Columnist Richard S. Bogartz: Opposes charter, hopes for respect

Thursday, February 01, 2018

I thought maybe I should examine this Town Meeting vs. Town Council business and see if I could reach a preference. I had been reading about it in the Bulletin and I superficially perused the Charter Commission report that was sent in the mail, but my inclination was that it wouldn’t make all that much difference.

I was aware of one personal bias. I happen to believe that more minds working on a problem are more likely to arrive at a good solution than less minds will. Social Psychology tells us a small group will do better than individuals, even the best individuals, in solving a problem.

With two-, three-, or four-member-sized groups, the evidence I found was mixed. There didn’t seem to be any comparisons of 13-member vs. 240-member groups. There is lore about committee sizes that claims that committees can get so large that nothing can get done. Still, my bias persisted.

Bias didn’t seem enough to support a decision, so I decided to explore the Amherst for All, A Better Amherst, and Not This Charter web pages.

The name Amherst for All immediately raised my hackles. I am supposed to believe that a 13-member council is more for all of us than a 240-member Town Meeting? It is supposed to be easier for us to remove a council member than a Town Meeting member. We don’t know that.

A complaint is that the re-election rate is so high that removing a Town Meeting member is nearly impossible. On the one hand, the re-election rate may reflect the quality of the job being done. This is supported by the 95 percent agreement between Town Meeting decisions and Select Board decisions. But even if we want to make change in membership easier to achieve, it is pretty obvious that reducing the number of members and thereby making the races more competitive is a better answer than throwing out the whole works.

Another argument against Town Meeting is that there are just not enough meetings. It seems to me that more of an argument is needed here. What is the business that is not getting done? Some argue that the business gets done, but not well. The members do not do their homework, are not well informed, and so the business that gets done is unsatisfactory. But these claims need more specificity.

On the Amherst town website you can find “Annual Town Meeting 2018 begins on April 30, 2018. Additional dates of May 2, 3, 7, 9, 10, 14, 16, 17, 21, 23, 24, June 4, 7, 11, 2018 reserved.” Saying that Town Meeting meets only twice a year seems like not quite telling the whole story.

That the members are ignorant is a difficult case to make. If on any particular issue only 6 percent of the Town Meeting members are well informed, that subgroup is more numerous than would be the entire council. And, of course, they get to communicate to the other members.

The council supporters make much of the 68 percent attendance by Town Meeting members. I was unable to find how that figure is calculated. Perfect attendance? Mean number of people per meeting? But, however, 68 percent of 240 is 163 elected representatives. Even if council attendance is perfect, that’s 150 more representatives at Town Meeting than at council meetings.

One clincher for me is that Meg Gage and Barbara Partee, two people I have known long and respect greatly, are opposed to the council. So, now I am too.

I am disinterested in the minimally supported claims of which side is being supported by big money. Although there may be some involved in the issue who are in it for themselves, I believe that the vast majority on both sides are genuinely concerned with the improvement of Amherst.

Hopefully, when the decision is made we can respect one another even in the face of differences.

Richard S. Bogartz is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.