If you have trouble understanding the ins and outs of the proposal for a new form of government in Amherst, don’t worry. Here’s a guide to the basics of the proposal and how it was formulated, designed for residents who know little or nothing about it.
Q. How did the campaign for a new form of government get started?
A. Two years ago, a group of residents started circulating petitions to put on the ballot the creation of a Charter Commission.
Q. Charter? Like in charter schools?
A. No, it has nothing to do with charter schools. A town’s “charter” is an outline of how its government works. Think of the commission as being like a constitutional convention.
Q. OK, so did they get enough signatures on their petitions?
A. Yes, more than 3,000 voters signed the petitions, topping the threshold set by state law.
Q. What happened then?
A. The question went on the ballot in the town election on March 29, 2016, along with the names of 19 candidates for nine seats on the commission.
Q. So voters approved the formation of the commission?
A. Yes. Sixty percent voted yes; the vote was 2,039 to 1,340.
Q. Who was elected to the commission?
A. Six residents were elected with the endorsement of a group seeking fundamental change, and three from a group seeking only minor changes.
Q. So who was elected?
A. Two educators, two lawyers, two ex-Select Board members, two ex-School Committee chairs, a retired journalist and a retired nonprofit leader. Seven of the nine commission members are current or former Town Meeting members.
Q. Was this the first time Amherst considered changing its form of government?
A. No, there were two previous charter commissions. Both came up with proposals for change that were narrowly defeated by voters in 1996 and 2003. The “yes” side lost in 2003 by only 14 votes; a second vote on the same proposal lost in 2005 by a wider margin.
Q. So now that the Charter Commission has submitted its proposal, what happens next?
A. Over the next six months, Amherst residents will consider the proposal. Expect a vigorous debate.
Q. Do voters get to decide whether we adopt the new charter?
A. Yes, on March 27, 2018, as part of the annual town election. The charter needs a simple majority to pass.
Q. What if I don’t like either the current form of government or the Charter Commission proposal? Will there be a third choice?
A. Sorry, state law says there can be only two choices. You either vote “yes” to accept the commission’s proposal in its entirety, or you vote “no” to keep the current system. You could also leave the question blank or stay home, but we don’t recommend that, because voting is one of the most important ways you can voice your opinion.
Q. So what is the commission recommending?
A. Retention of a professional town manager to run day-to-day government and replacing the 240-member Town Meeting and the five-member Select Board with a 13-member town council.
Q. How did the commission come up with this plan?
A. We met 56 times, held 14 listening sessions, and received hundreds of comments. Some people wanted a mayor while others preferred a manager; some people wanted a council while others sought to keep Town Meeting.
Q. Why did a manager win out over a mayor?
A. A majority of the commission concluded that although a mayor would give voters the chance to elect the person running the government, Amherst has been well served by managers who are nonpartisan and have experience in the field.
Q. Why a council instead of Town Meeting?
A. An elected council will do a better job of enabling voters to engage with and choose the people who represent them, a majority of the commission concluded. It would also meet regularly and year-round, as opposed to Town Meeting, which generally meets twice a year.
Q. I like the concept of Town Meeting, with all residents able to participate in decisions. Why would we want to give that up?
A. That’s not how Town Meeting works in Amherst. That Norman Rockwell vision is an OPEN Town Meeting that exists in small towns like Shutesbury and Leverett.
Q. How is Town Meeting different in Amherst?
A. 240 Town Meeting “members” are chosen in typically low-turnout elections in which many voters have no choices among candidates. Most incumbents have been routinely reelected. If you’re not a member, you can’t vote.
Q. How will members of this town council be chosen?
A. Three will be elected by the entire town, and 10 will be chosen by districts. There will be five districts, each composed of two of the current 10 precincts, with two councilors elected by voters in each district.
Q. Will this change turn Amherst into a city?
A. Amherst will become one of 20 Mass. towns that have what the state categorizes as a “city” form of government. We’ll still be the Town of Amherst with a Town Council.
Q. Will the new charter cost more than the current form of government?
A. Slightly more for stipends for councilors and School Committee members, but this will amount to less than one-thousandth of the annual budget. But we will also save money by holding elections every other year, and we’ll save many hours of staff time that’s currently spent supporting Town Meeting.
Q. Will there be changes in how elections work?
A. Yes. Elections will move from March to November to increase voter participation, and will be held every other year.
Q. I heard about something called “ranked-choice voting.” What’s that?
A. It’s a system, currently in use in Cambridge and Maine, that enables voters to rank their preferences among the candidates. It ensures that the winner is acceptable to a majority of voters.
Q. Was the Charter Commission unanimous in its recommendation?
A. No. Five members voted in favor, three voted against, and one abstained.
Q. Did that vote follow the pattern set by the groups that endorsed candidates for the commission?
A. Mostly. One member endorsed by the group seeking fundamental change voted no, and one member endorsed by the group seeking minor adjustments to Town Meeting abstained.
Q. How can I learn more about the charter proposal?
A. This blog (abetteramherst.org) will continue until the election on March 27, 2018. There will be formal debates and many letters and op-eds in the newspaper. You can also see the Charter Commission’s summary, with a more extensive Q&A, at https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/41988.
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