Columnist Andrew Steinberg: Charter offers year-round democracy

Sunday, December 10, 2017

This week Amherst voters received a copy of the Charter Commission report and the proposed charter for a new form of government.

Voters will decide on March 27 whether to adopt the new charter, which will replace a separate five-member Select Board and 254-member Town Meeting with a 13-member council. As a member of Town Meeting since 1996, a former member and chair of the Finance Committee, and a member of the Select Board since 2014, I support the new charter. It will improve the way that our government functions and will more clearly reflect the priorities of voters.

In small communities, Town Meetings offer a true form of democracy. Every voter is entitled to attend meetings that last part of a day and decide whether to adopt budgets and bylaws, usually twice a year. Select Boards meet throughout the year to administer the government. Because of their knowledge of issues confronting their town, they propose bylaws and budgets to Town Meetings.

In larger towns, open Town Meetings are unworkable, so an elected “representative” Town Meeting sometimes fulfills those functions. Since 1938, representative Town Meeting is the form of government we have had in Amherst, the largest municipality in Hampshire County.

Amherst’s population is now six times larger than what it was in 1938 and the world has only grown more complex. Our town has outgrown occasional government. The proposed charter offers us year-round democracy in the form of a council and professional town manager.

A council/manager form of government is the most common form of municipal government in this country. The council meets throughout the year, approves budgets, and new bylaws, and supervises the town manager.

Councilors are continuously involved in government. They will have the information to understand the long-term consequences of decisions they make. Bylaws will be fully developed before being adopted.

Compare this year-round democracy to our current model of occasional governance. The 254 members of our representative Town Meeting convene twice each year. Serving on Town Meeting does not require any involvement in government between sessions. Town Meeting is not involved with the implementation of its decisions. Most members are not involved in developing proposed bylaws and budgets for consideration at future Town Meetings.

The zero-energy bylaw enacted at the most recent Town Meeting exemplifies the consequence of a process that required a decision on a specific date. There was wide support for a zero-energy building policy. Town Meeting was anxious to act. There were provisions in the bylaw as presented that will make it difficult if not impossible to implement and may have unintended consequences. A council would have brought all required expertise to a process that could address those issues and passed the bylaw after the problems were resolved.

At the last two spring Town Meetings, amendments were made to the proposed budgets. Because they are not involved in long-term financial planning and management of town government, most Town Meeting members could not consider the consequences of these decisions. A council that meets throughout the year will have that knowledge.

A council will provide a more informed, efficient and effective government for Amherst than a separate representative Town Meeting and Select Board. It will also more clearly respond to the wishes of voters, the core of a democratic government.

I have run for and been elected to both Town Meeting and the Select Board. The experience of campaigning and serving is different. Candidates for Town Meeting put their name on the ballot with only their signature. There is no real campaign.

A petition with 50 valid signatures is required to run for Select Board. Candidates ask for support in the form of donations, endorsements, lawn sign placements and, of course, a vote.

There is an opportunity to talk with a large number of voters about why I am a candidate, what I offer, and my vision for Amherst and to hear from them about their priorities and concerns. Because there are a few candidates for a small number of positions, there is focus on the election and the candidates.

After election, I understand the expectations of voters and consider those expectations with every significant vote. A council election will provide this level of citizen engagement. A representative Town Meeting is not structured to allow that democratic process.

A yes vote on March 27 offers Amherst the opportunity to have a year-round effective government in which we can all participate through a democratic process. I hope we seize that opportunity.

Andrew Steinberg is a member of the Amherst Select Board. He was executive director of Western Massachusetts Legal Services, which provides legal aid to people living in poverty, for 27 years.