Columnist Mary L. Wentworth: The case against the charter proposal

Thursday, December 14, 2017

In a column published last month (“The case against Town Meeting,” Nov. 3) Nick Grabbe, a Charter Commission member, listed his reasons why Amherst residents should vote for a charter change that would replace our 240-member Town Meeting and five-member Select Board with a 13-member Town Council.

Grabbe uses an argument that is a mantra for his pro-charter group. They claim Town Meeting is not representative of Amherst because it is made up primarily of homeowners who are white and wealthy, with an average age of 59. Since the average age of voters is 39, Town Meeting is out of whack with town demographics, he argues.

It turns out that the source that Grabbe references for this statistic, and others, is a study of Town Meeting conducted by Town Meeting critic Ray La Raja, a University of Massachusetts political science professor and Wouter Van Erve, a graduate student in La Raja’s department.

A column reviewing the results of their study was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in June 2014. Much has changed in the composition of Town Meeting since then that shows this study is outdated.

Parents of school-age children is a category of Town Meeting members that La Raja and Van Erve didn’t even cover. Today, that group makes up 25 percent — yes, a quarter — of Town Meeting members. That pokes a big hole in La Raja’s average age calculation of 59.

Grabbe tries to pin the blame for the rate of Amherst property taxes on Town Meeting. He should have written Town Hall. Even back in 1905, Calvin Coolidge saw the unfairness of Amherst College being exempted from paying property taxes. As a legislator he supported a bill that would have required compensation from the state to help out college towns across the commonwealth.

We can only imagine what Coolidge would say today with the college eating up more property and the university following suit. Yet our town managers resist putting pressure on these educational institutions to pony up payments in lieu of taxes.

Grabbe cites as a drawback to the present system the regulation that allows any registered voter to run for Town Meeting by signing his or her name on a form at the town clerk’s office. Running for a council seat will require many more signatures, and for a serious candidate fighting for a seat on this council, upwards of a $5,000 to $10,000 campaign kitty. These seats may prove attractive since Grabbeand other members of the Charter Commission give the councilors the power to determine how much they should be paid for holding one of these positions.

Bit by bit, the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals are changing the character of our town through hearings that issue special permits, grant waivers, and release developers from doing traffic impact studies, for instance.

Year after year, the Planning Board has come to Town Meeting with requests to change this or that zoning designation, making it easier for developers to build what and where they want. Many of the same people who are behind the charter proposal helped pass these changes in Town Meeting. But with Town Meeting’s new look, more and more members are unwilling to approve them.

This unwillingness on the part of Town Meeting is what drives this renewed effort to change Amherst’s charter. If one doubts this, read the proposal. Not only would nine people, a two-thirds majority of the council, have the power to change zoning regulations in our downtown, village centers or in any neighborhood in Amherst without any oversight whatsoever, but Grabbe andother members of the Charter Commission have even given the council the power to appoint their people to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals!

One final point about the consolidation of power that is proposed in this plan. In Northampton, the chief administrator is the mayor who is elected to this position by the city’s voters. In other words, the mayor receives the position quite independently of the City Council.

If the charter proposal is passed in Amherst, the chief administrator will be hired by the 13 councilors and will be responsible only to them. The council will have total control of Amherst’s government.

Mary L. Wentworth is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5, and a member of Amherst Town Meeting Works, an anti-charter group.