Columnist Jim Oldham: Charter debate pits wishes against reality

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Charter proponents offer a big, beautiful vision of a council-manager government which they like to contrast with the messy reality of our current system. This might be clever advertising, but it is not particularly reliable for voters facing a big decision.

Government will always be messy. We will often disagree about important decisions, and elected officials won’t always do what we want them to. The question is whether it is an improvement to consolidate the powers of the Select Board and Town Meeting into one 13-member council, to eliminate staggered terms so all members of boards and committees are elected at once every two years, and to make changes to the budget process and hiring rules that are neither common nor recommended by experts.

Experts highlight flaws

The proposed charter would make significant changes that threaten good governance. Don’t take my word for it; read what the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association (MMMA) has said.

The MMMA wrote to the Charter Commission, both before and after the final proposed charter was released, to express concern that the charter requires that manager-appointed department heads be confirmed by Town Council, and that the charter fails “to make clear that the Manager has the executive and administrative powers.”

The MMMA is part of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonpartisan, statewide association that promotes unified municipal policies and effective delivery of services to residents. When it states that the proposed charter “will very significantly weaken the ability of the Town Manager to function as the Head of the Executive Branch,” Amherst voters should pay attention.

>BodySubheadLeft<>kern 0.36pt<Year-round government trope>kern 0.12pt<

The oft-repeated claim that the charter will bring year-round government misunderstands both the current and proposed systems. The proposed Town Council would replace not just Town Meeting, but also the five-member Select Board that already meets year-round.

Like Town Meeting, the council would be constrained by realities such as budget cycles and state zoning rules. The charter is clear, for example, that the council would engage with the budget in May and June, the same two-month window that Town Meeting currently has.

The council would also have to spend much of its time as the Select Board does: hearing reports, serving as water and sewer commissioners, managing public ways and metered parking, holding hearings, issuing proclamations, and so on. Even with some tasks shifted to appointed boards or the manager, the council will retain most duties that fill the Select Board’s long weekly meetings — sometimes running four hours or more — while adding on others.

It is unrealistic to believe that the council — 2½ times the size of the Select Board — will be able to work more quickly, so it is unclear when it would find time to develop and debate legislation in a more thoughtful and proactive manner than happens currently.

>BodySubheadLeft<Unaccountable claims

of accountability

Charter proponents engage in equally wishful thinking when suggesting that a Town Council will be more accountable than Town Meeting. It is true that some Town Meeting members win seats in uncontested elections. This also happens with city councils and state legislatures across the country, and even in Congress.

However, our Town Meeting elections are more competitive than typical council races in Massachusetts. This spring 70 percent of Town Meeting seats will be contested. Last year 80 percent were. Each of the last two years, 40 new members were elected to Town Meeting — an annual turnover of 16 percent.

These aren’t perfect numbers, but contrast them with Northampton, where all incumbent councilors won re-election unchallenged last year. More generally, in 100 city council races in 13 Massachusetts communities, less than half were contested. There is no reason to believe Amherst would be different.

>BodySubheadLeft<Risk of wishful thinking

Like all government, Town Meeting can be messy. Yet it engages many committed community members — professionals, students, retirees; renters and homeowners; 20-somethings to over-90s. Some join out of curiosity about local government, others come with particular concerns related to the schools, or their neighborhood, or with a commitment to the environment or social justice.

This diversity of experience and interests has provided the vision and impetus for much of what defines our town: strong schools and libraries, a legacy of conservation, and leadership on public health (banning smoking in bars), affordable housing, welcoming immigrants, responding to climate change and support for social services.

Town Meeting also serves as a place where residents learn about town governance and become more involved. It is a source for appointees to the many volunteer committees that are an integral part of local government, and for candidates for townwide offices, creating a wider pool than found in many municipalities.

To give this up, based on wishful thinking about the charter, would be unfortunate.

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 is the father of two children, one a current Amherst Regional High School student, the other a graduate.