Columnist Nick Grabbe defends recommendation to eliminate Town Meeting

Sunday, September 10, 2017

I am never surprised when Amherst Town Meeting members defend their turf.

Town Meeting members William Kaizen and Jennifer Page wrote columns in the Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 Bulletins arguing for its continuance. I believe that the manager/council form of government recommended by the Charter Commission will reflect the will of residents much better.

I applaud Kaizen’s interest in getting involved in town politics after he arrived in Amherst last summer. But, inadvertently, he makes a good case for the new charter when he writes that he was “elected” to Town Meeting last spring.

Kaizen was one of seven candidates for eight seats in his precinct. So there was no chance that he would not get “elected.” He didn’t have to articulate his positions or gather signatures. All he had to do was sign his name.

Kaizen received fewer than 100 votes, even though there was no competition in his precinct. In the early 1970s, only 1 percent of elected Town Meeting members received that meager a mandate, compared to about half over the last eight years.

Kaizen and Page prefer the 252-member Town Meeting to a 13-person council, arguing that bigger is better. Kaizen calls the council a “coterie,” imagining a circle of friends sharing common interests instead of a politically diverse group chosen by voters from different parts of town in competitive elections.

An average of 180 people show up for a Town Meeting session, and many of them were unopposed in the election, while many others were incumbents who can easily get reelected. Many of them have not followed the development of proposals they have to vote on, and many have trouble understanding complex issues such as zoning.

Their mandate to make decisions for the rest of us has been diminished by the decline in the number of voters and candidates. Average voter participation in local elections was down to a dismal 10.2 percent from 2011 to 2015. Town Meeting cannot effectively represent the people when the vast majority of people no longer participate in elections. (Turnout and the number of candidates increased in 2016 and 2017, but that was because of other issues on the ballot.)

Yes, a council will have fewer people. But they will be chosen after real campaigns in which voters can evaluate the positions, experience and character of multiple candidates. Competitive council elections in November will attract more voters than non-competitive Town Meeting elections in April. The councilors will meet regularly, be more knowledgeable about the issues, and will represent neighborhoods as well as the town as a whole.

Kaizen asks what “accountability” means, and acknowledges that Town Meeting has problems here. When councilors who don’t represent the interests of their constituents can be thrown out after two years, that forces them to pay close attention to what voters want. That’s accountability.

He writes that “there are many ways to fix” Town Meeting, an argument that has been around for decades. But a committee looking into these “fixes” is recommending to fall Town Meeting only another committee.

Kaizen notes that the town voted to keep Town Meeting in 2003. This “endorsement” came from only 50.1 percent of voters, and the momentum for charter reform is much stronger now, largely because of the school issue.

Page supported Town Meeting’s decision to reject $34 million in state money to help pay for two new elementary schools, overruling a majority of voters. She writes that “it is so difficult to influence 240 people.” But that’s precisely what an advocacy group did on the school issue, helped along by $5,000 from a single donor.

Some Town Meeting defenders claim that the council could be controlled by moneyed interests. I think candidates will need money only for brochures, lawn signs and newspaper ads. In-person contact will be more important, and contributions over $50 will be public.

Page describes a resident who was frustrated at the difficulty of reaching Town Meeting members to express an opinion. Under the new charter, communication between residents and decision-makers will be much easier, and in their mutual self-interest.

Next March 27, voters will decide whether they want to keep the status quo or adopt a form of government that is much more common in Massachusetts and around the country. I hope they will vote “yes” for a better Amherst.

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