Over the next six months, we will debate what kind of town we want Amherst to be. Will we stick with the form of government we’ve had for 80 years, or will we try something different?
The purpose of this blog is to explain the proposed changes and the reasons why we support them.
Eighteen months ago, 60 percent of Amherst voters said they wanted to examine the alternatives. We were among the nine residents elected to a “charter commission” to undertake the study. Since then, we have attended more than 60 commission meetings and public feedback sessions. We have considered 400 written submissions, 200 in-person comments, and hundreds of emails.
I have had private meetings with residents and experts in local government. Mandi and I have done research on what works in communities that are similar to Amherst in size and university orientation.
The new charter keeps what’s been working well, especially a non-political town manager to handle the day-to-day operations of our complex town. It combines the Select Board and Town Meeting into a 13-member council, with three members elected by all voters and 10 elected from five distinct neighborhoods. It provides many ways for residents to participate in government.
Voters will face a yes-or-no choice on March 27, 2018. Under state law, there can be no third choice. Either you accept the new charter in its entirety or you vote to keep the current system.
We will not try to tell you how you should vote. That’s for you to decide. But we hope this blog will make you a more informed voter. And we hope that you won’t make up your mind quickly based on a casual conversation or a misperception of how our government works now.
We will outline the problems with the current system. We will show how unaccountable to voters many Town Meeting members are. We will explain how Amherst’s very high taxes can be attributed to decisions Town Meeting has made. We will demonstrate how Amherst’s policies can be more in tune with what voters want when they feel more empowered and can evaluate the positions, experience and character of a variety of candidates.
And we will argue that the recent decision not to accept $34 million in state money for new elementary schools represented an “epic fail” of our governmental system. No matter how you voted, the result is outmoded school buildings that will continue to deteriorate, and the likelihood that solving the problems will cost taxpayers more in the long run.
If you’re tempted to vote no because there’s one aspect of the charter you don’t like, please consider that Mandi and I don’t like everything in it either. The question to ask is not “Do I like everything in this charter?” but rather, “Will this form of government more accurately reflect the will of residents of Amherst than the current system?”
We would like to improve the political climate of our town as well as change the form of government. There’s been too much distrust of public officials and not enough attention paid to public opinion. There have been too many loud voices and not enough respectful disagreement. While the 1 percent of residents who are Town Meeting members are active participants, many of the remaining 99 percent feel alienated from the government.
We welcome comments on our blog, including from those who disagree with us. But we will have strict rules. We will not allow the use of phony names, factual misrepresentation, ad hominem arguments, speculation about motives, the setting up of straw men or exaggeration of opponents’ positions.
I have lots of experience in spotting these; for 23 years I edited the Amherst Bulletin’s commentary page. In that pre-Facebook era, Bulletin letters were the primary way for residents to express their opinions on issues. Those 23 years included the debates that took place before the three previous charter votes.
I’ve been observing Amherst politics for 37 years and I believe that we can do a lot better. We can have civil debates. We can examine proposals thoroughly before making decisions. We can have residents actively engaged in government. We can get a clearer sense of what residents want.
Amherst has many wonderful things: the campuses, the libraries, the museums, the concerts, the conservation areas, the rail trail, the educated citizenry, the farmers’ markets, the Amherst Cinema, the Hitchcock Center, the Survival Center and many more. We would like to see Amherst’s governmental system be something we can take just as much pride in.
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