The year Town Meeting changed

Nick Grabbe

There’s a common misconception that Amherst Town Meeting resembles that Norman Rockwell painting in which a regular guy stands up and says his piece.

Actually, that form of Town Meeting hasn’t existed in Amherst for almost 80 years. Many neighboring towns have this type of “open” Town Meeting, which welcomes any resident and typically lasts one day, but Amherst gave that up in 1938.

In later blog posts, we will  go into depth about Amherst’s 79-year-old “representative” Town Meeting. But for now, let’s go back to a time long before UMass expanded, when a proposal to change the form of Amherst’s government was just as controversial as it is now.

In the early 1930s, a group of residents started campaigning to end the longtime practice of open Town Meeting. They argued that this form of self-government could be controlled by a minority of uninformed residents, and that many important issues were decided by a small number of voters.

“We no longer have an intelligent group of citizens, but mob rule by sentiment and emotion,” wrote the Amherst Record.

Critics also argued that a change to a representative Town Meeting would result in a lower the tax rate. They said that neighborhood residents can pack an open Town Meeting to “enforce their particular sectional views upon all citizens,” the Record wrote.

Life was simpler in Amherst back then. The population in 1938 was 6,000, compared to about 39,000 today. The annual town budget in 1938 was $574,000 (the equivalent of $10 million in today’s dollars), compared to $87.5 million now.

Town Meeting was less of a time commitment then. It took an average of five hours, compared to today’s average of 32 hours. Residents were much more likely to participate in elections; voter turnout was 60.1 percent in 1936 and 53.6 percent in 1938, compared to an average of 10.2 percent from 2011 to 2015.

In that 1936 election, 837 residents voted to change to representative Town Meeting, but 856 voted to keep the existing open format. (This margin of 19 votes resembles the 14-vote loss in the charter referendum of 2003.)

But the campaign for change didn’t stop. A professor wrote to the Record that self-government could be better achieved by a limited number of residents, and complained that his annual tax bill had gone from $123 to $295 in just 13 years. (Today’s average annual tax bill is $7,434.)

So in 1938, there was a second vote on changing to representative Town Meeting. This time, it passed, even though it got fewer votes (799) than two years earlier. The votes for keeping open Town Meeting dropped from 856 to 657, and a sharp increase in abstentions showed a certain cynicism, weariness and frustration with the options.

“It was, at best, a half-hearted endorsement,” wrote David Booth, a UMass political science professor. I have drawn here on his research, which was contained in “Essays on Amherst’s History,” published in 1978.

So what kind of impact did this change have? Voter turnout dropped from an average of 46.7 percent before the change to 26.6 percent afterwards, Booth reported. The average length of annual Town Meeting declined from five hours to three, and the number and complexity of articles increased. The prediction that representative Town Meeting would put a brake on rising taxes went unfulfilled.

Amherst had a three-member board of selectmen until 1954, when it was expanded to five members (the name was changed to Select Board in the 1980s). In 1954, Amherst chose to install a town manager appointed by the board, and the men in that professional position have generally served the town well. (The position was offered to a woman last year, but she declined it.)

Town Meeting was still attracting voters in elections and functioning expeditiously into the 1970s, with turnout averaging 29 percent. Town Meeting dealt with an average number of 17.5 articles per session every spring in the 1970s, compared to a snail-like 4.4 articles per session since 2001.

In the 1970s, 71 percent of those running for Town Meeting were elected, compared to 83 percent from 2006 to ’15. It is striking that 96 percent of successful Town Meeting candidates received 100 or more votes in the 1970s, but only 52 percent did in 2006-15. (Research on the 1970s from final report of 2001-2002 Charter Commission)

Amherst Town Meeting may evoke images of a small New England town, but its failure over the last 10 years to attract candidates and voters suggests that the system may have lost the confidence of residents.

If you would like to receive A Better Amherst posts by email, write to me at npgrabbe@gmail.com. No municipal resources were used in the creation of this blog.

Comments 2

  1. Thank you, Nick, for doing all this research! I found it very interesting, how the average articles per session dropped from 17.5 to 4.4 over the years. I assume it was a gradual change, and it probably has to do something with the complexity of the articles that are brought to town meeting as well as how divided town meeting members are, and how divisive those articles are.

    I believe the word “representative” in “representative town meeting” mean a sample of people living in the town, and not that those people need to represent the ones who are not town meeting members, instead of voting their mind. In that way, using the quotation marks is unnecessary, because town meeting, as we can see from both votes about the school issue, is quite representative, voting within a percentage point to the town-wide in both of those points.

  2. In a real democracy, “representative” should translate into people making decisions on my behalf, with my input as a constituent. These “representatives” should be accountable to me and other voters: I should know who’s voting on my behalf, exactly how they voted, and I should have a relatively simple way to contact them and share my input and opinions. From that vantage point, Town Meeting is hardly representative. Most people in town could probably barely name one of their TM “representatives,” much less have any idea how they voted on anything of importance.

    Even if we WERE to accept that a representative system simply meant a “sample of people living in the town,” Town Meeting completely fails on that rationale, as anyone with eyes can see as they watch TM members file into that meeting room.

    It shouldn’t be difficult for us as a community to agree on what constitutes representative democracy. It’s not like we’re making this up anew – these are widely understood standards that have been in place for hundreds of years.

    This article from an actual political scientist says all this much better than I did here: http://www.amherstbulletin.com/Columnist-Elizabeth-Markovits-argues-that-Amherst-town-manager-and-council-more-democratic-than-representative-Town-Meeting-13178295

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