Amherst charter critics say proposal undermines town manager’s authority

  • Amherst's new town manager, Paul Bockelman, views Amherst's 250th anniversary flag during a tour of Town Hall on his first day on the job in August 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2018

AMHERST — Charter critics say the town manager’s powers, including the ability to appoint department heads, will be undermined by the proposal that comes before voters March 27.

Jim Oldham, a Town Meeting member, cites two letters from the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association that argue the charter plan could weaken the town manager’s ability to function as head of the executive branch.

“Amherst voters should be aware that the charter has critical flaws that, although these experts called attention to them, five of nine Charter Commissioners ignored them,” Oldham said in a statement issued Jan. 6.

Oldham, a member of Not This Charter, points specifically to Section 2, Chapter 11, that gives the council 14 days to approve or reject an appointment made by the town manager. Such veto power is not granted to the current Select Board.

But Charter Commission Vice Chairwoman Mandi Jo Hanneke said the memos from the MMMA were only advisory, and a majority of the commission felt it best to have a council that could overturn appointments.

“The commission discussed these memos, and believed after discussion that confirmation of appointments was an important check on the manager’s authority,” Hanneke said.

The letters from MMMA President Rocco Longo and committee Chairwoman Julie Jacobson were sent June 30 and again in September after the commission voted on its final proposal.

In September, they wrote: “As previously noted in our letter of June 30th, we recommend that the town manager be able to appoint department heads without confirmation. As previously stated, since the town manager is appointed by the town council, to have also the department heads confirmed by the town council, could undermine the town manager’s authority.”

Charter Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said the MMMA is a lobbying organization that seeks the most powerful town manager possible. The commission, on the other hand, sought to have sufficient checks and balances between the manager and council, to have the voices of the residents heard, and to create an effective government.

“We felt it appropriate for elected representatives to review and, if desired, reject department heads and committee members,” Churchill said.

The town manager retains appointment powers and is hardly impotent, he said.

Churchill said the question on the charter is about whether residents want to retain Town Meeting as the legislative branch. If adopted, the charter would be automatically reviewed in six years, in 2024, and then at least once a decade afterward.

“I think we have a decent proposal and process,” Churchill said.

But Oldham contends that expert advice from the MMMA was ignored, and flaws in the charter went unchanged, which should give voters pause.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.