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Columnist Jim Oldham: Where’s leadership and accountability in Amherst Charter Commission proposal?



Thursday, July 20, 2017

Those who have been advocating for a change in our form of local government have argued that we need a structure that provides clearer leadership and greater accountability to voters.

Yet after more than a year of study and deliberation, the Charter Commission has put forward a draft proposal that offers neither. In fact, if adopted, the new structure will further diffuse political leadership while reducing opportunities for residents to have meaningful input on decisions or hold officials accountable.

Leadership

Two years ago, in the press release announcing the effort to form the Charter Commission, Amherst for All, the group spearheading that endeavor, criticized the fact that Amherst “is led by a five-member Select Board and a Town Manager…. [T]his makes it hard to know who’s in charge. Who represents us with the state, the colleges, businesses, and citizens? … Who can we hold accountable for meeting the many challenges of maintaining Amherst’s quality of life?”

In a subsequent column published in March 2016, representatives of the same organization expanded on this concern, writing, “Whether by design or confusion, the current system has effectively dissolved any form of real accountability … We believe it should be clear who represents us, particularly as we strive to be an equal, competent partner in negotiations with our biggest landlords and employers, UMass and the colleges.”

Yet, whether by design or confusion, the draft charter, proposed by a five-member majority of the Charter Commission, would confer increased powers on an appointed town manager who is unable to provide political leadership, while putting the oversight of that manager in the hands of a town council of 13 members holding two-year terms.

If it has been hard for a five-member Select Board and the town manager to jointly provide effective leadership, replacing the Select Board with a council 2½ times as large, with members serving shorter terms, would only exacerbate those problems.

Accountability

In terms of accountability to voters, the draft proposal is striking in the way that it reduces the frequency of elections and limits voter control. With elections held only once every two years, rather than annually, it would be much harder for the public to express displeasure or to change the direction of government in response to particular decisions. Under the current system, with a third of every elected body up for re-election each year, it is much easier for voters to rapidly respond to a decision that displeases them or to elect candidates who advocate for a change of course.

Under the proposed charter, voters would also not have the ability to elect a new member of the town council if a seat becomes vacant between elections. Instead, council vacancies would be filled by a vote of the remaining council members, irrespective of when the seat becomes vacant.

Combined with holding elections every two years, this means that an early resignation, as recently occurred on the Amherst School Committee, could lead to a seat being held by an unelected person for close to two years. Considering that voters would have only two ward representatives, and that there would be just three at-large positions on the council, the loss of the opportunity to directly elect even one of these is significant. In contrast, our current government act requires a special election to fill any Select Board vacancy unless less than 90 days remain before the annual election.

The proposed charter would also take away the voters’ right to elect the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, instead making it appointed by the town council. The significance of this change may not be apparent to many, since in recent years the redevelopment authority has been inactive.

However, redevelopment authorities are extremely powerful bodies under Massachusetts law. Once established, they are largely autonomous and not answerable to municipal authorities. They exercise many powers related to property rights and redevelopment, including the power of eminent domain. They can acquire and dispose of property, relocate businesses and residents, and participate in commercial development. Given that it only requires an act of the legislative body—the town council under the proposed charter—to give the redevelopment authority a more active role, it is extremely worrying that the charter would also remove the voters’ ability to determine who could wield these powers in our town.

In the coming months we will hear a lot about supposed opportunities for residents’ participation in government under the new charter: there are requirements that the town manager and council president provide an annual state of the town address, and requirements for public hearings and ward meetings a few times a year.

None of this, however, provides a meaningful form of public accountability or control that justifies the significant reduction in the voters’ genuine ability to chose and change leaders in frequent elections.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.