Amherst charter opponents: Pledge cards being used by pro-charter group akin to scare tactics

  • A group of people gathered to support the Amherst Charter Commission react to winning in November 2016. Some who are against the charter change to be voted on in March claim the pro-charter side’s asking for pledges resonates with the Red Scare of the 1950s. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2018

AMHERST — Pledge cards and an online pledge form being used by those championing a change in Amherst’s government are raising concern from those who seek to keep the status quo, with opponents equating the tactics to the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Though she opposes the recommendation of the Charter Commission to replace Town Meeting with a 13-member council, while preserving the professional town manager, Town Meeting member Marcie Sclove said seeking pledges is akin to asking for allegiance before many voters have made up their mind.

“What we’re looking for is voters to have debate about ideas and to vote as informed decision-makers, not because they wrote a pledge early in the process,” Sclove said.

But Johanna Neuman, chairwoman of the Amherst for All campaign, said the use of “pledge” is a matter of semantics and rallying support is consistent with what political campaigns do in Amherst.

By tracking those who already support the proposal for what she said will be a government that is more accountable and transparent, Amherst for All will not waste resources trying to convince them.

“To claim that kind of interaction cuts against sense of democracy leaves me somewhat speechless,” Neumann said.

Neumann said when she and other advocates for change approach people they explain the charter and, if ready to support, then request their signature. This allows money raised and canvassing efforts to go toward those undecided and uninformed.

Sclove said she worries that people are being promised to vote a certain way before forums and debates, and that the pledge will limit participation, meaning the effort is “very undemocratic.” Sclove also said she wonders whether there would be consequences should someone’s mind change and they see the problems with a government that reduced representation and loses checks and balances.

Neumann said that if someone who has signed the pledge and later turns against the charter, the name would be removed from the database. “There’s no obligation that comes with signing up to vote yes,” Neumann said.

The group’s website, amherstforall.org/pledge, explains the purpose:

“By letting us know that you plan to vote yes for the charter, you help the campaign focus its resources on voters who are on the fence.”

The electronic form “I will vote YES for Amherst’s new charter on March 27th, 2018” allows people to put in their names and contact information and to be contacted should they wish to make donations, which 160 have already done, and to host lawn signs or see their names in newspaper advertisements.

“I see it as our responsibility to those supporters to run the most effective campaign possible,” Neumann said.

Many of those already opposed learned about the pledge at the forum sponsored by the Amherst Town Decmoratic Committee last week.

“It sent shivers down my spine,” said Michael Greenebaum, a Town Meeting member and retired principal who said he will not be persuaded by the pro side. “It represents a mindset that bothers me very much.”

He recalls his first teaching job in Illinois and a requirement that he sign a loyalty oath.

“There’s a difference between saying ‘I support’ and ‘I pledge,’” Greenebaum said.

Sclove said the pledge resonates with the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Neumann said she hopes people would stick to the merits of the charter debate.

“The debate should be about the choice before us and it does values of Amherst a disservice to bring up scare tactics and evoke McCarthyism,” Neumann said.

Meanwhile, Amherst for All’s efforts to get voters to support the charter shows that more than 100 residents who are either current or former members of Town Meeting are in favor of the proposal.

The group issued a press release listing the names of those supporters.

One is Sarah Auerbach, who served as an elected member for nearly a decade and sees the charter proposal as an opportunity for full-time government.

“As a former Town Meeting member for nine years, I am acutely aware of the need for government that represents our town year­round,” Auerbach said.