Columnist Nick Grabbe: The case against Town Meeting

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Amherst Town Meeting will convene Nov. 6 for the last time before voters decide on a proposal to replace it with a 13-member council.

I applaud the civic involvement of Town Meeting members, who devote about 35 hours a year to volunteer government. But as an institution, Amherst Town Meeting is a relic that is not well suited to dealing with 21st-century challenges.

Here are some reasons why I think Amherst residents should vote “yes” on March 27 to approve the Charter Commission’s recommendation to end Town Meeting.

It’s unaccountable: Town Meeting members don’t need to communicate with residents because most of them can easily get re-elected, often based on just name recognition. They don’t have to represent anyone’s views but their own. Most residents can’t name the Town Meeting members from their precincts.

It doesn’t reflect the population: Town Meeting members are older, whiter and wealthier than registered voters. The University of Massachusetts political science department found that 93 percent of Town Meeting members were white, compared to 79 percent of voters. While 49 percent of voters owned homes, 80 percent of Town Meeting members were homeowners. The average age of voters was found to be 39, compared to 59 for Town Meeting members.

It’s ill-informed: Two members of the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee recently made these statements. “There’s not enough information to make decisions,” said John Hornik, in advocating for a new advisory committee. Chris Riddle said he understands zoning better than most people, and yet many proposals are “above my head.”

It’s not deliberative: Town Meeting comes in at the end of a long process of developing proposals, and doesn’t have the time to fully consider their implications. It doesn’t even set its own agenda. Most members are not involved in the discussion of proposals that precedes Town Meeting.

It isn’t nimble: Town Meeting doesn’t meet frequently, so it can’t deal with the crises and opportunities of a fast-paced world. Its schedule requires the town manager to form a budget long before he knows how much state money to expect.

High taxes: There are multiple reasons why Amherst property taxes are so high, and decisions made by Town Meeting are one factor. Amherst’s annual residential taxes averaged $7,269 last year, compared to $5,068 in Northampton and $3,723 in Hadley.

It’s uninspiring to voters: Participation in local elections has been declining, and averaged 10.2 percent of registered voters from 2011 to 2015, reaching a low of 6.6 percent in 2013. Turnout increased for the last two years only because there were items on the ballot prompted by displeasure with Town Meeting.

It’s uninspiring to candidates: Many voters have no choices, or minimal choices, of candidates when they go to vote. That’s because not enough residents have declared an interest in serving to create competition for seats, despite the fact that it now takes only one signature (one’s own) to get on the ballot.

It’s secretive: Town Meeting members don’t have to abide by the state’s Open Meeting Law, so they can create private discussion groups that non-members can’t access. And they are exempt from conflict-of-interest laws, so they can vote on articles that affect their personal financial interests.

It’s expensive: Twice a year, many Town Hall staff are preoccupied with preparing for Town Meeting. During the sessions, many have to sit in the gallery in case they are needed, accumulating compensatory time. Mailings to 240 people are a waste of money.

It’s easily influenced: A small number of loud voices dominate the debate. Misinformation often goes uncorrected before a vote. A determined minority can have an outsized impact on Town Meeting members who don’t understand an issue fully.

It’s exclusionary: The 99 percent of registered voters who are not Town Meeting members have few ways to influence decisions. The slow pace and the large time commitment deter many residents from joining. Town Meeting is an aristocracy of people with lots of time.

Some think Amherst Town Meeting resembles the famous Norman Rockwell painting in which a regular guy gets up and says his piece. But that type of “open” Town Meeting, which exists in small towns and typically lasts only one day, was discarded by Amherst voters almost 80 years ago.

On March 27, I hope Amherst voters will decide that it’s time for another change. I hope they will conclude that an accountable, deliberative 13-member council that meets regularly year round will do a better job of representing their interests.

Nick Grabbe, a former Bulletin editor and reporter, is a Charter Commission member and co-author of a blog that can be accessed at abetteramherst.org.