Amherst residents react to Charter Commission report

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2017

AMHERST — Supporters of the recommendation by the Charter Commission to scrap representative Town Meeting in favor of a 13-member town council say the change will empower voters by making those elected more accountable and responsive.

Karla Rasche, a Precinct 6 resident, told the Charter Commission at a public hearing Aug. 31 that unlike open Town Meeting, Amherst’s representative form limits participation.

“The average voter has very little say in what happens,” Rasche said.

But others told the commission that reforming Town Meeting would be a better option than moving to a more authoritarian type of government.

“I would hate to think Amherst is becoming part of the frightening trend of being less democratic,” said Amy Mittelman, a Precinct 5 Town Meeting member.

Their comments illustrated a divide in opinion during the commission’s mandated hearing, one of the final opportunities to speak to the nine-member elected board before it brings a final draft to the Select Board by Sept. 29.

A divided commission, 5-3, with one abstention, is recommending that voters March 27 adopt a government with a council and professional manager and move elections to Novembers in odd years. The final draft will include a minority report outlining concerns with the proposal.

Active in the campaign to building a new co-located elementary schools at the Wildwood School site, rejected by Town Meeting despite support from voters at large, Johanna Neumann, of Stanley Street, said that many of the 24 Town Meeting members in her precinct didn’t treat her as a constituent when she contacted them advocating for the project.

“The concept of constituent felt totally absent,” Neumann said, adding she would rather have 13 councilors who think of voters and expect to be held accountable.

Kay Moran, a Precinct 4 Town meeting member and former Finance Committee chairwoman, said she doesn’t feel like a representative of the people, observing that in a dozen years she has had no competition and has been and contacted by those she serves just four times.

Brendan Gavin of Precinct 10 said he was pleased to see ranked choice voting in the charter proposal, eliminating the need for primaries, but wants to see more specifics about how it could be implemented.

For supporters of the charter, the main concerns about the current draft is that it doesn’t include a mayor, the council may be too large and two-year terms for the council and School Committee are too short.

Critics have other issues.

“I see a step away from Town Meeting democracy to an oligarchic town rule, and I’m sorry to see that,” said Edwin Wilfert, of Gray Street.

More changes inappropriate for downtown would happen without Town Meeting, said John Fox, a Precinct 10 member.

“If you want more One East Pleasant Street developments, then you vote for this remarkable change,” Fox said.

“Collapsing of separation of powers is a very serious error and I hope the voters realize its potential consequences,” said Maurianne Adams, a Precinct 10 Town meeting member.

Prior to the hearing, a group called Amherst for All kicked off a campaign to support the charter with a rally on the steps of Town Hall, with several people holding signs and wearing buttons “Vote Yes March 27th.”

Neumann, the chairwoman of this campaign, said Amherst democracy deserves to be improved through the charter’s “sensible evolution.”

Former Selectwoman Nancy Eddy, who also served as president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the charter change will bring Amherst into the 21st century and allow it to grow and prosper. Too many times, Eddy said recommendations that have been vetted by boards and committees have been ignored and overturned by Town Meeting.

Another longtime observer, former Gazette and Bulletin editor Nick Grabbe, a member of the commission, said Town Meeting is broken.

“I believe it does not produce policies that reflect the interests of residents,” Grabbe said.

Grabbe said he and fellow commissioner, Mandi Jo Hanneke, will write for a blog called A Better Amherst that will go live in mid-September and provide ongoing analysis of town government.

Those opposing the charter are also beginning an effort to convince voters to stop the plan, using the minority report that argues Amherst is already well-governed and managed and a change means uncertain consequences, more costs and reduced civic involvement.

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