Amherst Charter Commission calls for 60-member town council

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

AMHERST — A town council that would be the largest in Massachusetts is being proposed by the Charter Commission as part of sweeping changes for Amherst municipal government that would also see a mayor and chief administrative officer replace Town Meeting and the Select Board.

The commission on April 6 narrowly endorsed a 60-member council and a popularly elected mayor by a 5-4 majority. The reforms are expected to be voted on by residents next March.

Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said he is feeling good about the latest action, though he voted against the 60-member council because he felt it was too large. A council with that many members would be more than double the next largest, Newton’s 24-member council.

“I think it’s a positive that everyone on the commission has voted for a mayor and council with a professional management component,” Churchill said.

Under this plan, a mayor would lead policy development and represent residents as a whole, an administrative person would support the mayor, and a council meeting regularly would act as the legislative body.

“All that stuff seems to be a good combination of things for leadership and professional management,” Churchill said.

A draft report is expected from the commission in July with a final report coming at the end of September.

‘Middle ground’ option

Thursday’s vote was taken after two members, Meg Gage and Nick Grabbe, brought forward a “middle ground” proposal that aimed to gain a larger majority of the commission by promoting goals of broad and meaningful representation, executive leadership and professional management.

Though on opposite sides of preserving representative Town Meeting, with Gage for and Grabbe against, they hammered out the idea of eliminating Town Meeting, but ensuring a broad spectrum of representation.

“We have been asked why we haven’t come up with a compromise proposal,” Grabbe said. “Here it is.”

That proposal also called for a 60-member town council, but added the creation of a five-member executive committee from which a mayor would be selected.

Gage said the “middle ground” compromise would be a way to overcome the rancorous debate that has intensified over the failed school project as the commission tries to find a concept palatable for voters in replacing the structure of town government in place since 1954.

But the commission didn’t act on the “middle ground” proposal. Gage said she voted in favor of the new plan even though it is a worse proposal in part because it calls for direct election of a mayor.

“We’re quite conflicted about how large a council should be and whether we want a strong or weak mayor, or no mayor at all,” Gage said.

Gage was joined in support of the new proposal by Diana Stein, Julia Rueschemeyer, Irv Rhodes and Gerry Weiss.

Weiss said greater representation is important, and that he doesn’t want to throw that baby out with the water.

“I will not go below 60,” he said. “I think citizen participation is the baby in the water.”

But commission members Tom Fricke, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Churchill and Grabbe said the new proposal would have a council too large to be a deliberative body.

Still, Grabbe said he hopes tweaks will earn it support from the community.

“On the school vote some people took one little detail they didn’t like and used it as a reason to vote no,” he said. “We shouldn’t do the same thing.”

Churchill said the next opportunity to provide feedback and suggestions for how town government should function will come at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Jones Library.

Amherst for All’s take

Jerry Guidera, a spokesman for Amherst for All, said he is pleased there is consensus for a mayor-council, and now it’s a matter of debating the merits of its size.

“This is what I would call a radical change because it has a mayor-council management structure,” Guidera said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Hwei-Ling Greeney of McClellan Street said she would support any structure that has more elected representatives, and Maurianne Adams of Beston Street that she wouldn’t vote for a charter change if fewer than 60 residents are elected.

But Melissa Giraud of Merrick Circle said young parents will never be represented no matter how many members of the council there are, and Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Brewer said she was “upset” that people would demand a minimum of 60 members, which would be unwieldy.

Some commissioners felt urgency to reach a compromise based on what happened in Framingham, which, like Amherst, formed a Charter Commission in 2016. Despite 82 percent of Framingham voters agreeing to create the commission — an even higher percentage than the 60 percent in Amherst — and an 8-1 majority in favor of a strong mayor and 11-member council, the measure passed by only a 105-vote margin, 5,684 to 5,579.

But Guidera said that shouldn’t be seen as indicative of what might happen in Amherst, which has a longer history of looking at its charter.

Though voters have turned down a mayoral form of government in 1996, 2003 and 2005, the last proposal for a new charter was defeated by just 14 votes in 2003, and again by 252 votes in 2005.

Guidera said that even if narrowly recommended, a majority of parents are so disappointed in the outcome of the school vote that they are ready to vote out Town Meeting in favor of a strong mayor-council form of government.

“I’m totally confident that in the end people will support a new charter this time around, especially with the recent developments around the schools,” Guidera said.

In February, Gage made a compromise proposal to preserve Town Meeting by having its membership shrink but increase the frequency of sessions. That also didn’t convince enough commissioners to abandon their focus on proposing the creation of a council and making a mayor Amherst’s top executive.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com