Columnist Mandi Jo Hanneke: Commission shows how Town Council would work

Friday, March 16, 2018

The proposed council-manager charter will provide Amherst with better deliberations on important issues and better engagement with all residents.

I wholeheartedly believe this because for 18 months I was part of an elected body in Amherst that modeled thoughtful deliberation, decision-making and resident engagement — the Charter Commission.

Our nine-member commission encompassed many different viewpoints, on issues big and small, clearly demonstrating that a Town Council of 13 can, and likely will, include a wide variety of perspectives. Importantly, we were also small enough to deliberate in a way that allowed for open discussion and the exchange of ideas before positions were settled.

Our open-ended meeting structure permitted us to have wide-ranging discussions, sometimes going deeper or broader than the narrow topic at hand. We discussed some matters over the course of weeks, postponing decisions until we had enough information and were ready to make them.

But, don’t just take my word for it that the Charter Commission was able to deliberate in a thorough and thoughtful manner. Here’s what Meg Gage, a member in the minority, said after 18 months of meetings: “Andy (Churchill) has led the commission with openness and patience, always willing to give any of us the chance to share our concerns and questions, even when it extended our meetings and complicated our process.”

Julia Rueschemeyer, another member of the minority, commented at that same meeting: “I have to appreciate our chair, Andy, who has not tried to strong-arm our process all the way through the end and has given us a lot of leeway to stray far and wide in our discussions. It’s impressive to have that flexibility, especially during difficult debates...”

The wide-ranging nature of our discussions included deliberations on vastly different forms of government. We considered legislatures ranging in size from every Amherst resident (open Town Meeting) to as small as nine members (with multiple meetings spent discussing nine, 13 and 60-member councils).

We weighed district versus at-large councilors, the executive structure (mayor, manager, Select Board), term lengths for all office holders, and many other details. And yes, we spent considerable time over many meetings discussing potential improvements to Amherst’s representative Town Meeting.

These are examples of thoughtful deliberations and discussions that simply cannot happen in Amherst’s representative Town Meeting. Its structure just does not allow for it. Speakers are held to three-minute time limits, cannot address others directly, and must stay “on topic” or get gaveled down. And state law does not allow Town Meetings to set their agendas or carry business forward to another session.

You may be wondering, where are the residents in all of this? They’re there, in great numbers. In Amherst, when you ask for opinions, you get them. After all, “only the ‘H’ is silent.”

The Charter Commission heard from residents in many ways — by email and online forms, in small-group listening sessions, in large public forums and hearings, and during public comment at our meetings. In fact, we received over 1,000 comments in less than 18 months. We found these diverse forms of public engagement so helpful to our deliberations that we built them — and more — into the proposed charter.

We sought out and received opinions from residents on every major decision we had: council or town meeting, mayor or manager or both, term lengths, legislative body size, budgeting, and more.

We held listening sessions, not just at the beginning of the process, but all the way through, sometimes receiving an avalanche of comments after residents saw articles in the newspaper. We didn’t end listening sessions until everyone who wanted to speak was able to.

Every one of our 56 meetings had a public comment period. Each resident who wanted to speak during these periods was able to, without any restriction on the subject matter.

Residents engaged with us while we deliberated and before any decisions were made. This is how residents should be able to engage with their elected leaders.

This manner of resident engagement during all phases of the process is not possible or practical in Amherst’s 254-member representative Town Meeting.

Discussions that can expand beyond their original topic, flexibility during difficult debates, extending discussions until everyone is knowledgeable, and engaging a variety of viewpoints every step of the way — these measures lead to thoughtful decision-making.

A small, visible, elected Town Council will have them, just like the Charter Commission did. Amherst’s representative Town Meeting does not and cannot.

Mandi Jo Hanneke is the vice chairwoman of the Charter Commission, a member of Town Meeting from Precinct 5 and the mother of a school-aged child.