Most people who are familiar with Amherst Town Meeting recognize that it has problems. The debate over our new charter is largely between those who see the problems as technical and fixable, and those who see the problems as structural.
A Town Meeting committee has been considering ways to address these problems, and will propose one small reform during the current session: a new committee. I will argue that this proposal has its own flaws, is insufficient to deal with Town Meeting’s problems, and shows how slow the pace of reform is.
The committee told Town Meeting a year ago that the creation of a Charter Commission has brought urgency to this effort, because it is “clear that some town voters think that Town Meeting is no longer an appropriate instrument for governance.” Voters will decide on March 27 whether to accept the commission’s recommendation to replace Town Meeting and the Select Board with a 13-member council.
This Town Meeting committee has spearheaded some helpful changes, but most have been around the margins or of limited effectiveness. Members can now hold up red, green and white cards showing their positions on articles, to help the moderator balance the debate. Before the last election, there were meet-the-candidates events, but the two I went to were not well-attended. Residents can now email some of their Town Meeting representatives, but they don’t know which ones will get the message, because a third of the members have not agreed to be contacted.
The proposal on the current warrant (Article 13) is for a new committee, to be called the Town Meeting Advisory Committee. It would report to members on the likely benefits and disadvantages of most articles on the warrant. The impact on the economy, neighborhoods, taxpayers and public safety would be addressed, as well as how the articles would affect the town’s culture, physical appearance and specific populations.
It sounds sensible. But as Select Board member Alisa Brewer has pointed out, it would inevitably increase the already large amount of staff time devoted to Town Meeting preparation, and thus increase the cost of government. Its adoption would express disdain for the elected and volunteer committees that are already reviewing Town Meeting articles. It would supposedly provide an “unbiased” analysis, but how would it avoid being ruled by its members’ own biases?
Advocates of this new committee admit that Town Meeting has been making key decisions without being well-informed. “There’s not enough information to make decisions and a limited time to do research,” said John Hornik. Chris Riddle, a retired architect who knows the zoning bylaw very well, said that some zoning articles are over his head. One can only imagine how well less knowledgeable Town Meeting members understand zoning proposals. One recently said she didn’t understand the article, so she would just vote “no.”
The second problem with this proposal is that it doesn’t address the structural flaws of Town Meeting, chiefly the fact that voters have been presented with few choices among candidates, and have largely opted out of participating in elections. I addressed these problems in detail in a previous blog post.
I thought the Town Meeting committee might present reform proposals that would convince some voters that passage of the new charter was unnecessary. I imagined the analogy of a restaurant owner who has tolerated unsanitary conditions for years, but is staying up all night cleaning because the health inspector is coming in the morning. But this proposal for a new committee is a very small reform. That restaurant owner is preparing for the inspector’s arrival by just cleaning the sink.
The committee has reviewed lots of reforms that it is not proposing at this fall’s Town Meeting. These include more frequent sessions, sending out the warrant a month earlier and seeking greater diversity of membership. There are proposals for improving Town Meeting’s communication with boards and residents, but none will be enacted before the March 27 vote.
The most significant reform that’s been discussed is a reduction in the size of Town Meeting, to make elections more meaningful. Framingham Town Meeting voted to cut its size by 25 percent, a move that may have resulted in a closer-than-expected vote on a new charter, which was narrowly approved. Meg Gage, a Charter Commission member, circulated a petition article to cut Town Meeting’s size in half, and I signed it. But she abandoned her effort before gathering enough signatures to bring it before Town Meeting this month.
If the charter passes, all of this will be moot. If it doesn’t, maybe Town Meeting will move forward with more reforms, and maybe it won’t. The committee was created in 2005, after the defeat of the last charter proposal, and it took this long to come up with only minor reforms.
And it still hasn’t been able to require that all Town Meeting members make their email addresses public. That’s a reform that should have been made 10 years ago.