Editorial: Vote ‘yes’ for charter changes in Amherst

  • Amherst Town Hall

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Amherst voters Tuesday should replace an outmoded and clunky form of government with a streamlined new system leading to more thoughtful deliberations, greater accountability and improved transparency. We urge residents to vote “yes” on the recommendations made by a majority of the Charter Commission after 18 months of study.

The most critical change would substitute a 13-member Town Council for Town Meeting, with 240 elected representatives, and the five-person Select Board. The position of professional town manager would be kept to perform most administrative duties for the town.

We believe that the smaller number of councilors meeting regularly throughout the year would be more knowledgeable about the issues and accountable to the voters than Town Meeting representatives who normally conduct business over the course of several nights twice a year during the spring and fall.

Town Meeting is not representative of Amherst’s diversity, nor does not it act as a true legislative body because its agenda is set by the Select Board, which places articles on the warrant, or by citizens who submit petitions. Town Meeting approves or defeats those measures, but it cannot change or delay them to another session.

The Town Council would set its own agenda through resolutions or ordinances proposed by councilors, send them to subcommittees for study, hold public forums to gauge citizen reaction, consult with the town manager and other professional staff, and shape its final decisions through amendments and other fine-tuning — perhaps over a period of several weeks or months.

As it stands, if constituents want to discuss issues with their Town Meeting representatives, they must contact the 24 people who have been elected, often without opposition, in their precinct. Too many residents report that it is frustrating to communicate with so many people, and not all are receptive to hearing from constituents. Some Town Meeting members choose not to participate in an email system that would make that chore easier.

Under the proposed new government, voters would elect three at-large councilors and two from each of five districts. We believe that will encourage more vigorous campaigns and better inform residents about the candidates and their position on the issues. After the election, it will be easier for constituents to communicate with five councilors, rather than with 24 representatives.

The new government would be more transparent because councilors are subject to the state’s Open Meeting Law, while Town Meeting representatives are not.

Amherst adopted representative Town Meeting in 1938 when it was a town of about 7,000 people with 4,000 registered voters. Today, Amherst has nearly 38,000 residents and 21,056 registered voters, and the town continues to shift toward a younger, more racially diverse population. Town Meeting has not kept up with those changes. In 2015, the median age of its members was 63, compared to the median age of eligible voters, which was 34. And there are about three times as many non-white eligible voters in Amherst than non-white Town Meeting representatives.

Some charter opponents argue that Town Meeting provides “checks and balances” by not marching in lockstep with the rest of town government. However, the danger is that the current system allows a minority of Town Meeting members to make decisions that are out of step with the will of residents and most town officials.

That was the case Jan. 30, 2017, when Town Meeting failed to authorize borrowing for the co-located elementary schools project, despite voting 123-92 in favor. The measure fell short by 21 votes of the required two-thirds majority. Opposition by 92 Town Meeting representatives — fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Amherst’s registered voters — scuttled a project that had been approved by Amherst voters, the entire Select Board and four of five School Committee members, costing the town a $34 million state grant.

It’s time to stop tinkering with Town Meeting in an effort to improve a legislative body that was devised for a different era. We invite those Town Meeting members who want to remain involved to run for the new council or volunteer to serve on some of the dozens of boards or committees that will be left in place.

We hope other residents who believe they do not now have a voice in Town Meeting consider seeking a seat on the Town Council so it reflects the community’s diversity.

We urge all voters to participate in Tuesday’s town election and to modernize Amherst’s government by voting “yes” on the charter.