Peggy Matthews-Nilsen: Amherst needs more responsive leaders

Saturday, February 17, 2018
More responsive leaders needed

A letter and a guest column in the Amherst Bulletin both highlight, in different ways, a major flaw of the proposed charter in Amherst, namely the lack of checks and balances.

The letter offers a clear example of the importance of checks and balances built into our Town Meeting-Select Board form of government. In the writer’s example, Town Meeting did not follow a decision by the Select Board to reduce library services to children. Instead, Town Meeting decided to reinstate funding that later proved the wiser course. The Select Board’s decision to cut funding for financial reasons was found to be shortsighted and unnecessary.

The guest column by Select Board member Andrew Steinberg illustrates the hubris in the implicit assumption that a paid 13-member council would be better informed than a 240-member Town Meeting. To bolster this argument, pro-charter forces say a 13-member council would provide year-round democracy, using that as a rationale for why it would be better informed than Town Meeting.

Yet, this fails to acknowledge that our five-member Select Board already serves year-round. Further, the fall Town Meeting decisions that Steinberg cites as examples of poor governing can be understood as a reflection of citizens’ frustration with the lack of leadership by current elected officials. These include lack of leadership on climate change, and improving accessibility in our public buildings.

Town Meeting provides an essential mechanism for citizens to bring new ideas forward. Citizen voices enacted the net-zero bylaw, a renewable energy resolution and an accessibility design for the North Amherst Library.

In response, Select Board members criticized the net-zero bylaw and the proposed accessibility plan for North Amherst Library for not going through proper channels. Yet, those proper channels failed to address the accessibility issue at the North Amherst Library, including the lack of a public restroom, for more than 25 years.

When leaders fail to lead, citizens step forward. Good leaders know how to listen and how to course correct. Amherst does not need a new form of government, but rather, more responsive leadership.

Peggy Matthews-Nilsen