Columnist John O. Fox: Responds to column opposing Town Meeting 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Elizabeth Markovits’ criticism of Town Meeting (“Town Meeting: Local democracy at its finest?” Oct. 20) is flawed throughout, apart from suggesting in the headline that anything short of perfection warrants another form of government.

I am surprised, since I liked and respected Ms. Markovits as a fellow faculty member at Mount Holyoke College when we met years ago. Here are my comments on her five main points.

First: Ms. Markovits begins by comparing Amherst’s Town Meeting, with its 240 elected members, unfavorably with Athens’ democracy. “In ancient Athens,” she writes, “democracy meant that every citizen was part of the decision-making body of the city … The radical democracy of Athens provides spectacular evidence for the power of self-government.”

But had Ms. Markovits lived in Athens, she never could have voted because women weren’t “citizens.” Nor were the tens of thousands of slaves. In fact, only men who owned property and were born in Athens were “citizens.”

The case isn’t close: While Amherst’s Town Meeting can be and should be improved, it wins hands down as a representative democracy when compared to Athens.

Second: Ms. Markovits argues that voters can’t figure out “what was decided, and why” at Town Meeting. But the vote of each Town Meeting member is recorded on the Town Meeting website on any controversial matter.

Moreover, if she wants to know “why” Town Meeting voted as it did, she could begin by attending meetings in the auditorium or watch the meetings on television; the same would be true if there were a town council. In fact, town residents who are not members of Town Meeting who wish to argue for or against some issue often appear before Town Meeting.

Third: Ms. Markovits argues that people can’t hold their representatives “responsible for those decisions (usually through voting them out of office ...).” This is patently false.

Each Town Meeting member runs for a term of one, two or three years. If Ms. Markovits didn’t like the way someone in her precinct voted, she and others could have campaigned for someone else at the next election. She also could have run for Town Meeting.

While many people run unopposed for Town Meeting, as is common of elections everywhere, I assume that Ms. Markovits knows that at last spring’s election, a number of the precinct races were vigorously contested; over 40 members were not re-elected.

Fourth: Ms. Markovits faults Town Meeting because it is “whiter, wealthier and older than both the general and the voting population of Amherst.” Certainly that is true, although Town Meeting includes a number of people of color, people under the age of 40, including parents of young children, and people of modest means.

In fact, advocates of Town Meeting would prefer that Town Meeting be more diverse. It’s simply difficult to persuade the underrepresented to run for Town Meeting, often because they can’t afford the time.

But to anticipate how Amherst residents would likely vote in the case of a town council election, strong evidence exists in the makeup of the Select Board, which is elected by town-wide vote. Surely Ms. Markovits knows that for over a decade, 100 percent of the Select Board members have been “whiter, wealthier and older” than the general and voting population.

And what about the nine-member Charter Commission, elected last year by a town-wide vote: 90 percent white, 90 percent homeowners, 100 percent middle class.

Why, then, should we expect the makeup of a 13-person town council to be significantly different, with its huge demand on a members’ time?

Fifth: Finally, Ms. Markovits wonders “who do I call for a better crosswalk near my child’s school? The answer should not be to reach out to 24 Town Meeting members in my precinct, let alone all 240 in the town.”

She’s right. For crosswalks, she should contact the Department of Public Works or the town manager. But if she wishes to contact Town Meeting members, she doesn’t need to call. The town website allows her, by a simple click, to email her concern to every Town Meeting member in her (or any other) precinct.

One last point: It’s about money in town politics. One considerable strength of a 240-person Town Meeting is that money never has played a role in elections. Simply put, you can’t buy Town Meeting.

But the election of only seven members of the proposed 13-person town council can secure a favorable majority, and the vote of only nine members is needed to secure a zoning change.

Moreover, there are no limits on campaign contributions to support a candidate. Imagine the money real estate developers and other wealthy interests will spend to support candidates who are likely to vote for zoning and other changes that will transform our college town.

Walls of buildings like One East Pleasant, currently under construction on North Pleasant Street, are likely to dominate the downtown over time, endangering the future of our dwindling number of small businesses and discouraging the opening of new ones. Yet, Ms. Markovits never mentions this risk.

John O. Fox, of Amherst, has been a member of Town Meeting for about 30 years and represents Precinct 10. He is a lawyer and writer and was a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, where he taught seminars on United States tax policy and poverty in the U.S.