Columnists Johanna Neumann and Clare Bertrand: Proposed charter elegant, practical evolution in Amherst government

Thursday, August 03, 2017

As citizens interested in making sure that Amherst remains a wonderful place to raise a family, work and play, we are thrilled to see the recommendations of the Amherst Charter Commission.

We are excited to join others over the coming months, under the banner of Amherst for All, to educate Amherst residents about the benefits this proposal brings to our town so we can win these improvements at next spring’s town election.

The Charter Commission’s proposal evolves our town’s governance so we can better meet new challenges and opportunities, empowers voters and ensures decision-making in our town connects the dots on the challenging, complex issues we face.

The major challenges facing Amherst are all interconnected. For example, housing affordability is affected by the tax base, which is affected by open space and development, which are affected by zoning, and guided by the master plan. You get the idea.

We need a decision-making body in place that can meet often enough to build real expertise in order to make informed decisions based on all the facts — a group with the time and commitment to see the issues in their full complexity, and with the ability to act accordingly, in an open process with real accountability.

Many aspects of our current form of government are functioning at a level that would be the envy of many similar towns of our size. The Charter Commission’s recommendations preserve many of those aspects, most notably the town manager’s role, and remedies those aspects that are simply not up to the challenges we face as we move into the future. The new charter proposal represents a natural, gradual evolution in our government and introduces important features of accountability that are lacking today.

Without recounting the commission’s recommendations in detail, here are some key features of the proposed charter that we believe make it worth supporting:

A 13-member Town Council will ensure new levels of accountability and disciplined, informed, ongoing decision making — along with plenty of safeguards to ensure that the council doesn’t operate counter to the will of the people.

A professional town manager will continue in much the same role as has been defined for years, but with expanded duties for public outreach and accountability.

Town elections will move to the second Tuesday after the first Monday in November of odd years — timing that research suggests will boost turnout.

If the charter is adopted, a commission will be formed to design and implement a system in Amherst for “ranked-choice voting” — also known as instant runoff voting. Ranked-choice voting is widely hailed by advocates of democracy as a model that more fairly represents the full spectrum of voters.

The Charter Commission arrived at its proposal as the result of a long, thoughtful process – one in which our whole town can take pride. More than 3,500 citizens supported forming the commission, and as a town, we elected a group of nine volunteers to serve on the Charter Commission, many of whom brought divergent opinions to this effort. Together, those members held more than 60 meetings, workshops and feedback sessions, received 400 written submissions, fielded 200 in-person responses, and incorporated feedback from hundreds of emails, Facebook comments and conversations.

Is their proposal perfect? Probably not – no one person or group is likely to be completely satisfied with everything the commission has recommended. But, in the wake of this robust public process, there’s no arguing that this charter reflects the input of a diverse, varied cross section of our town.

We believe the proposed charter is an elegant yet practical evolution in our governance.

As citizens who love Amherst and want our vibrant small town to continue to thrive, we believe this new charter is an opportunity we should seize and we invite others to join us in working to build the support necessary to pass it next spring.

Clare Bertrand is a long-time resident of Amherst, Town Meeting member and local parent volunteer. Johanna Neumann is a five-year resident of Amherst who most recently chaired the ballot campaign to win a new elementary school building for Amherst.