Columnist Carol Gray: Town Meeting a long Amherst tradition 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

After enjoying our holiday traditions, I hope we will also remember the value of one of our deeply rooted town traditions: Town Meeting.

This tradition could be on the chopping block on March 27. The central question then is will we keep our nearly 259-year-old Town Meeting and five-person Select Board, or trade them in for a charter establishing a new 13-person city council?

Our community is one of more than 300 of the 351 municipalities (84 percent) with a Town Meeting. While some remaining communities have a mayor and city council, fewer than 3 percent of Massachusetts communities have only a city council, with no checks and balances.

Our venerable Town Meeting tradition began on March 19, 1759, after the town of Amherst became independent of Hadley. Dea Ebezr Dickinson was its first moderator. Since then, Amherst has convened Town Meeting every year to conduct vital town business such as creating and changing bylaws, and voting the annual budget.

The five-person, elected Select Board handles day-to-day business year- round and oversees the town manager. Our Town Meeting/Select Board form of government has stood the test of time, resulting in a community that its residents love well.

Amherst is so well-loved that the random survey of more than 600 households conducted in preparation for the town’s master plan stated, “Overall, these random survey results indicate citizen satisfaction with the town the way it is.”

Town Meeting is always evolving. Originally, Amherst’s Town Meetings were called by blowing on a conch shell. Now, Town Meeting members (24 from each of Amherst’s 10 precincts), vote electronically with hand-held counters. These register votes immediately. Votes are then posted online, on our Town Meeting web page, so that anyone can see how each member voted. The town website also hosts an email system allowing residents to email their precinct’s Town Meeting representatives with a single email address.

Any Town Meeting member needing a babysitter, or care for an elderly dependent, can get help with the cost. This has increased diversity and access to Town Meeting.

What has not changed is that Town Meeting is a fierce and proud New England tradition. Like our neighboring communities (Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham, once home of Daniel Shays), as well as many communities larger than Amherst, Town Meeting is part of the bedrock of our history.

Norman Rockwell’s painting of the working man standing up to speak at Town Meeting, part of his “Four Freedoms” series, represents freedom of speech. This still thrives in Town Meeting. Any resident can ask to speak at Town Meeting. Any 10 Amherst voters can sign a petition that adds an issue to Town Meeting’s spring agenda, requiring action.

Another thing that has not changed is the diversity of perspective, expertise, race, ethnicity, gender, and age within Amherst’s 240 Town Meeting members. Current and former Town Meeting members include teachers, firefighters, architects, truck drivers, computer programmers, therapists, scientists, homemakers, people who run nonprofits, doctors, University of Massachusetts undergraduates, people who have been homeless, gay and lesbian people, carpenters, athletic coaches, moms and dads of babies and young children, grandparents, librarians, newspaper reporters, artists, writers, musicians, African-Americans, Hispanics, U.S. citizens who emigrated from Hungary, Palestine and Israel, and many others. This diversity of perspectives is an invaluable part of our bottom-up democracy.

As the Trump administration continues to consolidate power at the national level with each passing month, we need our grassroots participatory Town Meeting more than ever.

I am part of the movement to try to save our democracy. For more information please visit our website at www.votenooncharter.org/.

I hope you will join me in voting “no” on the proposed charter on March 27.

Carol Gray, of Amherst, is a Precinct 7 Town Meeting member and chairs the Vote No on the Charter organization. She is a former public defender, a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut and the mother of a 13-year-old at Amherst Regional Middle School.