Columnist Jim Oldham: The case for participatory government

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Last week, Town Meeting took important action to address climate change by voting overwhelmingly to require that all new municipal buildings be constructed as net-zero-energy. They are energy-efficient buildings that generate, through renewable sources, as much energy as they use.

Since buildings account for 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., zero-energy design is an essential part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Town Meeting’s action on this question, and on a parallel resolution calling on town and state officials to transition Amherst and all of Massachusetts to 100 percent renewable energy, makes Amherst a national leader responding to climate change. Given the federal government’s inaction, this leadership is critical for the future of our planet.

The vote had strong support from many local architects, builders and other experts. Although there is a higher up-front cost to zero-energy buildings, models show that they provide financial savings that repay the initial investment, and more, over time. The initial costs can be managed by prudent financing.

Most importantly, the new bylaw is an act of social and environmental responsibility, reversing the destructive paradigm of passing costs of current actions on to future generations.

Protections for immigrants

Also last week, the Massachusetts attorney general confirmed that the sanctuary community bylaw, passed by a 165-4 vote of Town Meeting in May, is consistent with the state constitution and state law and can go into effect (“AG OKs sanctuary bylaw,” Nov. 10).

Designed to protect undocumented immigrants living and working in our community, the bylaw prevents the collection of information about people’s immigration status and prohibits their detention solely on the basis of a federal immigration detainer request or ICE administrative warrant.

As with the votes for the environment, Town Meeting’s action on this issue was a small but critical corrective to policies at the federal level that many in Amherst find deeply troubling.

What ties these issues together is that they were brought before Town Meeting as citizen petitions. One group of knowledgeable and committed residents, organized by Mothers Out Front and Climate Action Now, developed, drafted and advocated for the environmental measures. A different set of equally knowledgeable and committed residents wrote and promoted the sanctuary bylaw. Both groups drew on the great depth and diversity of knowledge and expertise — scientific, technical, legal, political — in the community to develop their proposals.

It has been argued that Town Meeting doesn’t set its own agenda and that Amherst lacks vision and direction. What these recent votes demonstrate is that actually, under our current form of government more than in any other system, on the most important issues it is the broader community that sets the agenda and defines the vision.

It has also been alleged that voters don’t know who their Town Meeting representatives are or can’t find them or get responses from them. Yet that was clearly not the experience of the coalition organized by Mother’s Out Front and Climate Action Now, or the Amherst Sanctuary Committee. Each of these groups successfully reached almost all Town Meeting members.

Mothers Out Front and Climate Action Now actually got 40 Town Meeting members — fully one-sixth of the body — to sign a letter of support for the legislation well in advance of the vote. The Amherst Sanctuary Committee was perhaps even more effective, providing Town Meeting members with information and answers to questions long before the proposal came up for a vote, and ultimately winning nearly unanimous support.

These examples show clearly that under the current system of government, the doors are open to all voters, and in fact all residents. You don’t need to compete for one of 13 seats in an expensive election if you want a voice in government.

Nor, in fact, do you need to run for Town Meeting or sit through long discussions of budgets or zoning if those are not your issues. Whether one’s concerns and interests are related to social justice, the environment, schools, libraries, potholes, taxes or zoning, there are few barriers to making one’s voice heard.

Not every effort will be successful — as in all political systems one has to convince others and win support — but there is no better system for giving all residents the opportunity to not just participate in government but to take leadership in setting the agenda for our community, just as Mothers Out Front, Climate Action Now and the Amherst Sanctuary Committee have done.

Jim Oldham, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5, directs Equity Trust, an Amherst-based nonprofit working nationally for land reform and economic justice. He has two children, one a current Amherst Regional High School student and the other a graduate.