Columnist Jim Oldham: Know the change you seek

Thursday, December 14, 2017

We all want change. That’s natural because the world isn’t perfect. And when it comes to government — national, state or local — the room for improvement can be pretty large much of the time.

It’s always good to try to make our democratic institutions more responsive, better at meeting our needs and less divisive.

Yet, not all changes are improvements, and it doesn’t work simply to attack what’s wrong with the current system — you have to consider what is available to replace it. That’s what Winston Churchill was getting at 70 years ago when he said that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

And it is what many Americans, when they voted for Trump, (and British voters when they voted for Brexit) ignored last year. By focusing on their anger and frustration with their current situation they voted for changes that would make things even worse, for themselves as well as for many others.

In the current debate over local government in Amherst, the advocates for a change in structure hammer away at the supposed problems with the current system, many exaggerated or just plain silly, but they avoid addressing the many flaws in the form of government they would have us adopt. That is a good strategy for winning a vote, but residents and voters who care about the future of the town should look beyond the slogans to consider whether the change offered is really the change you want.

Are fewer opportunities to vote the change you want?

Calls for greater accountability and improved democracy sound great, but in the case of this charter proposal they mask the fact that a key feature would be the reduction of elections from annual to once every two years.

Voting is the core way that citizens exercise power, and no amount of talk about a community participation officer or district meetings with councilors can gloss over the fact that, if the charter passes, voters will have only half as many opportunities as we do now to weigh in on local government, and we will have to wait twice as long to make changes in government.

Is more money in local politics the change you want?

Anyone seeking evidence this proposed change in our government would increase the influence of money in local elections needs only to look at the current spending by the pro-charter campaign. It has already, months before town election campaigns typically begin, spent more money, run more newspaper ads, and sent more mailers, than the vast majority of townwide campaigns do in the entire election period.

If the charter passes, it will create a single, winner-take-all election once every two years that will determine control of both the School Committee and the city council that the charter would create. Long, money-driven campaigns will become the new norm.

Is a more volatile government, with sudden swings in direction, the change you want?

This charter proposal would replace the current staggered terms of office with a system under which the entire 13-member council and the entire School Committee would be elected all at once in that single biennial election. This exposes the entire town government to the potential for frequent and abrupt changes in policy, overly influenced by whatever happens to be the issue of the moment at the time of the election.

The increased turnover under this system will also make it harder for elected office holders to effectively manage the professional administrators who they are charged with overseeing. And with so many races and candidates to learn about, it will become much harder for voters to engage in meaningful ways.

Is the removal of checks and balances the change you want?

Consider the consequences of consolidating, in the hands of a 13-member council, powers that are currently divided between the executive and legislative branches of government. The process for changing zoning, for example, will be very different if this charter proposal passes.

Zoning is one of the most important functions of local government, with some of the greatest impacts on residents. Currently the Select Board hires the town manager who in turn appoints the Planning Board, the body that writes the bulk of our zoning rules and that, by law, must review all proposed changes to zoning. It is Town Meeting, however, that finally votes on whether to adopt a change to zoning.

Under the proposed charter, the new 13-member council would both appoint the Planning Board charged with developing zoning proposals and then get to vote on those same proposals. Control of that council would bring unchecked control on zoning.

No wonder so much money is being spent to push through this charter.

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.