Columnist Michael Greenebaum: Select Board, Town Meeting provide balance

Thursday, February 01, 2018

I was saddened but not surprised by Connie Kruger’s commentary in the Amherst Bulletin (“Wants charter to put her out of a job,” Jan. 26).

Her Select Board colleague, Andrew Steinberg, preceded her; no doubt others will follow. That the Select Board wants to do away with Town Meeting is shortsighted but understandable. There are times that I would like to do away with various parts of town government that don’t have the wisdom to see things my way, but I usually come to realize that my attitude is childish and wrong.

When I was a school principal in Amherst I frequently found myself at odds with the Amherst School Committee (not to mention the school superintendent) and felt that I knew my school, its culture and its needs better than they could. And I still think I did.

But what I didn’t know better and, because of my self-ascribed expertise, couldn’t see clearly was how my school fit into the larger culture of the Amherst school system. My expertise, which allowed me to see some things more clearly, also acted as a set of blinders that prevented me from seeing what others saw. Expertise is at once a tool and a trap. This is why the Select Board thinks that Amherst can do without Town Meeting, but it is also why, in part because of the Select Board attitude, Amherst needs Town Meeting.

I have written elsewhere about the natural tensions that exist between executive and legislative branches. Here, I want to point to a particular feature of town boards and committees; I call it the managerial stance. They tend to take on the point of view of the organizations they oversee. This leads to an emphasis upon fiscal probity, uniformity of expectations, and dislike of disagreement.

In many ways, I am glad that our elected boards take this stance but it does entail risks. Ms. Kruger’s commentary exemplifies those risks.

She describes the Town Meeting vote on the proposed school as “the single worst decision that (she has) seen Town Meeting make in the 30-plus years (she has) been involved in Amherst politics.” She states that “Town Meeting should have been a body well-informed enough on the need for this school project to deliver the needed vote.” One would not know from her comments that Town Meeting eventually supported the school project but not at the two-thirds level required by the state. Nor would one know that neither referenda came close to a 2/3 vote of support. In this anguished matter, Town Meeting was truly reflective of the town.

But perhaps more to the point, the managerial stance prevented the Select Board and the School Committee from seeing this school project wholly. It led them to place first priority on the state funding rather than the particulars of the project itself. Ms. Kruger is silent about the project itself, as have been many of its proponents. I see nothing wrong with this, as long as we have opposing views in government, not just in open forums.

My own positions on this matter may be reflective of the town. I voted for the override which would raise taxes to build the new school. I first voted against the school project because I thought it was badly conceived. (I still do.) Ultimately I voted in Town Meeting and in the second referendum to support the project. I was not happy with any of my votes. I am still not happy with them.

I think I was closer to the town than was the Select Board. When Ms. Kruger describes project supporters as “knowledgeable” and says Town Meeting “should have been ... well-informed enough” to deliver the two-thirds vote, she betrays the managerial bias. Her description of Town Meeting spending decisions (most of which support the Select Board) as “crowd-sourcing” is as demeaning as it is inaccurate.

Two things that voters should know about Town Meeting which perhaps Ms. Kruger has forgotten since her Town Meeting days. First, Town Meeting members are deeply knowledgeable on a wide array of matters relating to town governance and policy. I did not leave my knowledge behind when I retired as an Amherst school principal.

Second, since 1996 Town Meeting has taken charge of its own improvement. It now has its own year-round committee structure to look both at its own functioning and at the town warrant. In fact, the matter of amendments from the floor of Town Meeting, which Ms. Kruger complains of, has been on the agenda of the Subcommittee on Policies and Procedures for over a year. I know because I put it there.

I expect the Select Board to support Town Meeting because it needs it. The two parts of government provide balance and checks on each other. Whenever Select Board members are tempted to say “we know better,” they should then ask what their knowledge prevents them from seeing. Town Meeting members should do this too.

Michael Greenebaum, a retired principal of the former Marks Meadow School in Amherst, became a Town Meeting member in 1992 and represents Precinct 6.