Thirteen is Right for Amherst

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.

Comments 6

  1. Actually it’s pretty easy to send an email to the Town Meeting members in a precinct -and to send the same email to all 10 precincts. I am sure residents sending emails will find many receptive Town Meeting members willing to listen and agree. It’s hard to imagine that no one, out of 24 Town Meeting members in a precinct, or 240 Town Meeting members , will agree or share the view of a resident. On the other hand, it’s not so hard to imagine that the 2 council members from one precinct (now twice the size) will disagree with a resident’s views. Especially since those councilors will need to raise money to run, will pay more attention to their donors and need the endorsement of groups like Amherst For All who have large email lists, and endorse and support slates of candidates. (Of the 6 winning candidates for Charter Commission endorsed by Amherst For All, only 1 broke from the pack and voted against the Charter proposal.) With only 13 councilors there will be much, much less diversity of opinion and receptiveness to residents’ views than 240+ Town Meeting members. If a resident doesn’t feel heard, s/he can easily run for Town Meeting with little or no cost. With a council, the only option for the resident is to wait a few years and run or back a new candidate that will need to raise thousands to run-then very likely lose to better financed, better known incumbents supported by a political organization like Amherst For All. If you think this isn’t the case, look at the Charter Commission race– or Massachusetts’ uniformly liberal Congressional delegation. Our Congressional members are almost never voted out of office and even if we doubled the number of Congressmen, you would not see Republicans getting voted in.

    So in the Charter proposal, one branch of government with over 240 citizens is eliminated, as well as the 5 member Select Board-both of which operate well now-with good results. . All government functions are collapsed into a 13 member council with 90 % fewer people and perspectives. Why?

    What is going so badly in Amherst that justifies this fundamental change in government? What decisions will a 13 member council make better? Any proof? What city or town did the 5 Charter Commissioners look at as better functioning or with better results than Amherst?

    1. Post

      Let’s put all the facts out there.
      1. It’s not as easy as you imply to contact all Town Meeting members in a precinct. First, not all TM members are subscribed to the email you refer to. In fact, many are not, despite TMCC’s best efforts. It’s not even required of a Town Meeting member to subscribe. And, TMCC refuses to post the names of the members the emails are NOT going to (I’ve requested it several times over the past year). All it says is that “emails will go to all members who have opted in”. But the page doesn’t identify who hasn’t opted in. Which means, if a person wants to contact all of their TM members, they still have to call or snail mail all of them, because they don’t know which of the 24 are actually getting the email they send. So, it’s not easy to contact all of them.
      2. You mention the winning candidates from the Amherst for All slate. But, you fail to mention that of the 3 winning candidates from the Town Meeting Works slate, not a single one of them broke ranks and voted for the Charter proposal.
      3. You speculate that campaigns will be expensive and that a less well-financed person will lose to a “better financed”. Let’s look at the actuals for a recent, highly contested election. Last spring, March 2017, saw a head-to-head campaign for school committee (town wide office) between Jennifer Page and Peter Demling. Peter raised $2,893.86 according to his campaign finance reports. Jennifer raised $5,454.27, according to her campaign finance reports. Peter won (he was the “less financed” candidate, according to these reports). The campaign was run on ideas and plans. The voters knew where the candidates stood on the issues. The voters had the knowledge to make an informed decision. And, after the results came in, the Town and the candidates knew where the Town’s voters stood on the issues, as evidenced by their support for the two candidates. That is what we want from a Council election: contested elections where the candidates have to run on the issues, make their opinions known and rely on the voters to make an informed choice about which position on an issue they want advocated for in government. As of now, that’s not possible with TM elections. They are followed in the press, the candidates aren’t actively campaigning, and for the most part, they aren’t contested (9 running for 8 seats essentially means on the last seat is contested, allowing virtually no choice for the voters).
      4. “If a resident doesn’t feel heard, s/he can easily run for Town Meeting” is one of the reasons a Council is being proposed. A voter shouldn’t have to find a way to fit 8 meeting nights in May at 3+ hours per night and 3 meeting nights in November at 3+ hours per night into his/her schedule in order to be able to be heard. The current systems depends upon a person’s ability to participate in 35+ hours of meetings a year in order to be heard. The new government doesn’t require a person to have that kind of time in order to be heard. That’s the difference, and it’s an important one. In the current system, the only people who have power are the 254 people who have the extensive time to devote to attending TM. In the new government, the voters will have the power because the issues will be debated before the elections, giving the power of information to the voters. A true representative system (of which RTM is not), is a system where all voters have a voice, not just those who have the time to devote 8-10 nights in May and 3 nights in November at 3+ hours a night to it.

    2. I don’t think it’s easy at all to contact all 240 or 250 members of the town meeting. And I’m okay with email and computer stuff. A lot of people aren’t. A lot of people would really benefit from being able to focus on a small town council where you can actually go up to one or more of the members after a public meeting and talk to them, one-on-one… or talk to several at the same time. And you will know that you are talking to the decision-makers and you can judge for yourself if they are attentive and interested in our views and the views of others. So, I think having 13 people is a much more manageable number to both communicate with, and to hold accountable and to help see other points of view that they might not have considered. If 240 or 250 town meeting members are better than a town council of 13, I don’t understand why people who oppose this change on those grounds have not tried to go back to the original open town meetings that, I’m told, governed our town before the 1940’s or so. I may have the dates wrong but the point is, why is 240 or 250 better than both 13 town council members and an open town meeting where every citizen gets a vote? I think the answer is obvious… because the entrenched power groups that now exist within town meeting and control the direction of the town don’t want any one else making decisions… not 13 freely elected town council members… and not the entire population of town citizens. I think that this is becoming more a story of a small group that does not want to give up its power over average citizens… if that is not the case, then why not embrace all the potential good that can come from a change that is clearly desired by a great many town citizens… and I’m told, also desired by some very fair-minded and concerned town meeting members, who also have the town’s best interests at heart? I’m willing to cast my lot with the citizens who are willing to at least try something different that may be better and may give the average citizen more of a fair shake when it comes to being heard and having more say in how their town is governed.

  2. Has our local democracy diminished to the point where our best chance at having our voices be heard is sending an email blast to 24 Town Meeting supervoters and hoping that someone responds who is “willing to listen and agree”?

    Email democracy isn’t enough. Today we have a system in which voters have little to no information about the people they’re voting in to Town Meeting, no effective way outside of email blasts to contact them and advocate for a position, no practical way to keep track of how they vote, and no way to hold them accountable. All we want is a system that functions as a true democracy.

  3. You can get a public record from the town as to the number of TM members that opt into the email. When I last requested this information in May 2017 I got a list of 123 people. Not even a majority.

  4. I remember the first time I tried to make my voice heard as a citizen in Amherst… It was at the urging of my husband who suggested I call our town meeting members about an issue we cared about.

    My heart absolutely dropped when I realized that I needed to phone bank 24 people… and sure enough, I ended up spending close to two hours of a Sunday I’d rather be spending with my two young children, trying to advocate for a better future for them. I left messages with most of my town meeting members. Some I heard back from, some I didn’t.

    Since then there’s been a good-faith effort to get town meeting members subscribed to centralized email lists for each precinct… But a friend just told me that she requested information from the town on the number of TM Members who opted into the email communication. As of May 31st, 2017 it was 123 members. That’s barely 50%.

    Our local democracy can be so much better than this. I think the proposed form of government that the Charter Commission developed is based on thoughtful deliberation, openness to citizen input, and research and I’m excited about voting yes next March 27th.

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