Compromise attempt fails in Amherst government debate

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2017

AMHERST — An effort to reach a compromise among members of the Charter Commission, which is charged with recommending changes to the form of town government, has failed to gain traction.

A proposal by member Meg Gage on Feb. 8 to preserve Town Meeting did not convince enough commissioners to abandon their focus on proposing the creation of a council and making a mayor Amherst’s top executive. Gage’s suggestion would have seen Town Meeting membership shrink while increasing the frequency of its sessions.

In December, a narrow 5-4 vote was taken in favor of pursuing strategies to eliminate Town Meeting and move toward a mayor and town council.

“I feel this is a true compromise. It would create a Town Meeting that is unrecognizable,” Gage said, noting that its membership would shrink from 240 to 60, and would meet up to a dozen times annually. Additionally, a bicameral legislative system would allow the Select Board, in certain cases, to overturn Town Meeting on issues like zoning and spending.

But Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said he wasn’t ready to backtrack.

“We need a clearer executive to move forward with some of the challenges we face,” Churchill said.

Gage said her goal was to avoid seeing a minority report issued alongside the group’s recommendations. A draft report is expected from the commission in July with a final report coming at the end of September. A ballot vote on a new charter is planned for March 2018.

“I would like to see if once and for all Amherst voters want to have a mayor-council,” said commission member Nick Grabbe.

Trying something truly representative and unique to Amherst would heal rifts in the community caused by votes like that of the Wildwood School project and various zoning initiatives, Gage said.

“It’s a shame, because we could create something much more creative,” Gage said.

Commission member Tom Fricke said he doesn’t worry that a minority report will be seen as a sign of dysfunction. It is incumbent on the commission to offer voters a clean, town council-based model, he said.

After moving on from Gage’s proposal, the commission voted 6-3 in favor of pursuing a strong mayor form of government. The commission recently heard testimony from Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and former Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan.

Gage, Diana Stein and Irv Rhodes supported retaining a professional manager while Churchill, Fricke, Grabbe, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Julia Rueschemeyer and Gerry Weiss voted in favor of giving executive power to a mayor.

Churchill said the idea is to make a mayor a point person and leader rather than leaving them with just ceremonial duties if Amherst retained a town manager.

Gage said that — along with the possible release of a minority report that could have four members urging voters to reject the commission’s proposal — the prospect of losing the town manager may not sit well with residents.

“It’s startling that we’ve had such excellent management for so many years that people are so eager now to go to a mayor,” Gage said.

But the strong mayor concept has support from Elisa Campbell, a former member of the Select Board. Campbell told the commission that Amherst residents should view Northampton as a model.

“I’d like to think we’re almost as good as Northampton, if not just as good,” Campbell said.