Columnist Nick Grabbe: More accountability, participation goals of charter

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Jim Oldham makes some helpful suggestions for improving Amherst’s new charter in his column in the July 21 Bulletin (“Leadership and accountability lacking”).

I hope residents will read the charter and come to the Aug. 31 public hearing with their comments.

But Oldham is incorrect when he asserts that the charter will cause a decline in accountability and resident participation. It is striking that nowhere in his column does he mention Town Meeting, which is largely unaccountable to residents and where only an unrepresentative 1 percent of voters participate.

Since Oldham is part of that 1 percent, it is understandable that he wants to keep the current system. If the charter is approved, participation by the 187 Town Meeting members who attend an average session may decrease. But the opportunity for the other 99 percent of registered voters to be involved in local government will increase.

Oldham criticizes the charter’s call for a two-year election cycle, but doesn’t mention that currently most office-holders have three-year terms. If we want elected officials to be more accountable to voters, doesn’t it make sense to have them face voters more frequently?

Most Town Meeting incumbents have been routinely re-elected over the past 15 years, with little debate over their records. In many precincts, Town Meeting members have enough name recognition to be easily re-elected for the rest of their lives.

Sure, Amherst has had local elections every year, but they have been largely meaningless. About half the precincts haven’t had enough Town Meeting candidates to have competitive races.

And voters, seeing that they have few or no choices on their ballots, have largely tuned out. Voter turnout in local elections has plummeted from an average of 19.5 percent from 2007 to 2011 to a dismal 12 percent from 2012 to 2016.

We expect that there will be keen interest in running for the 13 town council seats if voters approve the new charter next March. There will be debates about issues in Amherst’s neighborhoods, and we expect a much heavier turnout for the first election under the new charter in November 2018. November is when most people are used to voting, and that should bump up voter participation as well. There’s a provision in the charter that will result in ranked-choice voting, which will ensure that election winners are acceptable to a majority of voters.

Voting is, after all, the main way that residents can participate in government. By that standard, the current system has failed Amherst. But there are other ways that Amherst residents feel disconnected from their government.

“Town Meeting” conjures up images of small-town New England and government by regular folks. I have seen how the open Town Meeting form of government works well in small towns like Hadley, Shutesbury, Leverett and Belchertown. But Amherst Town Meeting isn’t like that.

It is closed to residents who don’t sign up to be on the ballot and agree to attend 10 to 15 three-hour night sessions a year. Unlike with open Town Meeting, if you want to vote on a particular issue and you haven’t joined, you’re out of luck. In many cases, you can’t even address the group.

Town Meeting members are significantly older, whiter and wealthier than the Amherst population as a whole. A recent analysis found that the median age of members is 61.2 while the median for voters is 34.5. It’s an aristocracy of people with time to spend, effectively disenfranchising many parents of young children, residents with multiple or nighttime jobs, and business owners.

It is “democratic” only if you define democracy as decision-making by a large group of people, no matter how they are chosen.

Under the new charter, there will be many opportunities for residents to participate. The robust system of volunteer boards and committees will continue. There will be three forums a year that will be open to all, during which residents can learn about issues and comment on them.

Town Meeting members don’t have to serve their constituents’ needs. Under the charter, a strong majority of the council (10 of the 13 members) will be elected from five distinct parts of town, and will be required to hold at least two meetings a year in their neighborhoods.

With 24 people elected to Town Meeting from each of 10 precincts, the average resident doesn’t know who to call if he or she has a problem with town government or wants to raise a concern. Under the charter, one of the main functions of the district councilors will be to perform this constituent service.

In addition, there are numerous mechanisms in the charter that will allow residents to participate directly in government. They can submit petitions that require council action, they can propose new bylaws and they can even veto actions that the council has taken.

There’s also a provision in the charter for the creation of a community participation officer to promote and support diverse resident involvement in government.

Greater accountability and resident participation were two of the main goals of the Charter Commission, and if voters say “yes” next March, Amherst will have them.

Nick Grabbe, of Amherst, is a member of the Charter Commission and a former editor and writer at the Amherst Bulletin.