Mayor vs. manager debated in latest Amherst charter discussion

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2017

AMHERST — Not having a mayor in a possible future government structure in Amherst is disappointing to resident Amherst resident Amy Gates, who described her reaction as one of “shock and dismay” when she learned a manager is the executive in the latest Charter Commission proposal.

“I think it’s time for real change,” said Gates, of Spaulding Street. “I think it’s time for the next wave, the next generation, to do this.”

But Johanna Neumann of Stanley Street said Amherst has long had accountability, professionalism and rigor in its executives, and she worries that the town would no longer be insulated from political whims, especially if a mayor was in competition and conflict with councilors.

Theirs were among the divergent views from residents at a Charter Commission feedback session Thursday. The commission May 6 voted 7-0 to support an appointed manager as the executive and a 13-member council as the legislature.

The commission resumes its work Saturday, with an effort to get a draft proposal complete in July and a final proposal to residents in September. A townwide vote would be held in March.

Jerry Guidera, a spokesman for the pro-charter Amherst for All campaign, said as long as Town Meeting is eliminated in the proposal, supporters of either a manager or mayor will likely vote for this change.

“They were happy to see anything but Town Meeting, even if it was a three-legged elephant,” Guidera said.

Abby Jensen of Dana Street said a mayor would be more nimble than a manager. “I think a mayor has a vision. A town manager is exactly that: they manage day-to-day business.,” Jensen said.

That was a sentiment echoed by Ted Parker of Woodlot Road. “Nobody articulates a grand plan for solving some of the intractable problems for the proverbial can that gets kicked down the road,” Parker said.

Those who are current and former Select Board members were divided on their preferences.

Current Select Board member Connie Kruger said she doesn’t see a mayor as more accountable, wondering whether an official who would face the voters would have taken the risk to support the mixed-use project by Beacon Communities for North Amherst.

“I just feel more confident in a professional town manager,” Kruger said.

Fellow board member Andy Steinberg said he also appreciates professional management and that he trusts an elected council to set priorities, the budget and the direction for government

But Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Berwer said she doesn’t like a plan that gives the manager more authority, and prefers instead more accountability and more ability for residents to vote out those they don’t like.

Stephanie O’Keeffe of Butterfield Terrace, who served six years on the Select Board, said a strong mayor is the best way to guide and implement the community’s priorities.

O’Keeffe, who has she would consider running for the position if it is created in a new charter, said it is best to put staffing decisions with an elected person because that would ensure underperforming staff undermining government’s effectiveness could be terminated.

“I much prefer the notion of a mayor,” said John Coull of Sheerman Lane, pointing to the success of that government in Northampton, Easthampton and Greenfield.

Coull, who is O’Keeffe’s father, said the mayor would rely on the “next layer” of management and administrators. Coull also dismissed the idea that political experience is a necessity, pointing to Alex Morse, elected Holyoke mayor when he was 22.

A handful of those in attendance said they will vote against any change without Town Meeting. Jacqueline Maidana of Lessey Street called Town Meeting “the finest form of democracy” and argues the mayor would represent the power elite.

Amy Mittelman of Columbia Drive pointed to the good work of Town Meeting, such as saving library paraprofessionals’ jobs in the budget last year. Such an option for residents to make real changes in budgets wouldn’t be possible in a mayor-council or manager-council government, she said.

But others also endorsed having a mayor as a way to provide voters a real choice.

Larry Ely of Middle Street said Amherst needs someone who can be the face of the town and the “ribbon cutter, baby kisser,” while Elisa Campbell of Pine Grove said Amherst should be able to do as well as Northampton has in populating a council and finding residents to run for mayor.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.