Control Your Own Agenda

Mandi Jo Hanneke

We have a legislature that doesn’t set its own agenda. Think about that. The law-making body in Amherst does not decide what or when to discuss, consider, or vote on measures. Someone else does.

The Town Council, as proposed in the Charter, however, will have that authority. This is an important difference.

Town Council will set its own agenda. The Town Council will meet regularly, likely biweekly, but at least monthly, similar to the Select Board. It will set its own meeting times.

Town Meeting cannot.

The Council will place matters on its own agenda for consideration. It can decide how long it needs before a vote and how much information to gather before a vote. The Town Council will be able to take the time it needs to make a decision.

All bylaws need to be heard at two different Council meetings before being voted on. This slows the process down and allows for more deliberation. Even after those two meetings, if the Council is not ready to vote, it can delay the vote. In fact, a single member will have the power to delay the vote once; and four members can delay it a second time.

If an amendment is made, the Council can take the time to get the information it needs to adequately consider the amendment. The Council can bring in the appropriate people to ask questions of, including any potential impact of the proposed change. If a resident brings up a concern about a proposed bylaw, the council will be able to step back, delay the vote, ask the right questions and get answers, all before having to act.

Town Meeting can do none of this.

Town Meeting can’t delay consideration. Town Meeting can’t delay consideration to another warrant, or even another night. If an amendment is proposed, Town Meeting must vote on it that night, many times without any information on the amendment’s impact, because no one who has the expertise to answer those questions has had time to consider it, let along those who have to actually vote on it.

Once a matter is on the floor of Town Meeting by a motion, Town Meeting must vote. The Town Government Act does not allow motions to table, postpone indefinitely, or to take no action. (ATGA 2.34)

The Town Council has the authority to get the information it needs and wants. Town Council can require the Town Manager, Superintendent, Library Director, or boards to answer questions it has. (Section 2.8)

Town Meeting can’t.

Town Meeting is entirely dependent on the Select Board for its agenda and information gathering. Town Meeting has no power, on its own, to (1) set its own meeting time, (2) place an item on the agenda for consideration, or (3) force town departments or boards to update them on the happenings in Town.

Right now all of the control for these items rests with the Select Board. The Select Board sets the date and time for the Meeting. The Select Board sets the Town Meeting “agenda.” The Select Board can force Town departments or boards to update the Select Board or Town Meeting on the happenings.

Amazingly, though, the Select Board has no authority to actually adopt the budget or bylaws on its own.

But, a Town Council will have that authority.

Won’t be better for our Town to have a government where the bylaw-approving and budget-adopting body can get the information it needs and can postpone votes until it has that information? A Town Council can do that. Town Meeting cannot.

This is the first in a three-part series on the Town Council. Next up: Thirteen is Right for Amherst. Please share this post with your Amherst friends. No municipal resources were used in the creation of this blog.


Comments 1

  1. Yes, the Town Meeting is not properly constituted. The Town Meeting should set its meeting times and agenda. It should have had those powers years ago, and that could have been changed by in the bylaws. The Town Meeting should be viewed as the legislative branch of town government, and the Selectboard should simply be executive, but the selectboard has many legislative powers that enable it to operate as a central oligarchy.

    Instead of getting rid of the voice of the citizens in town government, we should be strengthening the powers of the citizenry. While a council of thirteen might make for neater government, it probably would not make for better government. The smaller council would make it easier for members to serve themselves.

    Town Meeting should also have the power to require town employees to answer questions. But it is right and proper that the selectboard does not have the power to pass budgets or bylaws; those are legislative powers that should be kept by the Town Meeting.

    Rather than rewriting the town’s charter, it would have been better to make a few changes that would allow the town government to do a better job.

    As with the federal and state governments there is separation of powers in town government, but the division of powers has not been well thought out. The Town Meeting is the legislative branch, and all actions and expenditures should have to be approved by the legislative branch. The selectboard should not have had the power to spend money without explicit approval, whether in the annual budget on in some special action.

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