Preliminary draft of Amherst charter a week away

  • People who gathered in March 2016 to support the Amherst Charter Commission react to winning at The Pub. In the front row, from left, are Anastasia Ordonez and Laura Kent, who won School Committee seats. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst voted in March 2016 to form a charter commission to study town government. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2017

AMHERST — With just over a week left to get a preliminary draft of a new charter for Amherst finished, the chairman of the town’s Charter Commission is confident that the work on the proposal can be completed.

“Our focus is on empowering voters as much as possible,” Andy Churchill said.

The draft features 10 sections and at its heart includes the concept of a 13-member town council to replace Town Meeting, along with a professional town manager.

The draft document has to be ready for a mandated printing in the Amherst Bulletin, as well as submission to the attorney general’s office by Aug. 3.

A final draft, the one that will be the subject of a townwide vote next March, must be finished by the end of September, with a final hearing to solicit feedback from residents required in late August.

The proposal merges the existing 10 precincts into five wards, each to be represented by two councilors. Three councilors would be elected by the town as a whole, and from these three one would be made president of the council. All would be elected every two years, Churchill said.

“This ensures elected officials stay close to their constituents and will also enable as many people as possible to consider serving,” Churchill said.

The council would handle policy oversight and vote on budgets and zoning changes.

The commission is contemplating the use of rank-choice voting, or instant runoff voting, which would eliminate the need for primary elections and would ensure, in contests with multiple candidates, that the person elected has broad support, rather than representing an extreme.

Also in the document are requirements for annual forums on the town’s master plan and public schools, and a schedule of two ward meetings annually. A resident participation officer is included in the charter.

School Committee and Jones Library trustees and likely Housing Authority members would all remain independently elected boards, Churchill said, while the Budget Coordinating Group and Joint Capital Planning Committee would continue to exist.

Churchill said the proposal is a good compromise between residents who have sought to preserve Town Meeting and those who would like Amherst to have a mayor.

“This is a real opportunity for us to fix things with ongoing, accountable decision-making, while preserving the town manager,” Churchill said.

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