The proposal for a new form of government in Amherst is not radical. It is not a coup, not a revolution, but rather a sensible reform that will make decision-makers more responsive to residents.
Over the next few weeks, this blog will provide details of the Charter Commission’s proposal, which residents will vote on March 27. Mandi Jo Hanneke and I will familiarize you with how the 13-member council will function, and the reasons for retaining a non-political town manager. We will explain the reasons for changes in elections and the ways that active citizen participation in government will continue.
We will also address the most sensitive issues for many people: development, planning and zoning. Development will not increase under the new charter, unless voters want it to. We’ll explain how the charter will democratize the decision-making about the kind of town we want Amherst to be, through a council-approved master plan and by giving the authority to appoint members of the Planning Board and ZBA to the council instead of the manager. And we’ll dispute the notion that elections could be controlled by moneyed interests.
The Charter Commission decided to leave alone the things that currently work well: the town manager, the volunteer boards and committees, the ability of voters to initiate policies. In creating a 13-member council, the commission is combining the deliberative nature, oversight responsibility and regular meetings of the Select Board with the legislative functions of Town Meeting.
The manager/council system is not unusual. In fact, it’s a form of government that more than 105 million people in the U.S. live under, representing a third of the population. Many other towns in Massachusetts also have a manager and a council.
Here are the major improvements that the new charter will provide:
- The council will be involved in shaping policies, listening to citizen opinions and considering possible consequences. Currently, Town Meeting has the last word on budgets and zoning policies but isn’t involved in developing them, and frequently doesn’t have a full understanding of their ramifications.
- Voters will be able to select councilors representing the entire town and their own parts of town, and can contact them with problems, proposals or opinions. Currently, no Town Meeting member represents the entire town, and the number of candidates is so low that voters have few real choices, resulting to very low participation in elections.
- The council will be accountable to voters. It will be much easier to keep track of the positions of councilors than of Town Meeting members, and voters can support or get rid of their councilors every two years. Councilors will be required to hold at least two neighborhood meetings a year to listen to their constituents, and will probably hold more.
- An innovative election system will ensure that no councilor is elected who is not acceptable to a majority of voters. It’s called “ranked-choice voting,” and it will enable voters to rank their preferences among the candidates. If no candidate has more than half the first-choice votes, candidates finishing last will be eliminated round by round in an “instant runoff” until only two are left. This system will prevent someone from being elected with only, say, 30 percent of the vote because the vote was spread out among multiple candidates.
Amherst has always had a reputation for citizen participation in government. That is reflected in the 50 or so boards and committees that citizens volunteer to serve on, and in the 240-member Town Meeting. The volunteer boards will continue. But the Town Meeting system gives inordinate power to just 1 percent of registered voters, who are selected by a tiny percentage of voters, often without competitive elections or even knowledge of where the candidates stand.
We applaud the civic-mindedness of Town Meeting members, and hope that many of them will become candidates for council seats. But we believe that competitive elections, with council candidates debating their positions and facing voters every two years, will provide the winners with a mandate that Town Meeting members do not have.
We welcome your comments on the elements of the proposed charter. The next three posts will explain how the council will work.
You can now subscribe to this blog by filling in the information at top right. Please share this post with your Amherst friends and neighbors, especially those who have not made up their minds on the charter. Town Hall photo by Bernie Kubiak. No municipal resources are used in creating this blog.