Mandi Jo Hanneke
What’s a Town Council do? It’s a fair question to ask, especially since many people can’t describe the current split of duties in our current government. So, here’s a quick guide.
The Town Council will be responsible for approving the annual budget for Amherst, the Library and the elementary Schools. It will also be responsible for allocating money for the Middle and High Schools. (Votes on the budgets for the schools are based upon the recommended budgets approved by the School Committtees) These duties are currently the responsibility of Town Meeting.
The Town Council will pass or reject proposed general bylaw changes (like the noise bylaw). The Town Council will also pass or reject proposed changes to the zoning bylaws and zoning maps (like whether a parcel can have a commercial or residential use on it). Town Meeting has these duties now.
And, just like Town Meeting, the Town Council will need a supermajority to approve zoning bylaw changes. But, unlike Town Meeting, that supermajority will always be 9 votes, whether 13 or 9 councilors are present.
In Town Meeting, only the votes of those present and voting are counted in determining whether 2/3 approval has been received. In an extreme case, that means a zoning bylaw could pass with very few votes of the entire membership (e.g. if there are 127 Town Meeting members present, a zoning bylaw can pass with 67 yes votes, 33 no votes and 27 abstaining or not voting, despite there being 254 members – that’s just 27% of the entire body).
To pass zoning bylaws, the Town Council will always need 9 yes votes, no matter how many councilors are at the meeting. So, if there are 9 members at the meeting, all 9 will have to vote yes in order for the bylaw to pass. If there are only 7 at the meeting, the Town Council will likely postpone the vote—even all in favor won’t be enough to pass the measure.
And, unlike in Town Meeting, the residents have a way of requiring the Council to adopt zoning changes by a ¾ majority (10 members) (see M.G.L. Ch. 40A Sec. 5).
The Town Council will pass or reject other measures, like resolutions (e.g. the Trump impeachment resolution last spring), just like Town Meeting.
Manager Supervision & Appointments
The Town Council will appoint and supervise the Town Manager, just like the Select Board does now. In addition, the Town Council will approve Town Manager appointments of department heads. This represents a check on the Manager—one that does not exist now.
The Town Council will also approve or reject Town Manager appointments of members of boards and committees. The Select Board has this authority over very few appointments now.
The Town Council will appoint the members of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. Right now, those appointments sit with the Town Manager and Select Board, respectively.
The Town Council will be able to request information from the Town Manager, Superintendent, Library Director and volunteer boards. They will also be able to investigate the affairs of the Town. Town Meeting cannot do this now; the authority rests with the Select Board.
The Town Council will hold public forums at least twice a year, with at least one focusing on the budget and one focusing on planning and zoning. And, the individual District Councilors are required to hold public meetings in their districts at least twice a year. These new meetings and forums will ensure that the Councilors are seeking out the opinions of their constituents and are responsive to them. And, they will provide an opportunity for interested residents to get involved in government.
And, while this is not something it “does”, the Town Council will be required to comply with the Open Meeting laws and the Conflict of Interest laws. Neither Town Meeting nor its Members are required to comply with these laws.
Seven or more Councilors will not be permitted to discuss a matter behind closed doors. Right now, any number of Town Meeting members, even 180 of them, can create an email list, or get together in person, to discuss a matter before them on the warrant, make a decision of how they will vote and never notify the public that they met to do so. It will be a violation of law for Town Councilors to do that between 7 or more of them.
A Town Councilor will not be able to vote on a measure that directly impacts her, without, at a minimum, disclosing that impact or, more likely, not voting at all. Right now, it is legal for a Town Meeting member to speak in favor or against a measure without disclosing a direct conflict and then vote on that same measure. A Councilor will not be able to do that without violating the law.
Basically, the Town Council will have all the responsibilities that Town Meeting currently has, along with a few that the Select Board has. The important thing to remember is that the Council will gain the powers of the Select Board that will allow it to be a more effective and open legislative body—deliberation, investigation, information gathering, and compliance with open meeting and conflict of interest laws.