Columnist Jim Oldham: Examine where power will lie under charter

Thursday, January 18, 2018

In government, it is important to know whose hands are on the wheel, who steers policy.

In the case of the proposal to change Amherst’s form of government, one needs to look beyond proponents’ slogans to discover how the Charter would shift power away from elected officials and the voters. Here are three of the unadvertised impacts, caused by the Charter Commission’s unusual decision to propose a city form of government but to replace a strong elected mayor with a strong manager.

Manager determines school budgets

The charter would allow the appointed manager to modify the budget for a school system he has no role in managing after it has been developed by the superintendent and School Committee. The same goes for the library budget.

This is very different from the current system, where the manager’s authority is limited to developing the municipal portion of the budget. In contrast, the charter would make the manager gatekeeper for all budgets. Here’s the text (Section 5.4):

“Not later than April 1, the proposed budgets adopted by the Amherst School Committee, Regional School Committee, and Library Trustees shall be submitted to the Town Manager.

“Not later than May 1, the Town Manager shall submit to the Town Council a proposed budget for the ensuing fiscal year, including municipal, school, and library components as ultimately determined by the Town Manager ...”

Note those final six words. Budgets currently set by our elected School Committee and library Board of Trustees, accountable to the public, will, if the charter passes, be determined by an administrator who isn’t answerable to the voters and whose primary responsibilities involve managing other town services that essentially compete with these budget areas for limited public funds.

Town Council’s limited budget input

The shift of power from elected officials to the appointed manager goes even further. While the 13-member Town Council would be responsible for approving the manager’s budget, the charter substantially limits the council’s options. It can “delete or decrease any programs or amounts” but cannot increase the total budget or even the amount of any one budget item. (See Section 5.5 of the charter.)

This means that if the charter passes, our elected representatives could not, as Town Meeting has done occasionally, add a small amount to the budget for a critical need, such as scholarships for low-income youth participating in LSSE summer programs, or funds to keep the pools open. They could not shift funds between line items or departments, based on public input, even if the bottom line remained unchanged.

The only exceptions (per state law) are additions to school budgets, if recommended by School Committee, or items requested by the council that the manager has omitted entirely from budget. Even then, council action is only possible with a two-thirds majority.

These limits on the council’s powers make a mockery of requirements that councilors hold district meetings or a public hearing on the budget. Why bother if they can’t act on constituents’ concerns?

In a mayoral system, limiting the council in these ways might not matter so much, because a mayor is also accountable to voters, but a town manager is not.

Manager appoints most committees

The charter also puts most committee appointments in the hands of the town manager, instead of sharing that responsibility with elected officials, as is the case currently. Volunteer committees play a hugely valuable role in our local government. Dealing with a range of issues including affordable housing, the needs of the town’s older residents, historic preservation, zoning, and more, these committees contribute hundreds of hours of work, expertise, and perspectives that complement those of town staff.

To be effective, these committees need to represent the multiple viewpoints found among town residents. A manager who cannot be held accountable at the voting booth is less likely to deliver this, as was demonstrated a few years ago when a former manager left Planning Board seats empty rather than appoint someone opposed to the majority agenda — an agenda that led to the construction of several large dormitory buildings downtown.

While the charter shifts Planning Board appointments to the Town Council, the manager will appoint most other committees. This will undermine the ability of bodies such as Public Shade Tree Committee, Human Rights Commission, Personnel Board, Agricultural Commission, CPA Committee, and others to serve the interests of the voters and to advocate for policies or spending that advance goals important to the public but not priorities for town administrators.

Given all the talk about accountability, it is important to see where power will really lie if voters approve this charter.

Jim Oldham, a Town Meeting member from precinct 5, directs Equity Trust, an Amherst-based nonprofit working nationally for land reform and economic justice. He is the father of two children, one a current Amherst Regional High School student, the other a graduate.