Amherst TM actions bolster both sides in charter debate

  • North Amherst Library. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, November 24, 2017

AMHERST — Depending on one’s perspective, Town Meeting either just completed successful fall sessions that included making Amherst a pioneer in mandating zero-energy municipal buildings, or showed a lack of respect for elected boards and appointed officials through many of its decisions.

With the Charter Commission bringing forward a proposal to the March 27 town election that would eliminate Town Meeting and replace it and the Select Board with a 13-member town council, the three fall sessions — the last of which wrapped up Nov. 13 — were the last opportunity for residents to see Amherst’s legislative body in action before they go to the polls.

For Toni Cunningham, a Precinct 3 Town Meeting member, the most exciting accomplishment, and one that makes her proud to call Amherst home, involved adopting the requirement that new municipal buildings produce as much energy as they consume. The zero-energy initiative also affects buildings with significant additions.

“One hundred twenty-three Town Meeting members had the courage to put the environment first and take action to reduce Amherst’s carbon footprint,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham is also pleased that Town Meeting this fall stepped in to advance improvements to North Amherst Library, after what she described as decades of inaction by town officials and library trustees.

The improvements include adding a handicapped-accessible public restroom and water fountain, upgrades that will ensure that all people have access to the library.

Yet Jerry Guidera, a spokesman for the pro-charter Amherst for All group, said the zero-energy initiative was among what he termed “pet projects” for Town Meeting members that make both short- and long-term planning by town officials impossible.

“There’s no wisdom in Town Meeting,” Guidera said. “All of it is impulsive and pushed by people with specific agendas.”

He noted that a majority at this fall’s Town Meeting went against the advice of the Select Board over the potential costs of zero-energy buildings, likely causing substantial increases to property tax bills when a new Department of Public Works headquarters and South Amherst fire station are built.

The Planning Board and business community, Guidera said, were also rebuffed in their efforts to make it easier — and less costly — to build privately developed parking structures, and Town Meeting upended the normal process to get the North Amherst Library improvements started.

“What we saw is our loosely elected Town Meeting members rejecting, over and over again, the requests and recommendations of the various elected and appointed boards, with no vision for the future or long-term planning,” Guidera said.

Guidera said members also demonstrated rudeness and hostility.

“The whole town of Town Meeting is extraordinarily negative,” he said.

That is not how Janet McGowan, a Precinct 8 member, views the recent actions.

McGowan said Town Meeting had strong sessions that demonstrated thoughtful debate and eventually voted on hard issues, including how to regulate recreational marijuana retail stores, making sure new town buildings won’t contribute to climate change and bringing the North Amherst Library into the modern era.

Approving measures that are not always supported by elected boards and appointed committees shows the proper functioning of government, McGowan said.

“Amherst has a system of checks and balances between Town Meeting and the Select Board that spreads out government power and forces us to listen to each other,” McGowan said. “We would lose all that by consolidating all government power into a single city council of 13 people.”

That also resonated with Cunningham, who observed that those opposed to the zero-energy article, for instance, also seem to be the most vocal proponents of having a town council decide matters.

“I suspect that articles like the progressive zero-energy bylaw would not be approved under a town council government,” Cunningham said.

Richard Morse, a Precinct 7 member who has served in Town Meeting most years since 2001, said in an email that the measured approach of Town Meeting has vanished, and with it has come an increase in disrespect for the boards, committees and officials at the front of the middle school auditorium.

“I believe that this fall’s sessions were a low point in terms of the relationship between elected boards and the rank-and-file membership of Town Meeting,” Morse said. “There were members who openly celebrated Town Meeting’s willingness to ignore repeatedly the careful advice coming from the front of the room.”

Maurianne Adams, who represents Precinct 10, said that characterization is misleading. She observed members showing a careful, deliberative approach that went over the pros and cons of each article.

“I was deeply impressed by the thoughtfulness of discussion, respectful dissent, probing questions and restraint shown by members who clearly had strong feelings on issues that affected different neighborhoods in different ways,” Adams said.

Just because there is disagreement doesn’t mean government isn’t working.

“Town Meeting voices the perspectives from neighborhood precincts as a different kind of expertise than that offered by executive boards and committees,” Adams said. “Amherst needs both if it is to flourish.”

Charter Commission member Nick Grabbe, a former writer for the Gazette and Bulletin who is supporting the charter, said it appeared Town Meeting did an end run around the normal process for capital projects with the branch library, limiting the opportunity for an evaluation and expertise, and was in a rush to adopt zero energy.

“While I support Mothers Out Front and the drive for zero-energy buildings, I think it would have been productive to wait until all information was in and all ramifications known,” Grabbe said.

Guidera said the results of the recent sessions at least make it clear to voters what keeping and abandoning Town Meeting would mean.

“If you liked the process and the vote results, you’ll likely support the status quo,” Guidera said. “If not, you’ll likely vote yes.”

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