Columnist Alisa Brewer: Residents must have real influence on officials

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

I fought hard to save representative Town Meeting in 2003. That charter proposal didn’t make sense for Amherst. This one does.

Right now, even if our residents are lucky enough to be recognized to speak before Town Meeting members cut off debate, those residents probably aren’t even there in the first place since they can’t decipher which night any given warrant article might be discussed. Amherst is one of the very few towns that tolerates representative Town Meeting over multiple sessions across several weeks, instead of open Town Meeting with one session. Our tradition excludes.

We’ve allowed at least four major and essential capital building investments to linger on the “someday” list for decades, despite available borrowing capacity, written Select Board priorities, and the twice annual engagement of over 100 (but not anywhere near the elected 240) Town Meeting members.

Moving to a Town Council is not leaving Town Meeting members behind, but applying their interests and skills and love of this community in new ways. Some appointed committees struggle just to make quorum once a month, and many committees are isolated from others and from the existing executive and legislative branches until they need something from Town Meeting.

We can’t adequately recruit and retain a full complement of appointed committee, commission, and board members when 240 possible members are already serving on (although not all showing up at) Town Meeting. We don’t grow future state representatives or senators out of representative Town Meeting service.

I emphasized in 2003 that good government wasn’t fast government. I’m confident the proposed Town Council and town manager won’t be as efficient as some people fear. Town Council decisions generally require two readings, plus at least 48 hours notice of all discussions and potential actions, so there will indeed be plenty of time for residents to express outrage (or encouragement) to their town councilors before a final decision is made.

Amherst is one of the few towns that consistently elects women to the Select Board, so of course you will elect women to the Town Council! You will elect town councilors who bring divergent views from diverse backgrounds to the deliberation table.

The appointed town manager is in charge of Amherst now, and is currently free to hire who he wants, when he wants, and direct them as he sees fit. That won’t change just because the town manager will have to justify his department head and committee appointments in public. Having 13 elected Town Council members set and fund town manager priorities makes for a lot more coherent work plan than having five elected Select Board members set priorities and maybe 170 Town Meeting members fund them.

Your elected five-member Select Board works all year long on all the same issues facing 240 elected Town Meeting members twice a year. Like many groups “in the front of the room” at Town Meeting, we usually don’t have substantially split votes because we’ve had the time to deliberate thoroughly in public. Residents can sort through our developing thinking in real time, not just wait for the list of yes and no votes to be published.

Like the Select Board, a Town Council can fix proposals before a motion is made, or send them back for more work, because the Town Council is a legislative body that sets its own agenda. A zoning proposal before the Town Council is on the right track, but needs a bit more work? Send it back – for action in two weeks, not six months! Town Meeting simply won’t bring at least 127 members together that frequently.

Campaigns are about declaring your positions, and being held accountable for living up to them. Currently, we hear the political priorities of School Committee, library trustee and Select Board candidates, but those elected positions have generally limited executive authority, not legislative power. Without legislative power, it’s a just a lot of talk.

Residents don’t know the political priorities of their Town Meeting members. Town Meeting members don’t know the political priorities of the electorate.

Our problem is not our people, it’s our structure that demands deliberation and action in completely separate spheres. We need thoughtful, connected planning and spending year-round by elected officials connected to their constituents.

I want all Amherst residents to have real influence on their elected officials. That hasn’t happened, and can’t happen, with our current unusual Select Board-town manager-representative Town Meeting system.

Please join me in voting “yes” on March 27.

Alisa V. Brewer was elected to Town Meeting in 1999, to the School Committee in 2002 and 2005, and to the Select Board in 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016. Her sons both graduated from Mark’s Meadow.