David Markland: Proposed Amherst charter not the answer

Thursday, February 01, 2018
Proposed charter not the answer

Amherst residents received a copy of the proposed charter in the mail and I encourage everyone to read it.

I read it myself from cover to cover (ugh) and I am discouraged and dismayed at what I found. There is no need to read between the lines to see that this charter proposal is structurally flawed. The blatant concentration of power in the hands of a 13-member council is unprecedented in the town of Amherst and just about everywhere else in the state of Massachusetts. Frankly, I can’t understand what the Charter Commission was thinking. There is no separation of powers, there are no checks and balances. The fundamental building blocks of democracy are missing.

If you look at government in terms of branches, specifically the executive and legislative branches, you will find that the proposed 13-member council controls both of them. This sets a dangerous precedent.

Proponents of the charter will argue that the town manager is the executive branch and the Town Council is the legislative branch. This argument holds no water with me. Only the Town Council is independently elected in this proposal. The Town Council appoints and can fire the town manager. And the Town Council must confirm all of the town manager’s appointments.

Make no mistake, if the Town Council appoints the executive branch, the Town Council is the executive branch. The town manager position is toothless and completely beholden to the Town Council. This alone is a deal-breaker in my opinion.

Charter proponents have claimed that checks and balances are built into the charter through the “voter veto procedures.” To veto a Town Council decision, the procedure requires over 1,000 signatures of Amherst registered voters to be gathered within 14 days of that decision. And then there must be a 20 percent turnout on election day. This makes no sense. It is not the burden or responsibility of the Amherst voters to provide the everyday checks and balances for a council-only government.

Our current town government has an independently elected legislative branch (Town Meeting) and an independently elected executive branch (Select Board). Separation of powers and checks and balances like this should be a minimum requirement for our Amherst democracy.

For those of us discouraged by recent votes in Town Meeting, the school vote in particular, let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. We must come together as a community and work to resolve our differences. There are no guaranties a Town Council would have voted any differently.

Our very democracy is at stake with this election. It is imperative that we do not fall prey to the rhetoric and manipulation of some charter supporters who want you to become a single-issue voter. Don’t be fooled. Our town governance is far more important than any one vote, or any single issue.

I am not a Town Meeting member and I have no loyalties to Town Meeting. However, I do have a loyalty to democracy.

This charter is not the answer and I will vote “no” on March 27. I encourage all Amherst residents to do the same. We are better than this.

David Markland