Editorial: What should govern Amherst vote Tuesday 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

On Tuesday, Amherst voters will elect people to office, as they do every spring. But voters may also decide to put one such office, a seat on the town’s representative Town Meeting, on notice.

That would happen if a majority of voters supports Question 1 on the ballot, which asks, “Shall a Commission be elected to frame a Charter for Amherst?”

The question is there because 3,457 people signed petitions calling for it. Their signatures present a clear indication that voters believe the town should explore the question of whether Town Meeting best serves Amherst’s needs today. Come Tuesday, the matter goes before all who choose to exercise their democratic franchise in our democracy.

Not surprisingly, the question has become loaded. This week’s Bulletin contains news coverage, a voters’ guide, guest columns and a tsunami of letters. Most of the commentaries leap from the relatively simple question of launching a commission to the bigger issue of what it might recommend to voters, many months from now.

We invite readers to spend time reading this week’s commentaries. They go deep on questions a charter commission would have to confront. The rigor of this debate underscores for us that it is again time to consider whether representative Town Meeting is right for a 21st century community.

But at this point, that’s the whole question: Is it working? Determining the answer demands that the commission take a full look at the issue.

And here is where voters face another important choice on Tuesday. In addition to deciding whether or not to create a commission, the ballot presents 19 candidates for nine seats on such a panel.

The group Amherst for All, which orchestrated the ballot question, is proposing that voters back a “pro-change” slate of candidates who it claims share its views that Town Meeting is flawed. Naturally, in this politicized environment, advocates of Town Meeting have their own preferred candidates.

That all seems to be putting the horse before the cart.

A charter commission, if empaneled, should actually study this matter, not arrive with a predetermined conclusion. We agree with Amherst resident Mangala Jagadeesh, who writes in a letter this week that “a charter commission should actually look at what is working and what isn’t, and make recommendations that will benefit the town as a whole, not merely factions in town.”

This isn’t the election that should decide the future of Town Meeting. That comes later, after a commission report. Jagadeesh says she’s going to pick candidates from both sides of the issue, to “encourage compromise and flexibility.”

Amherst deserves a charter commission that from the outset cannot be dismissed as either for or against the town’s current form of government. It needs members able to preserve what works or recommend something better.

A commission stacked with opponents of Town Meeting would have a hard time coming back to voters with changes and claiming it conducted an objective review, even if it had. If those candidates win en masse Tuesday, they may set themselves up for loss later.