Columnist Jennifer Page: Town council wrong move for Amherst

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A recent letter from a writer supporting the Charter Commission recommendations (“Supports change to town council,” Aug. 25) struck me in its simple logic.

The writer had to foot the bill to send a letter to all 240 Town Meeting members expressing her support of the recent school building proposal. She also shared some personal details of her family in order to explain her position.

She posits that if only there were fewer people making the decision, it would have been easier for her to communicate with them. This makes sense. If there were only 13 members of a town council, she would only have had to communicate with 13 people, and her postage bill would have been cut significantly.

However, having fewer people making decisions is not necessarily a good thing; making it easier to influence a legislative body is not necessarily a good thing. What if, instead of the 535 members of Congress, there were 29 (a reduction proportionate to 240 Town Meeting members and 13 town council members). It would be so much easier to influence 29 people to pass legislation that you want passed, than 535.

Hopefully, we can all agree that this consolidation of decision-making power would not be a good thing. It would, in fact, make it easier for individuals and corporations with resources to influence legislators, leaving those with fewer resources even less likely to have their voices heard.

In my opinion, one of the strengths of Town Meeting is that it is so difficult to influence 240 people. At this critical mass of people, we are more likely to have individuals voting according to their values and beliefs, than voting due to outside influence. The fact that the results of the Town Meeting votes on the school building proposal so closely matched the general votes bears this out.

Another example is the vote to allow Amherst bars to be exempt from the townwide smoking ban in 1999. In 1998 the Amherst Board of Health banned smoking in bars (smoking in restaurants was banned in 1994). In 1999, a group of bar owners petitioned Town Meeting to urge the Board of Health to allow exemptions to some bars (and thus allow smoking in those bars).

The Select Board voted 4-0 with one absent in favor of the petition to allow smoking in some bars (April 12, 1999). A month later, Town Meeting voted 120-63 against the petition (May 13, 1999).

Select Board members at the time mentioned the challenge in serving the “competing interests” of supporting businesses and promoting public health, implying that those deserve equal weight. Town Meeting members overwhelmingly voted for public health over corporate profit. At the time, this topic was controversial and highly contested. Looking back now, it’s clear that the 120 Town Meeting members who voted against the petition that day were on the right side of history, and the four members of the Select Board who voted for it were not.

The Charter Commission recommendation seeks to put decision-making power into the hands of fewer people, consolidating power into a small group of 13, compared to 240 today. In my opinion, this is the wrong move for Amherst.

Jennifer Page, of Amherst, is a Town Meeting representative from Precinct 8.