Mandi Jo Hanneke
Most people, if asked, would say Amherst’s new Charter is the work of the Charter Commission. But I disagree—it’s the work of the entire Town.
Consider these numbers. 375+ Emailed Comments. 189 Online Comment Form Submissions. 56 Meetings. 14 Listening Sessions. 10 Handwritten Comments. 2 Public Hearings. 2 First Day Celebrations. 1 Block Party. And that’s just what’s documented. There are the countless conversations each of the 9 of us has had when stopped in town, emails sent to only a few commissioners, questions asked and answered at the local coffee shop, and many others, too numerous to tally.
When the Charter Commission first met, we agreed we wanted feedback. We wanted to hear from you, the people who would be governed under any proposal we made—what works, what doesn’t, what you like, what you don’t, and everything in between. In Amherst, when you ask for opinions, you get them. After all, “only the ‘H’ is silent”, right?
So, we heard, but did we listen? Emphatically, yes. Not everyone will agree with me, because we couldn’t, and can’t, do everything people asked of us. Different opinions and experiences meant we received many contradictory requests.
We couldn’t propose a Town Meeting and a Town Council. We couldn’t propose a 240-member town meeting and a 120-member town meeting. We can’t propose everything. But we can take what the many residents told us (contradictory or not) and try to distill values and priorities, then try to create a charter that reflects as much of it as possible.
So how do you know we listened to all those comments, especially the ones we might not have agreed with? Well, one way to know is because of our many changes in direction. That change to a 60-member council proposal after it had been 13 for months? Based on feedback indicating a desire for the benefits of both the large membership of town meeting and the nimbleness of a town council.
The near-immediate return to a 13-member town council? A direct result of the instantaneous avalanche of comments received regarding the 60-member council.
The original mayor-manager-council draft? Based on the competing comments of a desire for a directly elected singular executive and the need for professional management of a complex town.
The change to a manager only? A result of comments received that helped us recognize that you can have a mayor or a manager, but not both a mayor and a strong manager, and professional management was more important to the residents than a directly elected executive.
That’s just the big stuff that made the news. There are all the smaller items, too, that you might not have heard about. Ranked-choice voting, included because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback we heard. Participatory budgeting, being studied because we heard support for it, but also many concerns about its implementation and the effect on ongoing capital needs.
Two councilors per district, proposed due to the many concerns we heard from Town Meeting supporters and others about minority viewpoints being excluded from a small council. The Planning Board reduced in size at the request of the members themselves.
Local elections moved to November because of the research brought to us by residents about how November elections increase turnout. A page on the Town’s webpage devoted to candidates running for office, proposed because of concern that not every candidate will have the ability to finance newspaper ads and the desire to have one place where a voter can find information about all the candidates; it’s an attempt to create a more level playing field and ease the information gathering load of time-crunched voters.
Retention of as much of the current budget process as possible, because everyone agrees it works well. A Board of License Commissioners because we heard that the Select Board must devote so much time to evaluating license applications that its ability to propose policies and deliberate on them is compromised. By removing the licensing function from the Town Council, we believe the Council will have more time to devote to policy development that is desired in Amherst.
There’s more, but you get the idea. We heard and we listened, even if we didn’t agree. We incorporated many ideas. We added others in response to concerns from those who might not vote for the proposal. And we did it because we know that your ideas are valuable, and often, better than ours. The Charter reflects the thoughts, ideas, and input of all of Amherst’s residents. Take pride in the result. The Commission’s proposed charter is as much your work as it is ours.