Charter involves no radical change

Nick Grabbe

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.


Comments 3

  1. If abolishing Town Meeting after 400 or so years, ending the Select Board and creating a government with no checks and balances or separation of powers isn’t radical, what is? The Charter proposal takes government power out of the hands of a 5 person Select Board of thoughtful volunteer citizens and 240+ Town Meeting members — also thoughtful volunteer citizens– and puts all government powers into the hands of 13 paid city (or town) councilors. All, really all, elected positions will be up for a vote every 2 years-shorter terms and no overlapping for continuity. I could go on….And still no explanation or data on why this radical new system of government will lead to better decisions and outcomes for our Town and residents.

    1. Please keep your facts accurate. First, Amherst’s current government structure has only been in place for approximately 80 years. Before that, Amherst operated under an Open Town Meeting government, which is fundamentally different than the Representative Town Meeting we operate under now. Second, all 5 Select Board members are currently paid. The payment they receive, just like the payment the Town Councilors will receive is a small stipend as acknowledgement for the large amount of time they volunteer in positions. It is meant to be able to cover childcare or eldercare expenses, or any other expenses they might incur as a town official–like attending functions on behalf of the Town. Town Councilors, just like the Select Board now, will still be volunteers. It is not a full-time position with commensurate pay (like a Mayor would have been, or the Councilors in Cambridge are).

      Keep checking back about elections. That post is coming. But, in short, 2-year terms are extremely common in Massachusetts for towns and cities with councils. The term lengths are nothing out of the ordinary and are meant to both increase voter turnout at elections (the #1 way most people in Town, even now, participate in government) and create more accountability for the elected officials to their constituents.

      As for checks and balances, the proposal has that. Unlike now, elected officials (the Town Council) will have to ratify Town Manager department head appointments (no elected officials do that now). Unlike now, all board and committee appointments by the Town Manager will be ratified by elected officials (only Board of Health, Conservation Commission, Planning Board and Historical Commission are now). Passage of bylaws is no different under the proposal than it is now: only one governmental body has the authority to pass them, and once passed, they take effect unless the citizens go through the referendum process (name changed to voter veto in the charter).

      And, a Council system will lead to better outcomes because the Council system aligns the deliberative ability of the Select Board on legislative matters with the authority of Town Meeting. Read this Wednesday’s post regarding the ability of the Town Council to control its agenda and how important that is. That ability alone, will lead to better outcomes.

  2. The way the charter is written, Council will have to pass the proposed measure that the Ranked Choice Voting Commission puts forth. But, the Council will be able to amend it. It is possible that any amendment to the proposed measure could be radical enough that it ends up being a rejection, but the Commission hopes this not to be the case. We heard no opposition to the adoption of Rank Choice Voting; therefore, a Council that doesn’t adopt it will likely be going against the vast majority of their constituents.

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