Columnists Meg Gage, Julia Rueschemeyer and Gerry Weiss: Amherst does not need city government

Thursday, March 08, 2018

We are the three members of the Charter Commission who voted against the proposed charter that the people of Amherst will vote up or down on March 27. We urge you to vote “no” to preserve the Amherst we know and love.

This charter would convert Amherst to a city form of government. It eliminates our 254-member Representative Town Meeting and five-member Select Board and replaces those legislative and executive bodies with a 13-member paid council. Only five of the nine charter commissioners supported this proposal.

From the start, we had hoped that the Charter Commission would study our current town government and devise a new charter all of us could support. We expected that process would include exploring many forms of government, including our current governmental structure. This never happened.

Chairman Andy Churchill spoke for the slim majority when he said that they were elected to do a job, and that job was to eliminate Town Meeting. For most of the next 18 months, the five members of the majority were singularly focused on achieving that goal. Why? Their backers didn’t like certain Town Meeting votes, especially those preventing rezoning that would have drastically reshaped downtown Amherst and the school vote, though the townwide referendum mirrored Town Meeting’s vote.

Some commissioners wanted to include a mayor in the proposal, but a mayor-council option was never supported by a majority. Instead, the commission was left with a mishmash compromise — the council-manager form of government, one highly unusual for Massachusetts, found in struggling, post-industrial cities such as Palmer, Bridgewater, Southbridge and Chelsea.

This single-minded focus on eliminating Town Meeting prevented the commission from addressing difficulties in our current government about which we were in agreement. A key value voiced often by the commission was for there to be “clear political voice for Amherst,” a task that will be extremely difficult to achieve with a body of 13.

Amherst For All, the campaign organization backing this proposal, has repeatedly stated that Amherst deserves a “full time government.” That should come as a surprise to the elected Select Board which meets at least every other week year-round, and for the town manager and town staff, four year-round Town Meeting committees, all working on our behalf 52 weeks a year. Town Meeting meets the amount of time needed to do its job, just as do nearly 1,300 town meetings across New England, including in towns with populations of over 50,000 and budgets two to five times the size of ours.

This proposed charter creates two-year terms for all elected positions, terms which all expire at the same time. The commission majority hopes this will create a quicker opportunity to “throw the bums out” if the electorate disagrees with a councilor’s votes. It is likely to set up an untenable amount of campaign activity (including more money in politics), which, coupled with the learning curve of each job, will result in too short a time to accomplish what needs to be done.

All charter commissioners agreed that Amherst has a remarkable school system, a very high bond rating with strong financial reserves, excellent services, wonderful open spaces and a committed, grassroots community. What we didn’t agree on was how residents should be involved with government.

Those supporting a council-manager form believe that the act of voting for councilors provides sufficient participation in our government. The three of us believe that Amherst can do better than that. Our strong tradition of participatory democracy is embodied in Town Meeting which includes members both young and old, women and men, various races — a diversity that is unlikely to be duplicated by a 13-member council.

And although 95 percent of the time Town Meeting agrees with town hall, the other 5 percent of the time Town Meeting functions as a sounding board, to give the Select Board, Planning Board and School Committee feedback on policy directions and priorities. It’s a check-and-balance system!

Town Meeting has been a consistent voice for social justice, sometimes in opposition to town hall. It has been a consistent source of the electorate’s independent, creative thinking, able to find unique ways to represent our community’s values.

Town Meeting champions women’s involvement in politics — our Town Meeting is 56 percent women. Compare that with the average number of women in councils in Massachusetts, which is 25 percent!

When a town is working as well as ours, it makes no sense to change to a completely new form of city government that concentrates all town power in the hands of 13 people.

Although Meg Gage, Gerry Weiss and Julia Rueschemeyer have lived in Amherst for a total of 99 years, they are not that old. During this time, they have served in a variety of elected and volunteer positions in service to Amherst, including as proud representatives of their precincts 1, 8 and 9, respectively, in Town Meeting.