Columnist Ted Parker: Embrace possibility of inclusive government

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

There is structural inequity built into Town Meeting. Comparing the current roster of its members to the assessor’s rolls reveals that more than 90 percent own their home. Attend Town Meeting and you may be surprised by the high average age and overall whiteness of the legislative body.

Defenders of Town Meeting consider it to be the purest form of participatory democracy and are convinced that its size — at 240 plus — is a guarantee of sound decision-making and diverse points of view. By repeating this belief in the wisdom of crowds and the value of raw numbers, advocates for Town Meeting either fail to notice or choose to ignore the skewed demographics and homogeneity of the institution.

How can this be so, in a community proud of its progressive values and generally supportive of social justice? Why has this exclusive and demographically unrepresentative body persisted unchanged for so long? Why is Town Meeting so vociferously defended and why does the prospect of its abolition cause such wailing and gnashing of teeth?

Take a step back and the answer is apparent. Town Meeting confers significant and valuable structural entitlement to those who have access and opportunity to participate. It would be a surprise if that entitlement were easily and voluntarily surrendered.

Make no mistake, there is powerful, if unacknowledged, self-interest at stake in defending Town Meeting. Not everyone is able to serve and those who do benefit from it.

Consider this: If it were proposed that Town Meeting members must be a minimum of 35 years old, or homeowners, we would think it unjust and absurd. Yet we accept that our legislative body has few members that do not meet these criteria.

Few question these evident structural barricades that prevent or discourage participation by those of us without the time, flexibility or means to fully participate. We leave unchallenged the structural privilege that affords disproportionate access and influence to a relatively small number of our citizens.

Will a council of 13 be better able to represent the interest of all? Many of us believe it will.

A councilor, whether elected from a ward or at-large, must be aware of and weigh the range of concerns of their constituents. A councilor’s votes should then reflect those concerns if they wish to continue serving. A councilor will be accountable to a renter and property owner equally. A councilor will need the vote of both a young working-class family with school-aged children and a retiree living on a fixed income.

Anyone will be free to personally lobby their representative and hold them accountable. This is demonstrably more equitable than our current system.

Many Town Meeting members are “elected” merely by placing their name on the ballot. With no constituency to hold them accountable, they are free to vote their narrow self-interest, whether that means protecting their neighborhood from development or voting against badly needed capital expenditures. After serving for decades, it is easy to understand why a threat to this “super-voter” status is distressing for some.

Amherst is sure to change, as it always has. As we consider how it may change, ask yourself if you truly believe that Town Meeting is the best, most inclusive and equitable system of representing the interests of everyone — and that means everyone — in our community.

Ask yourself if Amherst should be governed with an eye toward the rapidly changing future or a nostalgic attachment to the past. Ask yourself if change is an invigorating challenge to be embraced or a threat to your comfortable and parochial interest.

While considering these questions, try to ignore the anguished cries of aggrieved entitlement that will arise from some defenders of Town Meeting.

Let us embrace a new structure open to the possibility of an inclusive and equitable government that will serve us all.

Ted Parker, of Amherst, is a member of the Historical Commission.