Columnist Peter Demling: Charter would strengthen two key elements

Thursday, January 11, 2018

I encourage you to join me on March 27 in voting “yes” for the new town charter in Amherst. It is the most positive thing we can do for the future of our town and our schools.

The charter would provide us with two key elements missing in our government today: a structure to ensure informed decision-making, and a direct line of clear accountability to the general public.

The need to improve how informed our decision-makers are became apparent last year during the Town Meeting discussion and vote on the school building project. Some Town Meeting members said later they would have supported the project if they had known that the state funding authorities did not allow changes to the proposal, as had often been claimed. The reality is that we forfeited the $34 million grant we competed for, and have to start over again.

The prospect of quickly moving through the state aid pipeline in the future also influenced many well-meaning Town Meeting members. But only after these important votes had passed were the facts clearly heard and learned by all: even in a best-case scenario, it will now take at least until the 2030s to complete the construction of two new school buildings with state aid.

A thorough conversation among representatives may have cleared up this and other misinformation. But Town Meeting restricts deliberation to a sequence of disconnected and wide-ranging individual statements, with little opportunity for in-depth response, follow-up questions and a chance for all members to speak.

This structure inhibits the sincere attempts of members to have a full and meaningful exchange of ideas and a complete vetting of information. Claims go unchallenged; misunderstandings are allowed to remain.

This would change under the new charter. Instead of a 254-member body meeting twice a year with limited ability to deliberate, a 13-member council would meet year-round with the full deliberation and public input of open meetings.

On the School Committee, I have seen that a small group of elected representatives, meeting regularly for in-depth, detailed and public discussions, clears away misinformation, and is essential for fully understanding the views of others. Deliberating in this way demands more effort and time, but in my experience, it is the only way to achieve clarity prior to making important decisions.

Open meetings also establish a direct line of accountability to the general public. The School Committee gathers public comment at every monthly meeting, and unlike Town Meeting, we’re required by law to deliberate as a group only during these open meetings.

This shines a strong, public spotlight on our actions, demanding that we remain responsive and answerable to the people we represent. The same Open Meeting Law would apply to the Town Council, which would hear even further public input at local district meetings and public forums.

The public connection thus established, competitive elections would provide the all-important check that representatives are acting in accordance with the public will.

Campaigning for School Committee was demanding — as it should be! I had to move outside my comfort zone and talk to many new people whose viewpoints challenged my previous assumptions. As a result, I have a much broader understanding of how complex school topics affect people differently, and the public has a much better sense of where I stand on issues.

In contrast, many Town Meeting members repeatedly run unopposed, without active campaigns, and few voters can name their 24 representatives, let alone state any of their positions. There isn’t the strong voter connection and robust electoral accountability that a much smaller and open Town Council would provide.

I saw parents and teachers lined up at Town Meeting to speak about the building project, but not given the chance to have their voices heard before the vote was cast — and I knew it was time for a change.

I followed the Charter Commission’s work closely, and I respect the outcome of a process involving an enormous amount of research, deliberation, public engagement and compromise, resulting in a proposal that provides the important missing pieces of government that we clearly need today.

Both the public and our representatives who wish to serve the public good deserve a system built upon a foundation of informed and open decision-making, empowered by strong electoral accountability. A “yes” vote on March 27 would make this possible.

Peter Demling is a member of the Amherst School Committee and a parent of three students in the Amherst Regional Public Schools. He has lived in Amherst for 10 years and is employed as a software engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.