Lively debate on proposed Amherst charter

  • Standing-room only crowd at the Woodbury Room at Jones Library Thursday night. —Scott Merzbach

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2018

AMHERST — A government that proponents say will be more accountable, responsive and empowering to residents, making decisions year-round, is a government that opponents say will concentrate power, be less representative and eliminate the necessary checks and balances in a democracy.

For more than 100 residents, who packed into the Woodbury Room at the Jones Library the evening of Jan. 11 for a debate sponsored by the Amherst Democratic Town Committee, it was the first opportunity to hear from both sides of the proposed charter change, which will be decided by voters March 27.

The proposal would replace the 240-member Town Meeting and five-member Select Board with a 13-member council. It would be the first major change in Amherst’s form of government since 1954, when a professional town manager was created, 16 years after open town meeting was replaced by representative town meeting. The Charter Commission is recommending the new governance structure by a 5-3 vote, with one abstention.

Margaret Gage, a member of Not This Charter and the commission, said eliminating Town Meeting will give all power to 13 councilors, with no counterweight, such as a mayor.

“The concept of checks and balances is kind of the hallmark of democratic governments worldwide,” Gage said.

Gage said similar communities have fewer competitive elections and campaign money will likely play a bigger role.

She also worries that the council could intervene in school and library affairs in ways the Select Board and town manager never have. Yet the manager would lose power.

“This charter makes the manager weaker than the manager is now,” Gage said, explaining that department heads would have to be approved by the council.

Gage said improvements could be made to Town Meeting without a drastic change in government, including reducing membership and having more regular meetings.

She urged residents to read the proposal. “I’m here to beg you to look at the charter carefully, really read it,” Gage said.

“It is my belief our town has outgrown occasional government,” said Johanna Neumann, chairwoman of the Amherst for All campaign that is advocating in support of the charter change.

Neumann said the status quo is not empowering to voters because Town Meeting members don’t respond to constituents, and are not a representative sample because they are whiter, wealthier and older than the voting population in Amherst.

“We live in a much larger town and much more complex town than we were in 1938, and we’re definitely much more diverse,” Neumann said

Without competition for seats, with 96 percent of incumbents winning reelection between 2007 and 2015, candidates offer little vision for the future of the town.

Neumann said Town Meeting also means it is a struggle for constituents to communicate with elected officials on matters such as the failed elementary school project last year.

“I think there is a very real issue with voters not being empowered,” Neumann said.

Under the proposal, there will be district meetings every six months. With fewer seats, there will be a real opportunity for competition and debates, she said, and elections will take place on a traditional November election day, rather than March.

Finally, a community engagement officer will try to bring more diverse constituencies to the table.

Not This Charter member Gerry Weiss, also a member of the commission, said he operates under the belief that more people voting on town laws and budgets is better.

He said advocates for the change are hinging on voter turnout that will make a more robust democracy.

But with a limited number of council seats, he argues that this will mean more money to fund campaigns.

“These seats are going to be contested and there is a lot of money that is going to be thrown around,” Weiss said.

As an opponent, he questions whether it would be wise to do away with a successful institution. “What harm has been done by the process Town Meeting uses?” Weiss asked.

Weiss added that the perception that Town Meeting is against Town Hall isn’t accurate. And when it is, Town Meeting’s decisions are often justified, such as its support for a smoking ban in the 1990s and more recently preserving War Memorial Pool.

“If not for Town Meeting, it would be closed,” Weiss said.

Mandi Jo Hanneke, a charter commissioner in favor of the change, said a new government will vastly improve deliberation, ensure that input to the legislative process is done at the correct time of year and have year-round decision-making

“Town Meeting may say it can deliberate, but it can’t,” Hanneke said.

By contrast, a council can take significant time to wrestle with an issue and seek out experts.

Hanneke said competitive elections will serve as a check on the council’s power. “Right now, Town Meeting has no checks on it at all,” Hanneke said.

She said that candidates will have to campaign on real issues, something Town Meeting members don’t do.

“Right now, in this town we don’t know what residents want in any definitive manner,” Hanneke said.

Those who spoke at the debate included Lois Barber, founder of EarthAction, who worried that a charter change would impact how Amherst has made decisions, including its support for open space.

“I’ve never seen the influence of money on the 240 people who are Town Meeting members,” Barber said.

Neumann, who has been a long-time environmental advocate, said she is not concerned, noting there us a cap of $1,000 on contributions and no evidence that money is influencing winners in council towns.

Alan Root, a Town Meeting member, said charter text shows that supporters want a “town dictatorship.”

Neumann said that what they want is actually “year-round democracy.”

Gage said one of her fears is that no matter the outcome of the vote, the town will remain divided.

“Guaranteed we will have more rancor no matter who wins or who loses, and that is tearing us apart,” Gage said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com