Columnist Jim Oldham: Who needs a three-legged elephant?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Charter Commission’s proposal for a new form of government for Amherst, finalized last month, represents a lost opportunity.

Instead of offering real improvements that could win broad support among commissioners and voters, a bare majority of five commissioners pushed through a muddled and contradictory proposal that delivers very little of what voters were promised.

The proposed structure has no checks and balances, with a single 13-member council combining legislative and executive oversight roles. Seven individuals controlling this body would wield unrestricted power.

Yet, those who hoped that consolidating power would provide clearer leadership and greater accountability will be disappointed. Under the proposal, all executive powers would be in the hands of an unelected town manager. Effective supervision and oversight is unlikely from a council 2½ times larger than the existing, already unwieldy, Select Board.

A core theory underlying the proposal is that a smaller elected body provides voters real choices and is easier to hold accountable. Fortunately, with neighboring Northampton governed by a City Council, we have an easy opportunity to test that theory.

How do Northampton and Amherst compare? The answer is “no contest.” By that I mean there are no council contests at all in Northampton this year. Not one seat is contested and all incumbents are running unopposed. By contrast, in Amherst’s most recent election, eight out of 10 precincts were contested, with 52 Town Meeting candidates defeated.

The promise of empowering voters is also undermined by the proposal to hold elections only once every two years, half as often as the current system. Reducing the public’s opportunities to weigh in is not empowerment.

While the frequency of elections is reduced under the proposal, a misplaced populist urge seems to be the driver for shortening terms of office. The Charter Commission’s majority misunderstands what is important to voters — the opportunity to make government change course, which comes with frequent elections, is more valuable than the ability to take revenge on a particular politician. They also forget that shorter terms weaken elected officials in relation to the appointees they must supervise.

The parallel decision to eliminate staggered terms, meaning all seats are elected at once, will cause the School Committee, as well as the proposed Town Council, to lack continuity and experience. Gradual policy change will be replaced by sudden swings as different factions take control. This is not a way to promote compromise and moderation.

For those concerned about the reduction in citizen participation with the elimination of Town Meeting, the commission’s majority emphasizes that the charter would establish a town staff community participation officer, and would require the town manager to deliver an annual state-of-the-town address, and district councilors to hold semiannual constituent meetings.

But community participation managed by a town manager appointee does not offer much in the way of independent public oversight, and the opportunity to listen or talk to the few who hold power is very different from sharing in that power.

Another conceit of the Charter Commission’s majority is that district councilors “will be able to talk about how townwide policies affect particular neighborhoods” and “will ensure all parts of town are heard.” This sounds great, until one sees the districts. Since when are Cushman and Echo Hill a neighborhood? If two councilors are elected from Amherst Woods, how will they give voice to East Hadley Road residents?

With only two representatives from each district, many voices will go unheard, and those with least capacity to mount expensive election campaigns will be left out.

Despite these many flaws, one group remains happy with the proposal. Last May, Jerry Guidera, a real estate developer and a spokesman for the pro-charter Amherst for All campaign, said of his allies, “They were happy to see anything but Town Meeting, even if it was a three-legged elephant.” With the charter proposal finalized, and making about as much sense as a three-legged elephant, Guidera’s group is actively campaigning to win approval at town election next March.

It is clear why Guidera and company support this proposal, but others who are inclined to join them should look carefully at the details. As with any system, the current government can be frustrating. Town Meeting decisions sometimes disappoint, as do decisions by our state legislature and Congress.

But just as the situation at the federal level is not a reason to do away with Congress, disappointment about specific local decisions is not sufficient reason to dismantle the entire system.

As the commission’s minority report makes clear, under our current system Amherst is a well-governed, desirable community, with strong finances, good schools and libraries, and broad civic engagement. We have preserved historic neighborhoods, protected farmland and open space, and created more affordable housing than most communities.

There is no reason to believe that this three-legged elephant would do better.

Jim Oldham is an Amherst Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.