Columnist Connie Kruger: Wants charter to put her out of a job

Thursday, January 25, 2018

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.