Mandi Jo Hanneke
Amherst residents know what they want in their government. And, they know what they don’t. The Charter Commission’s job was to find the common themes in all the comments, emails, and questionnaire answers we received. Then, the Commission needed to take those themes, turn them into principles for government and propose a system that best meets them.
So, what are the themes that we heard, as voiced by Amherst’s residents? Well, residents want to avoid “big money” in politics, which we came to learn means supporting a government where campaigns don’t cost a lot of money and the winner isn’t necessarily decided by the most donations or the largest donations.
The ideal local government keeps a high rate of meaningful participation by residents. Residents don’t just want to participate. They want their vote to matter; their opinions to have influence; their participation to actually have significance.
Residents want a government where they know who is in charge. Who do you talk to when you’ve got a problem? Who negotiates with UMass? Who speaks for the Town at ceremonies? Residents want it to be clear who does all of that.
Amherst wants a government that reflects them. The people making decisions should be close in demographics to those they represent. Elected and appointed officials should also be diverse in their views. Residents don’t want a government where minority opinions are shut out.
The ideal government has officials who are accountable and whose actions are transparent for all to see. The government should be effective and deliberative, with the input and decision making coming at the appropriate times. But it’s not too quick to act.
Residents want a local government where the professionals in charge. Our departments are run well; residents don’t want politicians coming in and appointing cronies to those positions.
Amherst wants a government that can plan for the long term, one that can space major capital projects out and connect the dots between the various proposals from many departments. They want a government that looks at the whole picture, not one discrete project at a time.
And, residents want a government and political culture that is respectful and tolerant of different experiences, views, and voices; one where debate can be vigorous but civil and people believe everyone has the Town’s best interest at heart, even if they don’t agree on the issues.
Once we identified these themes, we could start discussing how to make our proposal meet them. Unfortunately, a few of these concepts are at odds with each other. For example, having a mayor would make it easy for everyone to know who is in charge. But, an election for mayor brings in the real possibility of expensive campaigns. After all, mayors are full time employees, with salaries and benefits to match, not volunteers. Having a mayor might also be at odds with the professional management Amherst has come to love.