Columnist John W. Olver: Town Meeting has not kept up with today’s Amherst

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Eighty years ago, in 1938, Amherst adopted the original town charter, with its representative Town Meeting. At that time Amherst had about 4,000 registered voters and a total population of about 7,000.

Now, in 2018, we have about 23,000 registered voters and a total population of 40,000. Our community is six times larger, with ever-growing diversity and evolving priorities.

Amherst needs a decision-making body that operates throughout the year and is able to deal with issues, opportunities and even crises in a timely and deliberative way, rather than only twice a year in two marathon sittings. That is why I support a “yes” vote on the proposed charter on March 27.

I am confident that the proposed 13-member Town Council will be much more accountable to the needs, opinions, and aspirations of Amherst voters. Each and every voter will have five members of the council, namely the three council members elected at-large and the two councilors elected from their district, who owe each voter accountability.

Each and every voter will easily be able to identify and communicate with his or her representative councilors as often as they like. Each and every voter will have equal opportunity to have their voice heard. Our voters deserve simple, direct access to decision-makers.

When the original charter was adopted in 1938, Amherst was an almost entirely white community and its Town Meeting members reflected that homogeneity — yet the demographic characteristics of Town Meeting have hardly changed in the 80 intervening years. The present demographic makeup of Town Meeting members is highly skewed from the demographic makeup of Amherst’s registered voters and does not reflect our increased diversity.

In 2018, 93 percent of Town Meeting members are white, but only 79 percent of registered voters are white; 80 percent of Town Meeting members are homeowners, but 50 percent of registered voters are renters; and the average age of Town Meeting members is 59, but the average age of registered voters is 39.

For the first time in Amherst’s history, a majority — 56 percent — of our public elementary school children are African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, or from families of mixed ancestry, while only 44 percent are Caucasian.

For the last 60 years, Amherst’s major industry has been the higher education of students seeking to be leaders for Massachusetts and the country. All three of our higher education institutions — the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College — have embraced the national trend toward greater diversity of their students, and, very importantly, the diversity of their faculties as well.

All three have expanded their undergraduate enrollments, and the university has expanded its graduate student enrollments dramatically in recent years — all of which has required a large increase of faculty members and staff.

It is largely the young families of these recently added faculty members who have brought about the shift in the makeup of our elementary school population. Our town is evolving — for the better — and our town government needs to change along with it.

The only certainty in life is change — and its pace is accelerating. Diversity is well established in Amherst and it will continue to increase.

Voters in our town have proven that they will support good candidates for public service, regardless of race, age or gender. There is a tendency to believe that a large Town Meeting ensures a wellspring of diverse representation. But our Town Meeting simply has not done so.

Our town government needs to embrace the changes underway in our community. We cannot afford to glorify the status quo. Instead, we must insist on smart growth — and deliver it.

I urge a “yes” vote on March 27.

John W. Olver is a former U.S. congressman, state senator and state representative.