Editorial: Proposed 60-member council a mistake in Amherst

  • The Amherst Charter Commission holds a public hearing in May 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Amherst Charter Commission took a big step backward last week when it narrowly endorsed a 60-member town council as part of a package of reforms to replace representative Town Meeting and the Select Board.

Establishing the largest town or city council in the United States would create an unwieldy legislative body and it would not solve the problems of Town Meeting that a majority of the Charter Commission want to eliminate. Instead, the large council would likely complicate the process of effective town government.

More reasonable was the commission’s vote in December proposing a 13-member town council to replace Town Meeting, which has 240 seats. The plan for that smaller council called for one member elected in each of the town’s 10 precincts, and three elected townwide.

The shift to recommending a 60-member council occurred April 6 after two members of the Charter Commission, Meg Gage and Nick Grabbe, brought forward a “middle-ground” proposal that they hoped would appeal both to proponents and opponents of doing away with Town Meeting. However, we believe it is simply a repackaging of a smaller Town Meeting, which has been criticized for acting too independently from the rest of Amherst’s government, most recently in blocking the elementary school project.

The proposal was panned Tuesday night at a session held by the Charter Commission to hear from the public. It heard words like “grotesque” and “folly” used to describe a council with 60 seats. Many people said voters should be given a clear choice between retaining the current form of government – which includes a town manager appointed by the Select Board – or making a clean break to an elected mayor and smaller council.

We agree that attempting to compromise only dilutes the desired changes: a streamlined legislative body that meets frequently throughout the year, with the ability to advance its own agenda through resolutions or ordinances proposed by councilors that are voted on after informed debate.

By contrast, representative Town Meeting does not act as a true legislature because it can only approve or defeat measures placed on its warrant, but cannot change them, and its members do not propose legislation. Finance Committee member Bernie Kubiak has described Town Meeting as “240 people who essentially govern anonymously.”

Ray La Raja, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts who previously served as a Town Meeting member, contends in a letter to the Charter Commission: “Replacing a large Town Meeting with a large Town Council will not solve the structural challenges a large representative assembly poses. Having a large Town Council will provide relative anonymity for its members, with the result that most residents will not know who represents them and who to hold accountable for political decisions – just like Town Meeting.

“Moreover, compared to a small council, members of a large Town Council will have fewer incentives to campaign for votes, communicate with or respond to constituents because there is little competition for seats in a large legislature, particularly in a small town.”

A 60-member council is unprecedented in the state and nation. In Massachusetts, Newton has the largest council with 24 members. The Boston City Council has 13 members, and those in Northampton and Easthampton each have nine seats.

New York City has the largest council in the country, with each of its 51 members representing one district. That council convenes as a whole twice-monthly, and most of its legislative work occurs in frequent committee meetings and hearings.

Charter Commission members who backed the 60-member council in Amherst say they expect most of its work would be done by subcommittees. But that would increase the number of meetings requiring support from professional staff, and likely mean more expenses for the town.

The commission has not made any recommendations on how many of the 60 councilors would be elected at-large by the entire town and how many would be district representatives, or the length of their terms.

We support Amherst doing away with the representative Town Meeting form of government that it adopted in 1954. An elected mayor with an appointed chief administrative officer makes sense as the executives in charge of leading policy development.

But we strongly urge the Charter Commission to reconsider the size of the town council it will recommend in a draft report expected in July, leading to its final proposal that is due by Sept. 29. Amherst should consider Greenfield, which adopted a new charter in 2002, as a model. It changed from a five-member Select Board, 27-member Town Council and town manager to a mayor and 13-member council.

In this case, smaller is better for Amherst and will give the town a streamlined, more efficient government.