8

Council Duties

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.

Money

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.

Bylaws

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).

Other Measures

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.

Information Requests

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.

Constituent Responsibilities

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.

Ethics

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.

Summary

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.

Comments 8

  1. How many cities in Massachusetts collapse almost all government functions into one body? Which ones-and how are the governments working there? Better outcomes for the city or towns? I see no separation of powers here, no checks and balances. And I’m wondering how this works in practice.

  2. I am not wondering what other towns are doing. I am only worried about what Amherst is doing and has been doing for quite a long while and that is, making average citizens feel like their opinions and ideas and thoughts don’t matter… that all that matters is the small pockets of power in the town meeting that drive the action and make the decisions… small pockets of power that are very adept at gaming the system by slowing down the process when it is convenient, frequently driving some town meeting members to have to leave and go home before crucial votes are made because they need to take care of their kids or other responsibilities. Those pockets of power are well-organized and very good at what they do. And if they were doing the will of the majority of the town and everyone felt like their voices were being heard and the welfares of their families were being considered in decisions, then I don’t think we’d be talking about ending town meeting and trying a new form of government. You know when I knew just how much average town citizens felt left behind by the town meeting form of government? I realized it when I saw my daughter’s piano teacher, standing out in front of the post office two years ago, shivering in the cold as she attempted to politely ask people to sign a petition to get at least a study going for a change in Amherst’s town government. And she wasn’t the only one. I also saw people I recognized collecting signatures who work in local stores and provide a lot of our services. But that piano teacher was, and is, a great example of a working person who lives in town, shops in town, believes in the town and the fairness of the citizens and thought there was a better way to govern ourselves. A lot of people think that way. And it’s going to be decided in March when we all get to vote… of course, I’m guessing if those small pockets of power had their way, there would be no voting by all of the citizens… it would be decided by the town meeting and I think we all know how that would go. And one last thing… this sometimes seems like it’s a lot of citizens against the town meeting members and it’s not. The town meeting members are citizens too… and many of them are concerned about how the town meeting has evolved or devolved into what it has currently become. So there are town meeting members who would like to try a town council form of government right alongside piano teachers and grocery store employees and the people who deliver our mail… and retired people like me. This isn’t and shouldn’t be “Us against Them”… it should be “Us for Us… Us for ALL of Us” 🙂

  3. As a partial answer to Ms McGowan’s question, there is a city council in every city in Massachusetts, and there are Town Councils in a few towns. Every one of them operates a little differently, depending in the local politics and the individuals who are involved. You find it instructive to visit a meeting of the Chicopee or Springfield City Councils, or you might want to inquire with people in Easthampton, which changed from a town to a city in 1996. The Easthampton town government had become gridlocked over a number of issues, but the I have been told that the city government gets a few things done.

  4. Mr Scully,

    The biggest difference in the council form of government is that few people will be involved in town government. There won’t be people people standing in front of stores looking for signatures, because that part of the process will be going on in the council chambers. If you think people feel left out of the representative town meeting, then they will be completely cut off from the town council. At least with a representative town meeting, they can scream at town meeting members. Well, they’ll be able to yell at council members, if they can get to them.

    It might be nice if it were: “All of Us for All of Us.”

    1. Myself and a lot of town citizens feel pretty left out in the “representative town meeting”… the one time I tried to speak and after doing everything correctly, plenty of time in advance and patiently waiting, I was not allowed. The town meeting members arbitrarily decided to cut off discussions. And that has happened to more people than me. As for screaming at town meeting members, I have no interest in that. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you who my town meeting members are or were because there are 240 or so of them… but I will sure know who the 13 elected town council members are because there are only 13 of them. And they will have to make their cases for being elected during their campaigns. Also, I am not worried about being able to have my say with them. There is something very anonymous about how small pockets of power in town meeting quickly band together to either cut off discussions they don’t want to hear , ignore citizens they don’t want to speak or push votes through that I find disturbing. It may be democracy but it feels like democracy in the dark. There will be a lot more light shed on the 13 town council members and if any citizens feels like something isn’t quite right or fair, we will know exactly who to call out on it. Or who ask to explain their actions… by name. Oh, and not everything has to be screaming or confronting. You may enjoy having the ability to scream at your town meeting members, if you can spot them, but most of us don’t want to have to fight to be heard in such a nasty way. I think the way that people who have brought us this new form of government possibility have done it in a very inclusive and respectful way and they are willing to leave it up to the town’s voters and I appreciate that. Why is that the town meeting defenders don’t trust the voters to vote their conscience?. Why do they seem to fear that a majority of the town’s citizens will vote “yes” to try a new form of government? Maybe it’s because the people who support town meeting know they haven’t been doing a very good job of it lately and they are so used to making all of the decisions for us that they think only they should be making this decision for us too. I, for one, am willing to trust the voters and will abide by their decision. I’m voting “yes” and I think a lot of others are too, but I don’t have a crystal ball that tells me this is definitely going to pass. It could go either way. But I sense in town meeting defenders a feeling that if they can’t cut the vote off at the knees early, that it will pass… and I think they they think that because they know that town meeting no longer serves the average citizens well… and that something new may end up working better than town meeting. Well, that’s at least one thing I agree with them on. 🙂

    2. Oops, almost forgot, Mr. Lewicki, I like your “All of Us for All of Us” very much. You wrote that better than I did… 🙂

      1. The position of Town Meeting defenders seems to be that all imperfections in government are cleansed by the sheer numbers of people in the room. I hope that I’m not being unfair in saying that.

        For me, the relevant questions are: in this system, do the voters of the Town have power? are they able to shape policy? what do voters know about the people on the Town Meeting ballot? do they have any reasonable expectations that their Town Meeting votes will steer the ship in any way?

        My sense is that if we deconstruct the voting process for the individual at the polling place, if we really look at how voters make choices on their Town Meeting ballots, it’s not a pretty picture, one that we’ve been living with for decades. In Amherst town elections, almost all of us are “low information voters”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *