Columnist Nick Grabbe considers ghosts of Christmas season

Thursday, December 28, 2017

This Christmas season, Town Meeting members who oppose Amherst’s new charter have been conjuring up a series of ghosts to frighten voters about the proposal for a 13-member Town Council.

I’m going to play the role of ghostbuster, shining a spotlight on each of these phantoms.

Their Ghost of Christmas Past is male chauvinism. Some charter opponents want us to believe that when Amherst has a Town Council, our long history of gender equality in government will suddenly vanish and we will return to the 1950s.

Besides being insulting to women, this claim ignores the fact that Amherst is different from most Massachusetts communities. We’ve had an equal number of men and women on the Select Board over the past 10 years, including chairs Alisa Brewer and Stephanie O’Keeffe and members Diana Stein and Connie Kruger.

Gender balance goes back a lot further in Amherst. Nancy Eddy and Diana Romer were prominent Select Board members in the 1970s, as were Francesca Maltese, Edie Wilkinson and Elisa Campbell in the 1980s.

Amherst officially changed the name from Board of Selectmen to Select Board in the mid-’80s. Most of our peer communities have still not done so.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is money. It is understandable that some people would be concerned about this, because of the corruption that’s endemic to our national politics.

But there are numerous reasons why large donors will be unable to control Amherst’s Town Council. There’s a limit of $1,000 on individual contributions, and any over $50 are public, so large donations might be more of a detriment to a candidate than a benefit. And it isn’t clear what candidates would need a lot of money for, besides lawn signs, brochures and newspaper ads.

The six progressive Town Council candidates who were swept into office in Greenfield last month spent an average of only $782. One of them outpolled an opponent who spent almost 10 times as much as she did. Peter Demling beat Jennifer Page in the Amherst School Committee race last spring even though Page spent more money.

Amherst is a well-educated town, and voters will make their decisions based on candidate’s positions on issues, plus their experience and character, not money.

Since it’s harder to disprove predictions, charter opponents have conjured up two Ghosts of Christmas Future. Their first is development.

The way the Town Council is set up, changing zoning will not be easy. Ten of the 13 councilors will be elected from districts rather than from the whole town, ensuring that neighborhood sentiment will get prominent representation. And if 20 percent of property owners within 300 feet of the site of a proposed zoning change object, 10 councilors will have to approve it. That’s 77 percent, compared to Town Meeting’s 67 percent.

The council will be able to consider the ramifications of proposed changes over weeks and months (rather than one night with Town Meeting), receiving public input and collecting information. It will be required to discuss and approve the master plan and hold annual forums on it to make sure it’s consistent with the community’s wishes.

The second Ghost of Christmas Future is oligarchy. Charter opponents claim that it’s better to have 240 Town Meeting members make decisions (actually, an average of only 180 show up) than a 13-member Town Council.

But councilors will have clear mandates from voters, and if their constituents don’t like how they’ve voted, they can kick them out after two years. The majority of Town Meeting members have no such mandate, and very few incumbents have failed to be re-elected.

Town Meeting has structural limitations because of the nonregular meetings and the negligible opportunities for public comment or sustained deliberation. The new charter will extend power to all voters, and provide new avenues for public participation.

The new Town Council will be large enough to ensure a diversity of voices. No town in Massachusetts with a manager/council system will have a larger council than Amherst.

Here’s the bottom line. If you like having 180 unaccountable super-voters making decisions on your behalf a couple of times a year without full information, then the status quo is fine.

But if you believe that Amherst has outgrown occasional government and deserves year-round democracy that empowers all the voters and provides a structure for more thoughtful spending and planning decisions, you should give the new charter a try.

Nick Grabbe, a former editor and writer for the Bulletin, is a member of the Charter Commission and co-writer of the blog A Better Amherst.