Columnist William Kaizen: Amherst should choose between mayor, Town Meeting

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The new charter proposed by the Amherst Charter Commission calls for a dramatic reduction of the number of citizens directly involved in town governance.

If enacted as currently written, our town’s main decision-making body will be reduced from 252 voting Town Meeting representatives to a 13-member Town Council. With no mayor in the current proposal, this means greatly reducing the number of people who directly participate in town government without gaining the useful abilities of a single town leader to serve as a negotiator, a watchdog and a person of vision. It asks voters to hand our town’s government over to a much smaller coterie whose power will be increased in inverse proportion to their number.

According to the commission and my own conversations with people, members of our community are asking for a new charter in order to increase government “accountability,” but what does this mean? Most pressingly, it means that many people are unhappy with the failure of the town to approve the plans for a new elementary school. I too was disappointed that the new elementary school project didn’t move forward.

There’s a perception among those who were in favor of the project that another form of government would have made it happen more quickly and efficiently, with less controversy. Conversely, there’s a perception among people who were opposed to the plan that the project was voted on too many times, and that Town Meeting allows for endless palaver and multiple revotes on issues that have already been decided.

Several times in the recent past, similar issues have triggered calls for reconsidering the town charter and eliminating Town Meeting. Reading old reports shows how little things have changed.

The last time this issue was raised, in 2002, the Charter Commission offered the town a significant choice between a mayor/town council and Town Meeting. The town voted to keep Town Meeting. Overall, Town Meeting seems to have kept things afloat fairly well since then. While Town Meeting has evolved, the issue of town governance is well worth revisiting every decade or so.

There’s no doubt that Town Meeting, as it’s presently constituted, has accountability problems. Its demographics are out of line with the economic and racial makeup of the town. It skews heavily in age toward retirees. Some precincts have races that aren’t competitive enough.

But this doesn’t mean that we should eliminate Town Meeting. There are many ways to fix it, from voting reform, to reducing the number of people who serve, to creating incentives for people from underrepresented communities to participate.

One thought: Why not pay people with low incomes to serve as Town Meeting representatives? This need not be more expensive than paying town councilors and a mayor. Gutting the number of people who serve isn’t the answer.

I moved to Amherst last summer with my wife and two children. My son started kindergarten at Wildwood Elementary last fall. I was driven by both national politics and the politics surrounding Amherst’s school project to run for Town Meeting and was elected to serve as a representative for Precinct 3.

I’m not convinced that Town Meeting is the best form of governance for Amherst. I do think that government directly by the people is a laudable goal. I also agree that government needs to protect citizens against the tyranny of the majority as well as the minority. Given a better choice for Amherst than Town Meeting as currently constituted, I would certainly vote for the dissolution of Town Meeting and gladly give up my position as a representative. But the Charter Commission isn’t offering the people of Amherst a good choice.

A better choice would be between having a mayor with veto power who can function as a true chief town executive and improving Town Meeting. Although the new charter proposal superficially spells out a stronger division between legislative and executive branches, it actually vests all the powers of government in the hands of a greatly reduced number of people, including the power to set their own salaries. And while there have been some recent reforms to Town Meeting, they haven’t gone nearly far enough. Given that Town Meeting has adopted electronic voting, which is now used in some cases,why not make all votes electronic so that constituents can see exactly how their representatives vote on everything?

I urge the Charter Commission to withdraw its current proposal in favor of one that features a mayor with veto power, and I urge Town Meeting to offering a meaningful counterproposal for reforming its current shortcomings. Then let the town decide.

William Kaizen, of Amherst, is an art historian, author and curator. His books include “Against Immediacy: Video Art and Media Populism” and “Adventure (for Adults).” He is a Town Meeting representative for Precinct 3.