Columnist Katherine Appy: Town Meeting too often fails community

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Serving two terms on the Amherst School Committee was a tremendously rewarding experience.

But it included disappointments, none greater than Town Meeting’s decision to reject the town-supported plan to build two new elementary schools with $34 million of state aid.

That vote was the final straw that convinced me that our town, with its $88 million budget and 40,000 voters, has outgrown occasional government.

Because Town Meeting meets only twice a year, its members can’t fully immerse themselves in the details of many complex issues. Major projects, years in the making, are presented in just a few minutes.

Many Town Meeting members want to do what’s best for the town, but the rules prevent full and informed debate. There is no opportunity for real dialogue or careful deliberation. The model does not allow for rebuttal or public comment. These systemic shortcomings in our legislative body allow misleading and false claims to gain traction and persist.

The cost to our town of our legislative body’s failure to make informed decisions has been grave. We need a form of government that does more than scratch the surface of major questions facing our town. We need year-round democracy.

During my tenure on the School Committee, I bore witness to Town Meeting misinterpreting and exceeding its authority on numerous occasions. One example is the school vote. The rules stipulated that Town Meeting should vote up or down on a basic question: Can Amherst afford to build the proposed schools? The answer was obvious: with $34 million of state aid that we had competed for and secured and a recent debt exclusion override vote, virtually everyone thought we could.

But instead of considering that basic question, a minority of Town Meeting members, who had qualms with elements of a plan nine years in the making, took it upon themselves to block the borrowing. When Town Meeting voted not to authorize the money for the schools, it exceeded its authority, dismissed hundreds of hours of work by citizen committees and professional staff, and overruled the majority will of the town. That’s not functional democracy.

Another example came in 2015, when Town Meeting voted to override portions of the school budget. Once again, their mandate was to vote up or down on the budget as presented. School administrators, including every principal, had worked for months to determine the best educational use of resources. The Superintendent had presented the budget to the School Committee, which had deliberated on it as well and recommended it for approval.

But a few in Town Meeting generated an emotional response to some of the proposed cuts and in the end Town Meeting voted to add to the budget and restore some cuts. In doing so, it overlooked the painful reality that the restoration and addition of funds in one area could mean cuts to things that school and town leaders had felt important to maintain.

If Amherst votes to adopt the new charter, these shortcomings in our governance will be addressed. If we vote yes, we will replace Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council that can make thoughtful spending and planning decisions, put in place mechanisms to empower everyday voters, and keep much of what works in our government today.

Under the new charter, our Town Council will meet year-round, like every other board and committee in town, and will be much better informed about town issues and able to act more quickly than Town Meeting can on pressing needs. Unlike the marathon sessions of Town Meeting, our council will have first and second readings of decisions they are considering before voting on them, with opportunities for public comment. There will be annual townwide forums on our schools where residents can make their voices heard.

The new charter also keeps many of the elements of government that work well, such as the dozens of citizen committees that craft and implement policy and our professional town management, which insulates the day-to day management of our town from political whims. It’s time to put aside a system that has too often failed our community.

I am grateful for my time on the School Committee, and I believe future chairs of the committee under the new charter will have an even more rewarding experience than I did. That’s because their work will be nested in a town government that is more thoughtful and more accountable and that better connects with voters.

I urge a “yes” vote on March 27.

Katherine Appy is a former chairwoman of the Amherst School Committee and a current Town Meeting member from Precinct 9.