Charter Commission removes mayor from proposed government structure in Amherst  

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2017

AMHERST — The Charter Commission has removed the position of mayor in its latest draft proposal of a new government structure for Amherst.

In a 7-0 vote Saturday, with member Gerry Weiss abstaining and member Julia Rueschemeyer absent, the commission agreed to study a model that would have a council replace the current 240-member Town Meeting and five-member Select Board, but maintain the professional manager position that has been a fixture in Amherst since 1954.

“It was the largest majority we’ve had yet,” Chairman Andy Churchill said Monday. “It was at least everyone’s second choice. It was something everybody could live with.”

Churchill said the vote came in response to a strong desire, from current and former municipal staff, to have continued professional management, but also establish accountability by having a representative in each district to whom residents could bring issues and complaints. The council would meet regularly, set the agenda and give direction to the manager.

The proposal also includes frequent precinct meetings, townwide forums, and ranked-choice or instant-runoff voting, which would eliminate the need for primary elections.

Churchill said the change in direction from a mayor-council-manager form of government that has been discussed in recent months came after feedback that having both a mayor and a powerful administrator could be complicated. In addition, some people felt it might be challenging to ensure that under that system a mayor has something to do.

“It’s a hard thing to balance these two things,” Churchill said.

The latest vote, Churchill said, may not go as far as some residents would like toward change.

“It can be seen as somewhat conservative, in that it keeps a professional manager, which we are all familiar with,” Churchill added. “But it basically sets up the choice as being between a manager with a 240-person town meeting that meets twice a year and a manager with a 13-person, or less, council that meets regularly, can set its own agenda, and serves as a direct conduit for resident concerns and issues.”

A public feedback session is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Bangs Community Center, unless a third Town Meeting session this week is held the same night. In that case, the feedback would come from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, when the commission is also scheduled to be at the Bangs.

Commission member Meg Gage said her vote demonstrates her concern with giving too much power to a mayor.

“I’m extremely worried about a charter that would pass with no professional manager,” Gage said.

As a commissioner committed to robust participation, Gage said she remains disappointed that the commission isn’t considering reforms that could improve Town Meeting.

The group Amherst for All, which supported the mayor-council form of government, has taken no position on the latest concept.

But its spokesman, Jerry Guidera, called it a “Saturday surprise” as the commission took the vote at a session few residents attended.

“We were surprised and disappointed such a significant decision was done with little or no public input,” Guidera said.

Guidera said it is late in the game to change the outlines of a proposal and some supporters of establishing the commission are growing frustrated with the process. He points to the widely panned 60-member council that was voted on four hours into a meeting.

Guidera, though, said he remains confident that voters are ready to scrap Town Meeting.

Churchill said similar communities in Massachusetts that have a council-manager government include East Longmeadow, Wakefield, Franklin and Randolph.

Preliminary feedback so far, Churchill said, indicates that some of those seeking change appreciate that the proposal retains a professional manager, but there is also disappointment that a popularly elected mayor to be held accountable at the ballot box is not part of this.

The council would deliberate and vote on budgets, zoning and other bylaws and resolutions, and would also hire and evaluate the town manager, who would be responsible for day-to-day management.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com