Columnist Ruth Smith: Keep Town Meeting with changes

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Citizens of Amherst will vote next spring on an important issue: Shall we leave our current type of government as is or change it as proposed by the Charter Commission?

Let us make changes to the current structure and not eliminate it entirely as is being suggested.

Since becoming politically involved in Amherst, and having resided in Newton for many years, I have had the opportunity to participate in both forms of local government. Comparative experiences and observations have led to the conclusion that Town Meeting is a much better structure — especially in a town the size of Amherst.

Concerned citizens have always been involved at the local level. The question to be addressed is which is the best way to vote on issues that represent the concerns of the town’s citizens.

Across the commonwealth, many towns have either a Town Meeting structure or a mayoral/manager/council system. Newton, for example, currently has a mayor and council structure.

This year, it also has a Charter Commission proposing changes. And, as in Amherst’s charter, Newton is proposing a reduction in the number of council members from 24 to 12 in a city that is considerably bigger. There, too, there is much opposition to what is being proposed.

Does Town Meeting need improvement? Perhaps. However, some improvements can be made without a drastic overhaul of the entire system. For example, the number of representatives can be reduced but not to the small number being proposed that would make up the Town Council.

Another change would be to recommend that Town Meeting convene more than twice a year, perhaps with a midyear session in addition to the fall and spring meetings.

Does changing the structure ensure greater input from citizens who might attend the twice-a-year meetings in their precinct? If voting numbers are any indicator, one might expect not necessarily.

Precinct residents currently already can contact their representatives and express their views on an issues. How does the suggested smaller number of council members possibly represent a variety of views in any given precinct?

Rapid elected turnover does not allow for a serious conversation on any issue that may require more than a one-year consideration. The proposed small number does not ensure a continuity of perspective that has gone on before about an issue.

The Charter Commission representatives, by and large, did not really take into account the input of citizens who attended its meetings. Business and development interests were the driving force of a number of the commission’s members and they had no intention of changing their minds.

Other criticisms of Town Meeting are the average age, race and economic status of the representatives. These criticisms may be true in a general way and improvements can probably be made.

However, it is possible that older representatives are not as burdened with other responsibilities, such as caring for a family and work. Just because one is older does not mean he/she can’t represent the concerns of younger residents.

More diversity could be improved by more outreach to folks with disabilities and diverse ethnic groups. Town Meeting should commit to developing an outreach plan.

Not every representative is upper middle class. Many of the older representatives live on limited incomes or are still working for economic reasons.

Given all of the above, we should seriously consider continuing with a Town Meeting structure while making some suggested changes.

Ruth Smith, of Amherst, a retired educator and social worker, is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 6.