More than 100 former, current TM members support charter change

  • Amherst Town Hall. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

AMHERST — More than 110 current and former Town Meeting members support a charter change that would dramatically alter the town’s governmental structure, calling it a good thing for Amherst’s future.

“Having served for a year, my feeling is that our representative Town Meeting is not up for the challenge of moving Amherst forward,” said Erika Zekos, a Precinct 8 member elected last year. “A much smaller body of elected council members will do their homework, listen to input from residents and citizen committees and debate in public view.”

Voters will weigh in on the charter change at the ballot box on March 27. If approved, Amherst’s legislature will turn from a 240-member elected body to a 13-member elected town council.

Lisa Berry, a Precinct 2 Town Meeting member, said a change to the town charter would create a government that is more accountable by removing the cloak of anonymity from many Town Meeting members.

“A smaller form of government such as the charter proposed will allow us to know who our representatives are (and) will enable an easy system to get in touch with them,” Berry said.

Amherst for All is the group supporting the change. Its leaders say that 114 Town Meeting members, both past and present, are on their side.

Those against the charter change say it’s predictable that some elected representatives would want to do away with Town Meeting.

“Town Meeting, as a democratic institution, has always welcomed diverse viewpoints, so it is not surprising that members have different feelings about the institution,” said Julia Rueschemeyer, a member of the Charter Commission and organizer of the Not This Charter group.

But Rueschemeyer said she is not sensing this is a compelling way to convince Amherst residents that a change is needed, cautioning that the vote should be on what is actually in the proposal, not a referendum on Town Meeting.

With a council and professional town manager, but no checks and balances Town Meeting has provided, the charter plan was developed as the result of what she calls political tradeoffs.

“If a five-member Select Board that is explicitly an executive body struggles to spell out political priorities for the town and give political direction to the town manager, a 13-member council that must also serve all legislative functions for the town will clearly have no chance of providing the political leadership the town needs,” Rueschemeyer said.

Zekos was elected last year wanting to be directly involved with decisions that affect Amherst, much as she recalls her own parents doing in a community with an open meeting.

What she discovered is that Amherst needs year-round government, which will have deliberation as well as timeliness, adding that even though her fellow members are smart and caring, their expertise in education, development, public health and other issues can be limited.

Berry said she tries to respond to emails sent to her through an online contact system and even created a Facebook page where she has sought interaction and opinions from those she represents. “It is not easy for citizens to know who their representatives are, nor for Town Meeting members to reach out to their constituents,” Berry said.

Berry said she sees the charter proposal as being streamlined and more efficient, with better prepared public servants who will respond to their constituents.

In her tenure, members don’t seem to be doing enough reading and research to make wise decisions on binding, expensive matters.

While she is not a huge fan of the five-story buildings built or underway in downtown, they have been allowed under Town Meeting, and a council, in fact, might be less likely to be swayed by developers.

“Without enough people who are knowledgeable and accountable on articles, we are easily influenced,” Berry said.

Commission member Meg Gage, who has joined Rueschemeyer in opposing the charter change, said she is troubled by what Amherst government might become.

“Amherst For All wants the charter debate to focus on Town Meeting rather than on the charter itself, which is a flawed mishmash of compromises, indefensible even to the most hardened Town Meeting cynic,” Gage said.

Sarah Auerbach, who had a nine-year tenure on Town Meeting, said she was gratified to be part of an engaged group of people, but noted her friends and neighbors didn’t feel represented or empowered because they had no idea where members stood on issues.

“It’s time to empower the voters, not just my 239 fellow Town Meeting members, and be able to truly hold our town government accountable for its actions,” Auerbach said.

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