part of my personal disappointment with the defeat of this project was that the Select Board, Finance Committee, School Committee, our top professional educators, and many knowledgeable volunteers cautioned that to defeat the funding appropriation for new co-located elementary schools and rejecting the $34 million state matching funds most likely meant that nothing would be built for 10 years.
Town Meeting refused to believe that this opportunity really would be lost as now appears to be the case. It is notoriously hard to get a townwide tax override approved by a majority of voters, and we succeeded in getting that majority. Town Meeting should have been a body well-informed enough on the need for this school project to deliver the needed vote. This is the single worst decision I have seen Town Meeting make in the 30-plus years I have been involved in Amherst politics.
In 1938, amid much controversy, Amherst decided to change its open Town Meeting to a representative Town Meeting. The size and complexity of Amherst in 2018 warrants another change. We can and must do better. A 13-member board is better suited to fully understand and discuss difficult issues, balance competing needs and engender trust for one another.
While I can’t guarantee that something proposed for the future will be better than something familiar and traditional, I’m looking forward to adopting the new charter.
Connie Kruger, of Amherst, is a Select Board member, a former Town Meeting member and a retired town planner.
ELLEN BROUT LINDSEY: Town Council would be more responsive, nimble and proactive...
As I read the Charter Commission final report that arrived in my mailbox, I found myself nodding in agreement about the proposed charter — in particular, the 13-member Town Council that would offer year-round, accountable town government.
The proposed Town Council would meet regularly, year round — as opposed to Town Meeting gathering just twice a year — and is small enough for real discussion and deliberation, not just speaking at each other. The council will be involved in shaping decisions, not just voting at the end, and councilors will have time to fully understand each issue before each vote. And, best of all, the council members will be accountable for their votes.
I came to Amherst 13 years ago from San Francisco, drawn to a thriving town that cares deeply about investing in the future and understands the importance of staying vibrant for my daughter’s generation. A new Town Council would be more responsive, nimble and proactive than our current form of government and is a huge step in the right direction to keeping Amherst on the list of the “best places to live.”
If you haven’t leafed through the final charter report yet, I urge you to do so. And please join me in voting in favor of the charter in March.
Ellen Brout Lindsey
MELISSA GIRAUD: One has to look long and hard for visible racial diversity among TM members...
In her recent pro-Town Meeting editorial, Carol Gray tried to draw an inclusive picture of town meeting. She starts with the origins of TM in 1759, invokes Norman Rockwell’s painting of the “working man standing up to speak to Town Meeting,” and goes on to list the various kinds of diversity TM has represented.
Here’s the thing. Yes, in more than 250 years, TM has offered diversity across lines of “perspective, expertise, race, ethnicity, gender, and age.” Having literally thousands of members across its long history to point to helps in that respect.
But not all “diversity” is equal. Nominal diversity does not provide meaningful voice. The handful of people of color in TM might be laudable if Amherst itself had only a tiny share of people of color. In fact, fully 3 in 10 Amherst residents are people of color.
My husband served on TM briefly – recruited by Meg Gage, who has always known diversity to be a TM problem. At any meeting, he could count the visible color in the room on one hand, including himself. But even if he had been the only TM member who was African American, an immigrant, a dad to young children, a renter, etc., by Gray’s accounting TM can claim membership across each of those identities in perpetuity. I, too, was briefly a town meeting member but had to resign before I attended a single meeting. Even so, I’ve been named as an example of diversity in TM by an anti-charter group.
How many TM members are, say, under 40? How many have school-age children? There’re some, to be sure. But, come on. To laud the diversity of the TM membership with respect to race, ethnicity, or age, certainly, is simply disingenuous. We don’t need a big study; you’ve seen the TM photos. Pretty striking! A researcher from one of the Five Colleges who drew any conclusions on the basis of her work with such a bleakly unrepresentative “sample” would be laughed out of the academy. And yet that’s exactly what some propose to do by maintaining TM-style “democracy.”
And, yes, “any resident can ask to speak at Town Meeting” – Carol Gray, again.
Well, I was among the parents of color wanting to speak at TM in support of the new schools a year ago. We weren’t allowed to speak and, in fact, TM members voted to end the discussion early. One had to look long and hard for visible racial diversity among TM members that night and there was almost none among those who spoke.
Much of the discussion about diversity in TM is about what political scientists call descriptive representation: do the members look like the people they’re meant to represent? TM is weak there. But there’s also substantive diversity: do elected officials represent the substantive interests of the unelected? Not so much.
Did you know that TM is meant to be a “representative sampling” of the town, not a body of representatives of constituent interests? There’s little expectation that they’ll seek out our interests and concerns in order to better represent them. Rather, TM members are presumed to more or less represent our substantive interests only insofar as they “are” us. Exchanges with residents are encouraged but members are not mandated to talk to residents at all. Instead, they are encouraged to “vote their conscience.” No wonder most of my TM precinct members don’t respond to my efforts to contact them!
This March, I’ll be voting yes for the proposed charter. The council-manager system might not be descriptively more representative than TM (couldn’t really be worse either). But it will be far more democratic. With competitive elections for far fewer slots and regular forums with public comment, council members will need to substantively represent constituents to earn our votes.
MATT BLUMENFELD: Perhaps the best name for our current system is "Closed Town Meeting"...
I have lived in Amherst for more than two decades and our family has been here since the 1960s. We have always believed in helping where we can. For me that has meant serving on the Amherst ABC board, as well as the boards of Amherst Education Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, and Amherst Cinema. I have coached more than 15 seasons in Amherst youth sports, coaching my daughters in soccer and basketball and my godson in baseball. I have also been a Town Meeting member. I appreciate many aspects of life in Amherst, and am grateful to live in a place where so many are passionate about their community and their government.
All four members of our family today are strongly in favor of the Charter change because we support effective, open, democratic government and believe that a Town Council and professional Town Manager will yield better outcomes for more Amherst people than our current system.
Many current TM members, including staunch defenders of the status quo, proudly say that they do not represent any view or constituency other than their own. If that is the case, then perhaps the best name for our current system is Closed Town Meeting. In Closed Town Meeting, even if I show up to speak, there is no obligation to listen to my voice, and no way for my vote to count. For instance, there have been several recent occasions when I have contacted all 24 of my TM members about a warrant article and have not heard back at all from those who disagreed with my point of view. Can you imagine a Town Councilor not responding to a constituent who takes the time to reach out personally about a relevant issue?
The proposed Town Council, which has real representation through both ward and town-wide councilors, is much better suited to dealing with important town-wide and neighborhood issues throughout the year than our current form of government. The new system will also better respond to the needs and desires of more Amherst people, and give us all the representative democracy we crave and need.
STEVE DUNN: We deserve year-round, accountable government...
Please join me on March 27 th in voting for the new Town Charter. This is the right plan at the right time for Amherst. A while back I served two terms on Town Meeting and witnessed how poorly it represents the whole town. Members don’t always have a complete grasp of the articles as they debate and vote. This is clear from the questions and comments in any half hour viewing on the town cable channel. Too often the members as a whole are so confused and befuddled by the rambling nature of the discussion that they find relief by sending articles back to committees for reconsideration.
Stepping off Town Meeting was difficult because I understood that serving is the only way to make meaningful contributions to town decisions, other than Board and Committee elections.
As for Town Meeting members, they vote their conscience and self-interest and are not accountable to anyone else. My intention is not to disparage them. Indeed, we owe them gratitude for serving. Many have served for years. Yet, in spite of best intentions by these 240 individuals, the Town will be better served by the Council-Manager form of government. I will know who my district’s two councilors are, what positions they ran on, how to reach them. And I will know the same for the three town-wide elected councilors. Thus, I will have direct input for 5 of the 13 Councilors, which is vastly more democratic than the current “representational” system.
We deserve year-round, accountable government. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Amherst will vote in pro-development, big-money interests, as some have suggested. That’s just silly. This is Amherst! I urge you also to ignore calls to fix Town Meeting. We need more than minor tweaking. We have here an opportunity for real change, one that took a great deal of effort to bring to the ballot box. Please, vote yes for this sensible change.
AUDREY CHILD: It is time for the new charter and thoughtful, well-researched decisions...
As we consider whether to change Amherst’s form of government. let’s look at a past Town Meeting decision. The need for a parking garage has come back because fifteen years ago, a new garage was planned right in the center of offices, shops, housing, restaurants, and town institutions like the Jones Library; a perfect location to serve the downtown. However, anti-garage sentiment in Town Meeting made many “compromises” to some of its most important features.
The idea that parking garages are ugly led them to eliminate the upper floors and put cars underground into a smaller, dark, cramped space. Another way to deal with the perceived ugliness was to turn the above-ground parking into a more park-like amenity. Spacious areas with benches took up a number of the remaining spots.
Rather than be able to park first and pay on leaving, parking time was reduced to four hours and people have to pay when they park, missing the point that a parking garage encourages people to come downtown. The focus was on turnover and preventing people from staying “too long”. In order to sell the compromise, several $100K was added on to the cost of the garage to reinforce the lower structure in case they decided to add upper floors in the future “if there was a need”.
Town Meeting succeeded in preventing a real parking garage from being built and the result is that there is still inadequate parking and a lack of foot traffic downtown.
KATHERINE APPY: Town Council will meet year-round, like every other board and committee...
Serving two terms on the Amherst School Committee was a tremendously rewarding experience. But it included disappointments, none greater than Town Meeting’s decision to reject the town-supported plan to build two new elementary schools with $34 million of state aid.
That vote was the final straw that convinced me that our town, with its $88 million budget and 40,000 voters, has outgrown occasional government.
Because Town Meeting meets only twice a year, its members can’t fully immerse themselves in the details of many complex issues. Major projects, years in the making, are presented in just a few minutes.
Many Town Meeting members want to do what’s best for the town, but the rules prevent full and informed debate. There is no opportunity for real dialogue or careful deliberation. The model does not allow for rebuttal or public comment. These systemic shortcomings in our legislative body allow misleading and false claims to gain traction and persist. The cost to our town of our legislative body’s failure to make informed decisions has been grave. We need a form of government that does more than scratch the surface of major questions facing our town. We need year- round democracy.
During my tenure on the School Committee, I bore witness to Town Meeting misinterpreting and exceeding its authority on numerous occasions. One example is the school vote. The rules stipulated that Town Meeting should vote up or down on a basic question: Can Amherst afford to build the proposed schools? The answer was obvious; with $34 million of state aid that we had competed for and secured and a recent debt exclusion override vote, virtually everyone thought we could. But instead of considering that basic question, a minority of Town Meeting members, who had qualms with elements of a plan nine years in the making, took it upon themselves to block the borrowing. When Town Meeting voted not to authorize the money for the schools, it exceeded its authority, dismissed hundreds of hours of work by citizen committees and professional staff, and overruled the majority will of the town. That’s not functional democracy.
Another example came in 2015, when Town Meeting voted to override portions of the school budget. Once again, their mandate was to vote up or down on the budget as presented. School administrators, including every principal, had worked for months to determine the best educational use of resources. The Superintendent had presented the budget to the School Committee, which had deliberated on it as well and recommended it for approval. But a few in Town Meeting generated an emotional response to some of the proposed cuts and in the end Town Meeting voted to add to the budget and restore some cuts. In doing so, they overlooked the painful reality that the restoration and addition of funds in one area could mean cuts to things that school and town leaders had felt important to maintain.
If Amherst votes to adopt the new charter, these shortcomings in our governance will be addressed. If we vote yes, we will replace Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council that can make thoughtful spending and planning decisions, put in place mechanisms to empower everyday voters, and keep much of what works in our government today.
Under the new charter, our Town Council will meet year-round, like every other board and committee in town, and will be much better informed about town issues and able to act more quickly on pressing needs than Town Meeting can. Unlike the marathon sessions of Town Meeting, our council will have first and second readings of decisions they are considering before voting on them, with opportunities for public comment. There will be annual town-wide forums on our schools where residents can make their voices heard.
The new charter also keeps many of the elements of government that work well, such as the dozens of citizen committees that craft and implement policy and our professional town management, which insulates the day-to day management of our town from political whims. It’s time to put aside a system that has too often failed our community.
I am grateful for my time on the School Committee, and I believe future chairs of the committee under the new charter will have an even more rewarding experience than I did. That’s because their work will be nested in a town government that is more thoughtful and more accountable and that better connects with voters. I urge a yes vote on March 27.
JEFF BLAUSTEIN: Vote for accountability in town government....
I have been an Amherst Town Meeting member for well over 20 years. I participate out of civic responsibility but frankly, sitting through the long nights of lengthy, often-uninformed speeches is like gargling razor blades.
Like many other, but not all Town Meeting members, I trust the hard work of the Select Board, Finance Committee, Planning Board, and other citizen committees. I do not believe that every decision has to be second-guessed and debated ad nauseum.
I have often been disappointed that some Town Meeting members wait until one of the bi-annual Town Meetings to raise issues that could have been raised at committee and board meetings ahead of time.
The new Charter fixes these problems. It allows for abundant opportunity for public comment by everybody, including experts, through direct contact with accountable representatives and with the appointed boards and committees. Contrast that to Town Meeting, where only 68% of members have opted into the email system to communicate with their constituents.
Residents will not lose their voice with this update to year-round democracy, as some opponents of the charter claim. In fact, I believe they will have a greater voice because the town councilors who will compete for each resident’s vote every two years will be working to serve their constituents’ interests. Contrast that to Town Meeting, where each resident is technically represented by 24 representatives, but most of them have never had to explain their positions or faced any real competition. From 2007 to 2015, 96% of incumbents who sought re-election to Town Meeting retained their seats, and from 2011 to 2015, 63 percent of members were elected with fewer than 100 votes (http://abetteramherst.org/2017/10/31/town-meeting-do-elections-matter). In fact, I think I am always elected primarily because of name recognition; I’ve lived here since 1983. It’s time for accountable democracy that empowers voters.
If you want nimble, informed, accountable government in Amherst, I urge you to join me and support the new charter on March 27.
Jeffrey D. Blaustein
Town Meeting member, Precinct 6
ANGELA RUSSO: Having accountable representatives is essential to the democracy of our town...
I am writing to voice support of Amherst’s proposed charter and the positive change that I believe year-round democracy would bring to our town.
Having accountable representatives to contact is essential to the democratic process of our town. While I have repeatedly heard the argument that Town Meeting members are reachable via email, the truth is that emailing all 24 of my precinct’s representatives is a clunky and inefficient way to communicate. Productive conversation with 24 people via email is not possible. Being able to easily identify and contact my town council representatives with questions and comments is more constructive and less frustrating than the alternative.
The transparency of the assembled council is appealing to folks who feel in the dark about the inner workings of Town Meeting (including me a 10+-year resident of Amherst). I want accountable representatives making well-researched decisions who have a greater responsibility to their constituents, not “representatives” who are, in truth, representing only themselves.
KENDRA BROWN: Charter will bring greater transparency and participation...
My husband and I moved to Amherst a couple of years ago, and we’ve enjoyed the process of settling in and getting to know the town.
We generally feel that our values are well represented here, so I find it surprising that I’m uncomfortable with local politics, namely, with Town Meeting. It is supposed to be a representative body, but in practice, it is not.
I have found it incredibly difficult to learn about where Town Meeting members stand on issues. I have not met my Town Meeting representatives personally, and with a baby at home, I have not been able to attend the actual meetings.
I was recently interested in learning how my Town Meeting representatives felt about the net- zero energy building article, so I made an effort to contact them. The link to phone numbers on the town website was broken (it has since been fixed), but I was able to find physical addresses. I sent out 24 letters with my phone number, e-mail, and physical address, and asked for a response. Only three of my representatives responded — four if I count one member reporting for her spouse as well as herself.
Since then, I have heard from longtime Amherst residents that Town Meeting is intended to be representative in a different way: members do not answer their constituents, but rather represent a cross section of Amherst. They represent us, therefore, by simply voting their conscience.
However, the composition of Town Meeting differs from Amherst as a whole: for example, the average age of its members is greater than the Amherst average, and members are more likely to be white and own a home.
Judged in one way or the other, then, Town Meeting falls short of representing us. It may be possible to remedy the situation by recruiting more diverse members to serve.
It would be far simpler, however, to try a different model. I support the council-manager charter that will be on the ballot in March 2018. I would rather deal with two representatives than with 24, especially if they have a clear duty to engage with and respond to constituents.
Making this change will bring greater transparency and participation to Amherst.
RICK HOOD: Says Town Meeting members lack details
The example the writer cites in her letter of Dec. 8 (“Town Meeting reflects community values”) highlights the problem with Town Meeting.
It has the authority to micromanage budgets, but most members do not have a deep enough understanding of the budgets to thoughtfully weigh the pros and cons of an issue. And, as mentioned by many, they are not really accountable to anyone.
From my six years experience on the School Committee, I can tell you that even being deeply familiar with the issues it can still be difficult to know what is the right decision. If it’s difficult for School Committee members, it’s impossible for Town Meeting members.
Not stated in the letter was that the School Committee already had restored cuts to the library aides budget line item — approximately two-thirds — just not all of it. The $30,000 voted by Town Meeting was the remainder.
The School Committee had come to a carefully considered compromise to restore most of the full cuts, which had been recommended by the principals and superintendent. The key words are “carefully considered.”
PETER DEMLING: Charter would strengthen two key elements
I encourage you to join me on March 27 in voting Yes for the new town charter. It is the most positive thing we can do for the future of our town and our schools.
The charter provides us with two key elements missing in our government today: a structure to ensure informed decision-making, and a direct line of clear accountability to the general public.
The need to improve how informed our decision-makers are became apparent last year during the Town Meeting discussion and vote on the school building project. Some Town Meeting members said later they would have supported the project if they had known that the state funding authorities did not allow changes to the proposal, as had often been claimed. The reality is that we forfeited the $34 million grant we competed for, and have to start over again.
The prospect of quickly moving through the state aid pipeline in the future also influenced many well-meaning Town Meeting members. But only after these important votes had passed were the facts clearly heard and learned by all: even in a best-case scenario, it will now take at least until the 2030s to complete the construction of two new school buildings with state aid.
A thorough conversation among representatives may have cleared up this and other misinformation. But Town Meeting rules restrict deliberation to a sequence of disconnected and wide-ranging individual statements, with little opportunity for in-depth response, follow-up questions and a chance for all members to speak. This structure inhibits the sincere attempts of members to have a full and meaningful exchange of ideas and a complete vetting of presented information. Claims go unchallenged; misunderstandings are allowed to remain.
This will change under the new charter. Instead of a 254-member body meeting twice a year with limited ability to deliberate, a 13-member council will meet year-round with the full deliberation and public input of open meetings.
On the School Committee, I have seen that a small group of elected representatives, meeting regularly for in-depth, detailed and public discussions, clears away misinformation, and is essential for fully understanding the views of others. Deliberating in this way demands more effort and time; but in my experience, it is the only way to achieve clarity prior to making important decisions.
Open meetings also establish a direct line of accountability to the general public. The School Committee gathers public comment at every monthly meeting, and unlike Town Meeting, we’re required by law to deliberate as a group only during these open meetings. This shines a strong, public spotlight on our actions, demanding that we remain responsive and answerable to the people we represent. The same open meeting laws will apply to the Town Council, which will hear even further public input at local district meetings and public forums.
The public connection thus established, competitive elections will provide the all-important check that representatives are acting in accordance with the public will. Campaigning for School Committee was demanding – as it should be! I had to move outside my comfort zone, and talk to many new people whose viewpoints challenged my previous assumptions. As a result, I have a much broader understanding of how complex school topics affect people differently, and the public has a much better sense of where I stand on issues.
In contrast, many Town Meeting members repeatedly run unopposed, without active campaigns, and few voters can name their 24 representatives, let alone state any of their positions. There isn’t the strong voter connection and robust electoral accountability that a much smaller and open Town Council will provide.
I saw parents and teachers lined up at Town Meeting to speak about the building project, but not given the chance to have their voices heard before the vote was cast – and I knew it was time for a change.
I followed the Charter Commission’s work closely, and I respect the outcome of a process involving an enormous amount of research, deliberation, public engagement and compromise, resulting in a proposal that provides the important missing pieces of government that we clearly need today.
Both the public and our representatives who wish to serve the public good deserve a system built upon a foundation of informed and open decision-making, empowered by strong electoral accountability. A Yes vote on March 27 makes this possible.
Peter Demling is a member of the Amherst School Committee and a parent of three students in the Amherst Regional Public Schools. He has been a resident of Amherst for ten years and is employed as a Software Engineer at MIT.
SARAH MARSHALL: Responds to charter opponents’ concerns
I moved to Amherst more than six years ago and am following the debates on Facebook, in blogs, and in the Gazette among four groups about the merits of the current vs. proposed forms of town government (“Charter jockeying in full swing,” Jan. 6).
I will not address all the reasons why I support the Charter Commission’s proposal, but want to comment on some of the objections and concerns raised by opponents of the charter. First, there are dire warnings about the influence of “Big Money.” However, the debates developing on Facebook (a free platform available to anyone over the age of 13), the coverage of the proposed charter in this newspaper, and the outpourings of volunteer effort suggest that funding is not necessary to mount a vigorous campaign for a council seat.
Second, opponents claim that the new charter will reduce democracy and eliminate checks and balances. I very much doubt that the commonwealth’s attorney general would have approved a proposed charter that kills our democratic process. The apocalyptic tone of opponents’ comments is entirely unwarranted by the choice before us.
Third, some of the opposition seems to be extraordinarily pessimistic about the ability of Amherst voters to discover the backgrounds, experience, records of service and policy preferences of candidates for town council seats, should we adopt the charter.
In contrast, I envision lengthy, robust debates that will give anyone who cares to follow them ample basis for a choice — certainly, more information than we have now when voting for Town Meeting members.
LAURA DRAUCKER: Voting yes will give us all the ability to hold our elected representatives accountable...
Columnist John O. Fox (“Responds to column opposing Town Meeting,” Nov. 17) makes the assertion that Amherst’s town website allows voters, by a simple click, to email their concerns to every Town Meeting member.
While the website appears to offer a one-click solution, Town Meeting members are not required to participate and many don’t.
According to the Amherst town clerk, as of Nov. 21 only 14 of 24 Town Meeting members in my precinct have signed up to receive emails from constituents. Townwide, only 68 percent (164 out of 240) Town Meeting members have opted into Amherst’s online communication platform.
In fact, the email platform was only made available in January of this year, mere days before Town Meeting was scheduled to revisit its decision to turn away $34 million in state grants to fund new elementary schools. Before the system launched last January, I had to hand deliver letters to my Town Meeting representatives with a 3-week old child in tow, because I felt that strongly about the future of our town. I also sent an email when it was made available.
In both cases, I have no idea how many of my representatives read my words. Being represented by Town Meeting members that are able to opt out of communication with me is not acceptable.
I believe voting yes on March 27 will give us all the ability to hold our elected representatives accountable. At a minimum, we will have their email addresses and two district meetings a year for actual two-way communication. I may even push for a GroupMe.
HEATHER SHELDON: I want meaningful choices at the ballot box...
Amherst is great a place to live, but this is no time to rest on our laurels. Our community faces significant challenges: addressing our deteriorated infrastructure (school buildings, DPW, Fire Station and Library), preparing for a post fossil fuel economy, reducing our high tax burden, amongst others.
These challenges will require tough choices and they shouldn’t be made without the input of the full citizenry. Those with the loudest voices and time to show up at every meeting in town deserve to be heard, but so do the rest of us.
I support the proposed new charter for Amherst because it will give the thousands of us who are not able to be Town Meeting members a seat at the table. This will be done through the ballot box.
Right now, we have no campaigns for the majority of our elected “representatives”. In precinct 5 last year, I was able to find next to no information about the views of most of the Town Meeting candidates I was to vote for, making it impossible for me to select candidates that would advocate for those issues I cared about—essentially silencing my vote by making it arbitrary. And just as importantly, there were only 9 candidates for the 8 available seats. After significant effort to research the candidates, the thought occurred to me, “Why am I bothering? My vote doesn’t matter anyway.” It is no wonder that Amherst has abysmal voter turnout, even below our very concerning national average of abysmal voter turnout.
Under our new charter, Town Council candidates will run in competitive elections with active campaigns that allow voters to assess the fitness and views of candidates. Once in office, the councilors will be forced to talk about the reasons they vote one way over another, as our new council will meet regularly and each councilor will have ample opportunity to speak. No longer will those who “represent” us be able to hide in the Town Meeting crowd and deliberate in secrete. All this will allow me to make meaningful choices at the ballot box.
I want there to be a range of opportunities for direct participation in town government so that whatever my interest and ability to participate is, I can be heard. Representative Town Meeting does not provide this range of opportunities.
EVAN ROSS: Strengthen our local democracy...
With national attention focused on the state of our democracy, Amherst residents have an opportunity to strengthen our local democracy on March 27 by passing the new proposed charter. The charter modernizes Amherst government by creating a year-round town council system, bringing our town of 37,000 in line with our neighbors in Northampton and Holyoke, and makes elected officials more accountable and accessible to Amherst voters. Right now the average Amherst voter likely can’t name all 24 of their elected town meeting members. And during a time when so many are feeling burnt out consistently calling Congress, the prospect of contacting 24 town meeting members to discuss local issues is both daunting and unreasonable. The proposed council system will simplify this so that each voter knows their representatives and can easily contact them. It allows for a more engaged citizenry, and makes sure town representatives hear the voices of their constituents and are accountable to their voters. The proposed charter will also move the town elections to November, in sync with the timing of other elections. This will increase voter turnout. Voter turnout in the 2017 town elections was a low 22%, and in some precincts turnout was as low at 8%! Moving the election to when voters are more accustomed to voting means people are more likely to show up. In making town representatives more accessible and accountable, and by increasing voter turnout in local elections, the town charter modernizes and strengthens Amherst democracy.
GINNY HAMILTON: I want local officials to represent me, not just themselves...
As many people did, after the 2016 presidential election I made a commitment to contact my elected officials regularly about issues that matter to me. I saved numbers for my federal and state Senators and Representatives in my phone, signed up for e-news, and followed them all on social media. From my Senators down to School Committee members, I know their names and faces, how to contact them, and where they stand on issues important to me. They keep me informed on important decisions where my voice needs to be heard. I participate year-round.
And then there is Amherst Town Meeting. If pressed, I can name six of the 24 members from my precinct because they are neighbors or friends. But even if I knew all 24, it would not make a difference since “representative” town meeting is intended to represent me statistically, not directly.
I will vote Yes on March 27 for local officials to represent me, not just themselves. As a resident, voter, tax payer, parent, citizen, I am more than a statistic. I want to be represented directly. Our current system feels an awful lot like taxation without representation.
– Ginny Hamilton
JOHANNA NEUMANN: Time has come for accountable year-round government...
RICK HOOD: Town Meeting is not really accountable to anyone...
Town Meeting has the authority to micro-manage budgets, but most members do not have a deep enough understanding of the budgets to thoughtfully weigh the pros and cons of an issue. And as mentioned by many, they are not really accountable to anyone.
From my 6 years experience on the School Committee, I can tell you that even being deeply familiar with the issues, it can still be difficult to know what the right decision is. If it’s difficult for School Committee members, it’s impossible for Town Meeting members.
Town Meeting Member Precinct 4, former School Committee member, 2010-2016
ALAN & AMY HARCHIK: Proposed form of government will be responsive and accountable...
We are writing to support the new governance plan for Amherst and urge all Amherst residents to support it, too, with a yes vote on March 27. We believe that the proposed form of government will be responsive, accountable, and effective. Having a Town Council that meets regularly, year-round, and that is small enough to deliberate while representing all the voters, is the missing piece that we need. The proposal keeps what is already working (professional town manager, citizen boards and committees) while providing new ways for residents to be heard (district meetings, town forums).
Alan and Amy Harchik
STEVE SCHREIBER: With a Town Council, our legislators will be accountable for their votes...
I have been a proud Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member from Precinct 9 for the past 8 years. I grew up in a small town in New England–Open Town Meeting was an effective way for that community to govern itself. Amherst’s form of government is highly problematic, as it is basically a Very Large Town Council with 240 elected members! There is a disconnect between the voters at large and RTM members. Precincts are non-functional. Proposed by-laws and budgets are changed on the floor of RTM without public hearings or consultation with the voters at large.
Attendance is abysmal—some recorded votes are barely above a quorum.
With a Town Council of 13, precincts will become well organized, and our legislators will be accountable for their votes. For those who think that it will be easy to influence a council of 13, take a look at the Charter Commission itself—that commission of 9 met regularly for a year and a half and still only mustered a 5-3-1 vote. (and had almost perfect attendance).
LEE BOWIE: The proposed new Charter will empower Amherst voters...
December 29, 2017
To the editor,
Maybe in a community populated by more perfect voters, voters unlike me, our representative Town Meeting would work well. For example, I am fortunate to live in a precinct in which elections for Town Meeting are often contested. So I at least have the opportunity through my vote to make my hopes and fears count for something. Many of my fellow Amhersteans are in precincts with chronically uncontested elections and in which whoever takes it upon themselves (or can be persuaded) to run, wins. Too bad for those voters.
But even in my contested precinct, I confess that I am not a perfect voter. It is not easy to unearth statements from TM candidates, and I confess that I don’t always make the effort. Do you? As a result I usually have little idea what the candidates stand for, and have to cast my vote based on name recognition. But if, under the proposed new Charter, there were a contested election with only two seats for my district (and three at-large seats), I know I would read candidate statements and cast an informed vote. So candidates would take positions on important issues and actually be elected as a result of the views they hold, not because their names are familiar. I count this as a major advance.
There are so many other advantages to the proposed structure, and I have space to mention one: preferential, or ranked-choice, balloting. This allows me to vote for a “fringe” candidate whom I nevertheless support, without being afraid that I will be “wasting my vote”. If my candidate is eliminated, my vote will automatically shift to my next-preferred candidate, and on up the line until my vote is eventually cast for whichever of the last two candidates I prefer.
The proposed new Charter will empower Amherst voters. I hope others will join me in supporting the Charter at the March election.
Lee Bowie, a 20-year Amherst resident, is a retired professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke.
ELLEN BROUT LINDSEY: The new Town Council will be more responsive, nimble, and proactive...
Reading the Charter Commission Final Report that recently arrived in my mailbox, I found myself nodding in agreement as I read about the proposed Carter – in particular, the 13-member Town Council that will offer year-round, accountable town government.The proposed Town Council will meet regularly, year round – as opposed to Town Meeting gathering just twice a year – and is small enough for real discussion and deliberation, no just speaking at each other. The Council will be involved in shaping decisions, not just voting at the end, and Councilors will have time to fully understand each issue before each vote. And, best of all, the Council members will be accountable for their votes.
I came to Amherst 13 years ago from San Francisco, drawn to a thriving town that cares deeply about investing in the future and understands the importance of staying vibrant for my daughter’s generation. The new Town Council will be more responsive, nimble, and proactive than our current form of government and is a huge step in the right direction to keeping Amherst on the list of the “best places to live.”
If you haven’t leafed through the final Charter report yet, I urge you to do so. And please join me in voting in favor of the Charter in March.
Ellen Brout Lindsey
PETER VICKERY: New level of accountability...
There are some eminently reasonable objections to switching to a town council and manager, but the suggestion that the switch will engender untrammeled development is not among them. If the 13-member council tried to flout the will of the majority (e.g. by caving in to developers) the electorate would have recourse to the one of the most effective tools in the citizen’s toolkit, i.e. the ability to vote the rascals out.
In fact, this new level of accountability is one of my primary reasons for supporting the proposal. Were councilors to try to fundamentally transform our town against the wishes of the voters, they would have to account for themselves at the next election. That is a consequence that individual Town Meeting members never have to seriously consider.
Plus, which nearby town has big-box stores and a mall: Easthampton, with its town council; or Hadley, with its town meeting?
Peter Vickery, Esq.
ERIC EINHORN: Once again, Town Meeting has shown its limitations...
While the North Amherst Library is clearly antiquated and challenging for some patrons, it is regrettable that Town Meeting chose to insist on spending a substantial sum of money to plan undefined upgrades (“Library upgrades advance,” Nov. 17).
We elect library trustees and a Select Board to manage thoughtful and realistic planning. Amherst faces substantial capital expenditures to meet long deferred needs.
I doubt that the North Amherst Library, cute and historic as it may be, outweighs projects of much higher priority. It is not clear to me that Amherst needs a marginal branch library in need of major upgrades when it is planning to renovate and upgrade the Jones Library. The Jones Library is readily accessible from North Amherst (a distance of about two miles) and well served by public transit.
Once again, Town Meeting has shown its limitations.
Eric S. Einhorn
ANDY STEINBERG: Opportunity for year-round effective government...
This week Amherst voters received a copy of the Charter Commission report and the proposed charter for a new form of government.
Voters will decide on March 27 whether to adopt the new charter, which will replace a separate five-member Select Board and 254-member Town Meeting with a 13-member council. As a member of Town Meeting since 1996, a former member and chair of the Finance Committee, and a member of the Select Board since 2014, I support the new charter. It will improve the way that our government functions and will more clearly reflect the priorities of voters.
In small communities, Town Meetings offer a true form of democracy. Every voter is entitled to attend meetings that last part of a day and decide whether to adopt budgets and bylaws, usually twice a year. Select Boards meet throughout the year to administer the government. Because of their knowledge of issues confronting their town, they propose bylaws and budgets to Town Meetings.
In larger towns, open Town Meetings are unworkable, so an elected “representative” Town Meeting sometimes fulfills those functions. Since 1938, representative Town Meeting is the form of government we have had in Amherst, the largest municipality in Hampshire County.
Amherst’s population is now six times larger than what it was in 1938 and the world has only grown more complex. Our town has outgrown occasional government. The proposed charter offers us year-round democracy in the form of a council and professional town manager.
A council/manager form of government is the most common form of municipal government in this country. The council meets throughout the year, approves budgets, and new bylaws, and supervises the town manager.
Councilors are continuously involved in government. They will have the information to understand the long-term consequences of decisions they make. Bylaws will be fully developed before being adopted.
Compare this year-round democracy to our current model of occasional governance. The 254 members of our representative Town Meeting convene twice each year. Serving on Town Meeting does not require any involvement in government between sessions. Town Meeting is not involved with the implementation of its decisions. Most members are not involved in developing proposed bylaws and budgets for consideration at future Town Meetings.
The zero-energy bylaw enacted at the most recent Town Meeting exemplifies the consequence of a process that required a decision on a specific date. There was wide support for a zero-energy building policy. Town Meeting was anxious to act. There were provisions in the bylaw as presented that will make it difficult if not impossible to implement and may have unintended consequences. A council would have brought all required expertise to a process that could address those issues and passed the bylaw after the problems were resolved.
At the last two spring Town Meetings, amendments were made to the proposed budgets. Because they are not involved in long-term financial planning and management of town government, most Town Meeting members could not consider the consequences of these decisions. A council that meets throughout the year will have that knowledge.
A council will provide a more informed, efficient and effective government for Amherst than a separate representative Town Meeting and Select Board. It will also more clearly respond to the wishes of voters, the core of a democratic government.
I have run for and been elected to both Town Meeting and the Select Board. The experience of campaigning and serving is different. Candidates for Town Meeting put their name on the ballot with only their signature. There is no real campaign.
A petition with 50 valid signatures is required to run for Select Board. Candidates ask for support in the form of donations, endorsements, lawn sign placements and, of course, a vote.
There is an opportunity to talk with a large number of voters about why I am a candidate, what I offer, and my vision for Amherst and to hear from them about their priorities and concerns. Because there are a few candidates for a small number of positions, there is focus on the election and the candidates.
After election, I understand the expectations of voters and consider those expectations with every significant vote. A council election will provide this level of citizen engagement. A representative Town Meeting is not structured to allow that democratic process.
A yes vote on March 27 offers Amherst the opportunity to have a year-round effective government in which we can all participate through a democratic process. I hope we seize that opportunity.
Andy Steinberg is a member of the Amherst Select Board. He was executive director of Western Massachusetts Legal Services, which provides legal aid to people living in poverty, for 27 years.
CHRISTIANE HEALEY: Amherst town council would be transparent, accountable...
I have served for five years on the Amherst Conservation Commission, which is governed by the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law and conflict-of-interest laws.
It never occurred to me that the same may not apply to Town Meeting. This seems to be a particularly egregious violation of the spirit of democracy in our town. The 240 members of Town Meeting are free to discuss the Town Meeting articles and their votes well outside of any public scrutiny, through various electronic mailing lists and other off-the-record means of communicating among themselves.
Plus, there are no rules against voting on issues on which a member’s business interests may influence their vote. For example, landlords can vote on the very rental property regulations that may deeply affect their own businesses.
In terms of transparency and accountability, it does not help that the public is not privy to Town Meeting members’ decision-making process before a vote. This is unlike smaller town government bodies, such as the Conservation Commission and the School Committee, whose members discuss agenda items during public meetings.
Open meeting and conflict-of-interest laws are important. So is transparency and accountability. These are some of the important reasons why I support the town council proposed by the Charter Commission.
For the future of our local democracy, I hope you will vote for the new proposal in March.
FARAH AMEEN: The current Town Meeting model does not work...
Recently, I asked my 7-year-old if she wanted to have a lemonade stand to raise money for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. “But I want to raise money for Puerto Rico or teen space in Jones Library,” she said.
Though I love my daughter’s activist spirit, I was disappointed — not that she wanted to help hurricane survivors, but because she and I are from Bangladesh. I’d just read about a Rohingya mother whose baby was thrown into a fire. I could not explain the horrors of genocide to my child.
There is no avoiding bad news. Hurricanes, earthquakes, genocide, bombs, deportations — not to mention an incompetent president — are all out of my control. But I know I can take small steps at the local level toward positive change.
My family has been active in our community. My husband served as a Jones Library trustee for several years. I regularly volunteer at our child’s school. Last winter I got involved in the Vote Yes for Amherst campaign, canvassing to move forward on a plan to upgrade our elementary schools that had near-unanimous support of our elected town officials.
Now, instead of working toward affordable preschool options for all, moving toward real integration, and bringing our schools into the 21st century (Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, LEED certification, natural light), committees are back to studying site feasibility and Band-Aid enrollment changes.
Stop taking stopgap measures, Amherst. The only way forward is to change the way our town is governed. We need to ensure our community doesn’t make decisions that benefit only a few.
The current Town Meeting model does not work. A majority of our Town Meeting members are elderly, white and affluent. I don’t doubt that most of them mean well and many cast votes that serve the racially and economically diverse Amherst of today rather than the whiter, wealthier Amherst of 30 years ago.
But overall, Town Meeting is resistant to change and comfortable making decisions without input from most of Amherst. For example, when a group of parents of color with young children in Amherst showed up at Town Meeting last January to voice support for the school plan, none of us was given a chance to speak before the vote was called.
Proponents of the current system of Town Meeting that I hear from are all Town Meeting members themselves. They feel Town Meeting is very representative and want to maintain the status quo.
Let’s vote for a manager-council system that would consist of 13 people taking all our voices into consideration. That would mean no more having to write and call all 24 Town Meeting members in your precinct (prohibitive and ineffective). It would also mean actually getting a response to the fewer letters and calls to council members you would make. A Town Council would be considerably more representative because it would be accountable to all of us.
We don’t have any immediate control over natural disasters, terrorist attacks, racial profiling and the idiot-in-chief. We can, however, influence how we govern and what decisions we make for our town, so the next generation has better options than we do.
Please vote “yes” in March.
Bangladeshi-American writer/editor Farah Ameen and her family moved to Amherst eight years ago from New York City.
MEREDITH MICHAELS: Town Meeting is neither democratic nor representative...
Cites fundamental Town Meeting flaw
Just a brief comment on John Fox’s response to Elizabeth Markovits’ letter about the drawbacks of Amherst’s current iteration of Town Meeting.
I am confident that Professor Markovits knows that women and slaves were not citizens in ancient Athens and hence were not participants in the democratic polis.
If, as she argues, Town Meeting is not representative, it is not due to such categorical exclusion but rather to its failure to inspire the active participation of voters and the accountability of Town Meeting members. Too few people run for Town Meeting and too few voters show up to vote for those who do. As has been ably documented in Charter Commission discussions, voter participation in both of these regards has been increasingly dismal (a notable exception being the new school vote earlier this year).
There are lots of reasons why people might choose not to participate in this hybridized form of Town Meeting, either as voters or as members. The reasons are clearly spelled out in a variety of venues (abetteramherst.org provides a public forum for the exchange of views).
Like Professor Markovits, I am persuaded that tweaking Town Meeting cannot address the fundamental flaw in its constitution: while it aspires to be democratic and representative, it is neither.
Mr. Fox is owed thanks for his dedicated service to the town. But the fact that someone can be a Town Meeting member for three decades is itself a symptom of the problem.
Meredith W. Michaels
The writer is a retired professor of philosophy at Smith College in Northampton.
NICK GRABBE: Town Meeting is unaccountable...
Amherst Town Meeting will convene Nov. 6 for the last time before voters decide on a proposal to replace it with a 13-member council.
I applaud the civic involvement of Town Meeting members, who devote about 35 hours a year to volunteer government. But as an institution, Amherst Town Meeting is a relic that is not well suited to dealing with 21st-century challenges.
Here are some reasons why I think Amherst residents should vote “yes” on March 27 to approve the Charter Commission’s recommendation to end Town Meeting.
It’s unaccountable: Town Meeting members don’t need to communicate with residents because most of them can easily get re-elected, often based on just name recognition. They don’t have to represent anyone’s views but their own. Most residents can’t name the Town Meeting members from their precincts.
It doesn’t reflect the population: Town Meeting members are older, whiter and wealthier than registered voters. The University of Massachusetts political science department found that 93 percent of Town Meeting members were white, compared to 79 percent of voters. While 49 percent of voters owned homes, 80 percent of Town Meeting members were homeowners. The average age of voters was found to be 39, compared to 59 for Town Meeting members.
It’s ill-informed: Two members of the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee recently made these statements. “There’s not enough information to make decisions,” said John Hornik, in advocating for a new advisory committee. Chris Riddle said he understands zoning better than most people, and yet many proposals are “above my head.”
It’s not deliberative: Town Meeting comes in at the end of a long process of developing proposals, and doesn’t have the time to fully consider their implications. It doesn’t even set its own agenda. Most members are not involved in the discussion of proposals that precedes Town Meeting.
It isn’t nimble: Town Meeting doesn’t meet frequently, so it can’t deal with the crises and opportunities of a fast-paced world. Its schedule requires the town manager to form a budget long before he knows how much state money to expect.
High taxes: There are multiple reasons why Amherst property taxes are so high, and decisions made by Town Meeting are one factor. Amherst’s annual residential taxes averaged $7,269 last year, compared to $5,068 in Northampton and $3,723 in Hadley.
It’s uninspiring to voters: Participation in local elections has been declining, and averaged 10.2 percent of registered voters from 2011 to 2015, reaching a low of 6.6 percent in 2013. Turnout increased for the last two years only because there were items on the ballot prompted by displeasure with Town Meeting.
It’s uninspiring to candidates: Many voters have no choices, or minimal choices, of candidates when they go to vote. That’s because not enough residents have declared an interest in serving to create competition for seats, despite the fact that it now takes only one signature (one’s own) to get on the ballot.
It’s secretive: Town Meeting members don’t have to abide by the state’s Open Meeting Law, so they can create private discussion groups that non-members can’t access. And they are exempt from conflict-of-interest laws, so they can vote on articles that affect their personal financial interests.
It’s expensive: Twice a year, many Town Hall staff are preoccupied with preparing for Town Meeting. During the sessions, many have to sit in the gallery in case they are needed, accumulating compensatory time. Mailings to 240 people are a waste of money.
It’s easily influenced: A small number of loud voices dominate the debate. Misinformation often goes uncorrected before a vote. A determined minority can have an outsized impact on Town Meeting members who don’t understand an issue fully.
It’s exclusionary: The 99 percent of registered voters who are not Town Meeting members have few ways to influence decisions. The slow pace and the large time commitment deter many residents from joining. Town Meeting is an aristocracy of people with lots of time.
Some think Amherst Town Meeting resembles the famous Norman Rockwell painting in which a regular guy gets up and says his piece. But that type of “open” Town Meeting, which exists in small towns and typically lasts only one day, was discarded by Amherst voters almost 80 years ago.
On March 27, I hope Amherst voters will decide that it’s time for another change. I hope they will conclude that an accountable, deliberative 13-member council that meets regularly year round will do a better job of representing their interests.
Nick Grabbe, a former Bulletin editor and reporter, is a Charter Commission member and co-author of a blog that can be accessed at abetteramherst.org.
LIZ MARKOVITS: Amherst's Town Meeting isn't direct democracy...
In ancient Athens, democracy meant that every citizen was part of the decision-making body of the city, the ekklesia.
It was a large-scale, directly democratic institution, much like the classic New England town meeting. In both settings, people came together to discuss, reflect and make decisions as a group of peers. The radical democracy of Athens provides spectacular evidence for the power of self-government.
Here in New England, we’ve long prided ourselves on preserving one of the last vestiges of direct democracy — real democracy — in an increasingly professionalized political world. This faith in the intelligence and decision-making of everyday citizens, and the sense of community generated by coming together to take responsibility for a shared life together, is a rare shining light in an era of democratic discontent.
But there are problems with this vision — at least here in Amherst.
In Amherst, we don’t actually have such a radically democratic model in place. We scrapped it in 1938, when the town moved from an open, participatory model to an elected, “representative town meeting.”
Now we have a weird hybrid model that fails to deliver on the democratic promise of the original institution of a truly open, participatory town meeting — while also lacking the crucial mechanisms of accountability that are the hallmarks of true representative institutions.
In my academic field, political science, there are ongoing, vigorous debates about what representation really means, how it works, how to ensure the democratic character of representation, and so on. But even amid all this debate, political scientists generally agree that in order to have representation, there must be some mechanism by which voters can hold their representatives accountable.
Voters must be able to figure out what was decided, and why. And they must be able to hold representatives responsible for those decisions (usually through voting them out of office, which requires open and competitive elections). Without such mechanisms in place, we creep toward oligarchy — a political environment in which a small group of privileged citizens who are able to devote time and resources to governance control government, without being accountable to the rest of the citizenry.
To be sure, some supporters of Town Meeting argue that it was never meant to be representative in this sense. Rather, it’s like a “representative sample” of citizens. Yet Town Meeting fails on this count as well. Research consistently shows that Town Meeting is whiter, wealthier and older than both the general and the voting population of Amherst. In 2015, the average age of voters was 39 but Town Meeting was 59; voters were 21 percent non-white but Town Meeting was only 7 percent non-white; 49% of voters were homeowners but 80 percent of Town Meeting members were.
Town Meeting in no way reflects the tremendous diversity that drew me to Amherst, and it fails to capture the true power of direct democracy — the intelligence of the entire citizenry, known in Athens as the demos.
This might be mitigated if Town Meeting were actually an open forum for discussion, as many supporters often claim. This is simply not the case. Many of us advocating for a change in government for Amherst got involved in this effort after being shut out of conversations.
If Town Meeting members can call the vote with a line of voters waiting to speak at the meeting, then this problem will always exist. And without a way to hold those Town Meeting members who ignore their fellow citizens to account, we have institutionalized a deeply undemocratic form of government — a form it’s time to change.
Amherst’s “representative town meeting” isn’t direct democracy. Nor is it even a decent model of representative democracy. Right now in Amherst, we have the worst of both worlds — a smaller number of demographically unrepresentative representatives making decisions in an electoral system that largely shields them from accountability.
Who do I call when I want to advocate for better gun control at the national level? Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Jim McGovern. At the state level? Solomon Goldstein-Rose and Stan Rosenberg. And if they are unresponsive to the citizens’ wishes, we know exactly who to vote out.
But who do I call for a better crosswalk near my child’s school? The answer should not be to reach out to 24 Town Meeting members in my precinct, let alone all 240 in the town.
In March, we’ll vote on a manager-council system. Is it perfect? Of course it isn’t. But it is far more democratic than the system we have in place today.
Elizabeth K. Markovits has lived in Amherst for nine years and is a parent of two children attending Amherst public schools. She is an associate professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.