What People Are Saying...
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: Wants to email representatives
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...
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).
KENDRA BROWN: Town Meeting fall short of representing us...
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.
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
JANE WALD: Charter will help to chart a steady course for Amherst’s future...
Letter to the Editor
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
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.