Guest Columnist Raymond La Raja: Let Amherst Town Council govern

  • Amherst Town Hall

Friday, July 09, 2021

A curious case of local anti-government sentiment comes from Meg Gage and Michael Greenebaum, who criticize the influence of the Town Council on the Planning Board [June 25, Amherst Bulletin column, “Town Council and its lack of checks and balances”]. 

It is understandable for residents to be disappointed about public decisions. None of us will be pleased all the time with outcomes that engage so many complex issues and voices. But my concern about recent criticisms of the Town Council — on issues related to the planning board, Jones Library, and downtown development — stems from actions by some residents that challenge the very structure of representative government by trying to do end runs around democratically elected bodies.

These strategies also send a message that Town Council lacks legitimacy to make key decisions about our collective welfare. Importantly, we vested this body with authority rooted in a Town Charter approved by Amherst voters. It is critical for the civic health of the town to let our representatives govern.

The Gage and Greenebaum argument is an example of this frontal challenge to democratic legitimacy. They say the Town Council has too much influence over who sits on the Planning Board and sets its agenda. Their solution is to have a more “independent” board to check the power of the Town Council. Criticisms of the new governing structure are welcome, but it is puzzling to argue that giving more power to an unelected board is more democratic.

To be sure, planning boards need some insulation from the hurly-burly of politics to consider comprehensive plans for town. But we don’t want them untethered to democratic accountability. Indeed, independent commissions have a fraught history in our country. Brahmin elites during the Progressive Era often used them to shield government decision-making from the “great unwashed” citizenry — the recently immigrated Irish, Italians, Jews and Poles — who used the ballot box to choose their favored leaders. Hence, the Progressives pushed for unelected town managers and independent commissions that were more easily under their influence.

Are these institutions sometimes helpful? Yes. Are they democratic. No.

To make them somewhat democratic, planning boards must be accountable to the people’s representatives. The power of our elected officials to vet and appoint members of a planning board, as outlined by Massachusetts law, is exactly this. Planning our town’s future is critical to self-governance. Members of the Town Council ran for office, in part, based on their views of this future. And it is their prerogative to discuss and promote these views, including through deliberations on their Community Resources Committee.

If we don’t like their views, we can vote them out.

We could alternatively hold elections to select members of the planning board, but that would actually introduce more democratic politics into the process that Gage and Greenebaum appear to dislike.

They also claim there are not enough checks on the Town Council. While I disagree, it is a reasonable concern. A stronger check would be an elected executive — a mayor — but the charter lacks this feature. Despite this, however, numerous powerful checks on the Town Council exist. These include town administrators who have experience and reputations to challenge the views of our elected officials. And thanks to the First Amendment, we also have forums like this newspaper where we can criticize their positions, which are highly transparent thanks to live-streamed public meetings and a town website documenting their actions.

And then there are district meetings where we can speak directly with our representatives. I have sat in on a few. They are remarkable expressions of the democratic process, with elected officials engaging with constituents on issues of the day, explaining their actions, and listening to diverse recommendations and complaints. Of course, the most powerful check in a democracy is at the ballot box. Officials who want to be reelected will not ignore claims shared by many voting constituents.

At the end of the day, democracy is government by numbers. Majority coalitions in government approve key policy decisions rather than unelected bureaucrats and independent commissions. Those who are not part of the majority coalition should not be run roughshod over, but the majority coalition must be allowed to govern to advance their view of the common good.

The most obvious example where this is not happening is the U.S. Congress, where the filibuster in the U.S. Senate frustrates the voice of the current majority coalition, which represents 57 percent of the American electorate. I see echoes of filibustering tactics in efforts to call a referendum to override an overwhelming majority (10-2 decision) of the Town Council to move forward on the Jones Library project. However well-intentioned and legal, this is hardball obstruction of the democratic process.

We should welcome criticisms to help improve our political process. But hyperbolic statements, like that of Gage and Greenebaum, that “our form of government leans toward autocracy” are not helpful, especially considering their anti-democratic recommendations. For the time being, let our Amherst elected leaders govern and hold them accountable.

Raymond La Raja is the associate dean of program innovation for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, a professor in the Department of Political Science, and associate director of the UMass Poll at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.