Mandi Jo Hanneke
Thirteen may seem really small when moving from a Town Meeting membership of 254, but it’s actually on the large size for a council. And, for Amherst, that large council size is a size that fits.
A Council should have members that are looking out for the whole town and members that are focused on their own “slice” of the Town.
The Charter Commission’s proposal does that. There will be 3 at-large councilors elected by all the Town’s voters—like the School Committee, Library Trustees or current Select Board. Those Councilors will necessarily come to the Council with a view of and vision for the entire town. They will have the support of residents from all parts of Town and will be answerable to all parts of Town. These are qualities we must have in a body that acts for the entire Town.
On the other hand, the Council will have 10 District Councilors. These Councilors will be elected by a small portion of the voters of Amherst—only those in the District the Councilors represent. Those Councilors might campaign on issues specific to the District and might vote based upon the preferences of those that elected them, not necessarily the entire Town. They will be advocates for their Districts, will have specific knowledge of how proposals will impact their Districts, and will be able to voice those opinions at the Council table.
But why have 10 District Councilors, when there are only 3 At-Large Councilors? Well, it’s because the Commission heard a lot about representation.
Consider the number 2: there will be 2 Councilors from each District. The Commission combined our current 10 precincts into 5 districts for election purposes (voting locations will still be at the precinct level). Some say that it might be unfair that both district councilors could come from the same “precinct” and another “precinct” will be left out in the cold. While it’s true that the Councilors might both reside in the same neighborhood, they will still have to represent their entire district.
We heard a lot of feedback about representation and how 1 person can’t represent all views. How would a person elected by the majority represent the views of the minority? With two seats available, there is a higher likelihood that a person with a high level of support, but support still in the minority, will get a seat at the table (especially with ranked-choice voting).
Having that second seat may also encourage more people to run for office, as they won’t be “competing” against each other for one seat. So, in this case, two is better than one. And, splitting the Town into five districts to make that happen, makes sense.
Well, why not have 3 or 4 councilors per district, you might ask? Because, if we did, then the Council would be too big to actually deliberate. The larger the body, the harder it is to hear all the voices. If we had a 20 or 30 person council, representatives might not get a chance to voice their opinion, and that of their constituents.
And, constituents might not know who to call. One of the drawbacks of our current system is that a resident has to contact 24 members, just in their own precinct, to voice their opinion. That’s a lot of phone calls, email conversations, or door knocking. If we increased the number of councilors per district, the result would be similar. With 2 per District and 3 At-Large, that’s just five representatives, the same number as our current School Committee or Select Board.
We want the Council, and the individual Councilors, to be accessible. If the size is too large, it’s not.
We want the Council to be deliberative, not just a place for people to make speeches. If it’s too large, it’s not.
Thirteen, then, is a lucky number for Amherst.
This is the second in a three-part series on the Town Council. Read about Controlling Your Own Agenda. Next up: Council Responsibilities.