Amherst charter panelists debate merits of change

  • Charter Commission members debate at the Amherst Regional Middle School auditorium March 1. GAZETTE STAFF/Scott Merzbach

  • Charter Commission members debate at the Amherst Regional Middle School auditorium March 1. GAZETTE STAFF/Scott Merzbach

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 08, 2018

AMHERST — Whether representative Town Meeting should remain part of Amherst’s government, or be replaced by a town council that proponents say would be more accountable, remains at the heart of the debate over the charter revision that will be decided later this month.

“The problem is our Town Meeting is no longer a representative sample of Amherst today,” Charter Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said during a debate March 1. He noted that Town Meeting members are older, whiter and wealthier than the town’s 37,000 residents.

But fellow commissioner Meg Gage, who opposes the charter change, said Town Meeting offers widespread inclusion and diverse participation, and that it is “magical thinking” on the part of charter proponents that replacing Town Meeting with a council will make government more accountable.

“Town Meeting is a decision-making, year-round legislation body,” Gage said.

Churchill and Gage were among the four elected commissioners who discussed the merits of the charter proposal at a nearly two-hour forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Amherst Thursday night. The charter proposal, which includes eliminating the 240-member Town Meeting and five-member Select Board and replacing it with a 13-member town council, comes before voters March 27.

The nine-member Charter Commission voted in August to recommend the change. The vote was 5-3 in favor, with one abstention.

Commission member Gerry Weiss said he would prefer to retain Town Meeting, which he said is a system that guards against corruption and the influence of money. Even though Town Meeting is not covered by open meeting or conflict of interest laws, one or two powerful lobbyists can’t exert power over 240 people, he said.

“The size of Town Meeting, not the laws, is the safety net,” Weiss said.

Commission member Mandi Jo Hanneke said transparency, openness and accountability would be greater with a council than Town Meeting, with discussions and decisions made in the open, and the public regularly involved.

But Gage said the proposal, which has the council act in both legislative and executive roles, has a lack of checks and balances, a serious issue because policies and bylaws will be drawn up by council appointees and then approved by the council.

“It’s just there isn’t any separation,” Gage said. “Town Meeting is a check on itself by its size and the process by which its decisions are made.”

Weiss said a council would oversee a much weaker “circular power loop of decision-making” than the current decision-making that is shared by municipal boards and Town Meeting.

Because candidates for council will have to make their positions known before running for office, Hanneke said residents will better understand issues facing the town. The charter language, she said, calls for separate appointments by the council and the professional manager, who is retained, and also prohibits the council from intruding on policies developed by the School Committee and trustees for the Jones Library.

Hanneke said currently there is little recourse at the ballot box to vote Town Meeting members out if residents don’t like Town Meeting actions, in part because contested elections for these seats are rare.

Churchill said the constituent approach of the council will offer residents better participation in local decision-making, with 13 councilors who are more visible and will be expected to represent the views of their constituents, or face the consequences in competitive elections every two years.

“We can actually hold them accountable to the decisions they make, unlike our current Town Meeting,” Churchill said.

Weiss, though, said an attempt to vote out a councilor is also unlikely, with statistics showing 90 percent of incumbents seeking re-election win their races.

Weiss argues that neither form of government ensures there will be no corruption or undue influence on its members. But he added that he seriously doubts any Town Meeting members have ever been indicted for corruption.

While critics of a council say money will play a bigger role, Churchill said the fear of increased spending on political campaigns, especially by developers, is not legitimate, comparing Amherst to Greenfield, where city councilors elected to at-large seats last fall spent little money on their campaigns.

“This is about democracy, not development,” Churchill said.

But Churchill acknowledges development pressures and broadening the tax base will be important issues that the town will continue to face, and he said a council would be better able to address these topics than Town Meeting.

The council offers maximum efficiency and deliberative decision-making, rather than the unwieldy Town Meeting, Churchill said.

Amherst residents deserve year-round decision-making, Hanneke said, including council meetings, district meetings for neighborhoods and townwide forums.

“A town council will be deliberative. Town Meeting by its simple structure can’t be deliberative,” Hanneke said.

Gage said Town Meeting has four year-round committees and holds precinct meetings, where deliberation occurs. Town Meeting is also constantly creating mechanisms for better efficiency and safeguards to make sure its decisions are accountable, she said.

Weiss agreed. “We don’t need a charter change to continue with these changes and improve our system,” he said.

Weiss said he prefers the larger numbers of Town Meeting, which stands the best chance of representing the values of all residents.

“Representative Town Meeting has far fewer barriers to serve than a council will,” Weiss said.

The defeat twice by Town Meeting, in November 2016 and January 2017, of the project to replace Wildwood and Fort River schools with a new twin school at the Wildwood site on Strong Street, remains one of the main reasons some voters want to eliminate Town Meeting.

Churchill compared Town Meeting’s action to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell using insider tactics to kill bills that have support from a majority of Americans.

Weiss said it is unfortunate that Town Meeting is made to seem nefarious over that one issue, noting that he supported the school project and preserving Town Meeting.

“Be careful about throwing away the baby with the bath water,” Weiss said.

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