Editorial: Town Meeting should not delay election in Amherst

  • Amherst Town Meeting members during a vote in January 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, April 26, 2018

We urge Amherst’s representative Town Meeting to proceed with the election schedule specified in the new charter that voters approved by a wide margin last month.

The charter blueprint calls for the first Town Council to be elected on Nov. 6, the date of this year’s state election, with a preliminary election, if needed, on Sept. 4, when the state primary is scheduled. Town Meeting must vote to request the state Legislature to approve the calendar.

What should be a routine vote is scheduled at a special Town Meeting at 6:59 p.m. Monday, just before annual Town Meeting convenes at Amherst Regional Middle School. However, some residents are now trying to delay the election of the new Town Council until next year by claiming the proposed schedule would disenfranchise students at the University of Massachusetts and Amherst and Hampshire colleges.

John Bonifaz, of Amherst, a constitutional voting rights lawyer, told the Select Board on April 18 that this year’s election calendar is a problem because nomination forms would not be available until June 1 and would have to returned with the required number of signatures  by Aug. 1. Those are times when students are not normally on campus.

“This exclusion of student voters from the process of nominating candidates for the Town Council would violate their federal constitutional rights under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and under the 26th Amendment,” Bonifaz said.

Others argue that the schedule also violates the Massachusetts Constitution that guarantees all residents “have an equal right to elect officers, and to be elected.”

We believe that students would not be deprived of their right to participate in the election process under the calendar proposed for this year. Most students will be back on  campus Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day when classes begin at UMass. They are more likely to vote in a local election that is tied to the state’s primary and general elections, than the alternative date of Jan. 24, 2019, when nothing else is on the ballot.

As for concerns that students would be at a disadvantage by having to gather nomination signatures and campaign during the summer, if they are serious about serving as a town councilor they should be able to surmount that challenge. Only 25 signatures are needed to be a candidate from any of the five wards, with 50 required to run for the three townwide seats.

Three UMass students told the Select Board on Monday that the town should proceed with voting for its new council this year. “We see no reason to delay,” said John Page, who lives and votes in Amherst and is a member of the UMass Democrats, which endorsed the charter. 

Page said he believes more students will vote in the state election Nov. 6 than in a local election during January.

Lucas Harrington, a UMass student who has lived his entire life in Amherst, said that students who want to serve on the Town Council will be able to gather signatures to get on the ballot, even during the summer.

“If you’re committed enough to do it, it’s attainable,” Harrington said.

The Select Board voted 4-0 advising Town Meeting to proceed with the request for an election this year.

The new Town Council will replace representative Town Meeting and the Select Board. The charter was approved March 27, with 58 percent of those voting in favor of the most significant change in the structure of Amherst’s government since 1938, when the town’s first charter was adopted. The 3,502-2,491 vote ended a bruising campaign that divided the town.

This is not the time to tinker with the timetable established in the charter for the transition to a new government, especially since the Select Board and Town Meeting are now limited to taking action only on “those matters essential and necessary to the current operations of the town.”

The language in the charter also instructs officials to take “no actions contrary to, or that frustrate the purpose of this charter.” 

We trust that Town Meeting members will heed those words and vote Monday to start the process of enacting the town’s new government as soon as possible.

With an affirmative vote by Town Meeting, we expect that state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg and Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, both of Amherst, will ensure quick action by the Legislature to set the election calendar so the new Town Council can get to work Dec. 3.