Town Meeting: Another committee?

Nick Grabbe

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.


Comments 7

  1. As of November 2nd, only 172 Town Meeting members have signed up to be on an email list. Here is the breakdown by Precinct:

    Precinct 1: 15
    Precinct 2: 14
    Precinct 3: 14
    Precinct 4: 13
    Precinct 5: 14
    Precinct 6: 20
    Precinct 7: 18
    Precinct 8: 22
    Precinct 9: 18
    Precinct 10: 14
    Ex Officio: 10

  2. Between their public TMCC SPP presentation of 09-13-17 and now, the TMCC SPP seems to have removed the idea of making recommendations in favor of just doing pros and cons, but the three TMCC members who received the Assistant to the Town Manager’s scheduling email for their standard warrant article appearance at Select Board for a recommendation apparently got their dates mixed up and didn’t contact Select Board to say no one was coming, so we had to proceed based on what two of us heard at their 09-13-17 presentation (at their own public meeting) and the warrant article wording we had subsequently asked them to have track more closely with the TMCC bylaw wording.

    One thing I noted at both discussions was that I worked very hard to save Town Meeting in 2003 and I was pleased to see regularly scheduled precinct meetings become standard, but continued to be surprised that no one self selected to attend and report back on some fraction of all the posted committee meetings the TMCC SPP was now saying they wanted to be at the table with, when Town Meeting has always had the great freedom to engage both in person and now online discussions about what people heard at such meetings without being subject to any OML restrictions. Similar to the LWV Observer Corps prior to the internet:-)

  3. No matter what proposal TMCC makes, it will merely be old wine in a new bottle so long as it argues for the continuance of TM. Irv Rhodes

  4. I am sorry that the Charter Commission voted against looking at our current (and overall very successful) Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager form of government. I wish that the 5 Charter Commissioners had no intention of taking a thoughtful look at our current government (which of course can be improved) had mentioned this last Fall when they came to Town Meeting asking for $30K to spend on a consultant. I would have voted against it. I wish the Charter Commission had done better — since our traditional government is the most common in New England. We on the Subcommittee on Policies and Procedures looked at other towns for good ideas, why wouldn’t the Commission?

    So now we have Charter Commissioner Grabbe determining that the hard work and any suggestion of the Subcommittee of Policies and Procedures is and will always be inadequate. What is the basis for this determination? This makes me glad to be talking to Town Meeting tonight about the proposal for set up, as a 3 year experiment, an Advisory Committee to bring pros and cons, more facts and assessment of impacts to our community of Warrant Articles. This independent evaluation is done by many legislatures and I think it will help not only Town Meeting, but our community. I know tonight we will be listened to with respect–as I respect the comments and ideas of other Town Meeting members, the Select Board, Finance Committee and other community members. I will learn from them.

  5. Post

    The Town Meeting form of government is indeed very successful — for Town Meeting members, many of whom have little or no mandate from voters. The members of the Charter Commission were democratically selected by voters, and there was never a majority for tweaking Town Meeting (though I did make a failed attempt at compromise with the Town Meeting supporters on the commission). Besides, the TMCC was making an attempt to improve Town Meeting. By the way, that subgroup included three prominent members who voters chose NOT to put on the Charter Commission, and at least two members who were elected to Town Meeting from precincts that didn’t have enough candidates.
    It is not true that the kind of Town Meeting Amherst has is the most common form in New England. Open Town Meeting is, and it works pretty well, in small towns. It is also not true that the Charter Commission did not look at other towns for good ideas; we looked at scores of them, especially college towns in the Northeast (most of which have mayor/council systems). Andy Churchill visited two towns with manager/council systems, and I spent a day in Greenfield researching their council system.
    I actually think that if Town Meeting were going to continue, an advisory committee is a good idea, or at least better than members voting without adequate information, as TMCC members have admitted they have been doing. But I suspect that membership on the TMAC would require lots and lots of time, would duplicate many efforts already being done, take up lots more (expensive) staff time, and be subject to its own biases.

  6. I find it curious that town meeting members weren’t too interested in making changes BEFORE a great many town citizens starting seriously looking for a new form of government that would give the average person more of a fair shake in the way decisions are made that affect all of us. The sudden desperate dash by some town meeting members to admit there might be a few things that could be improved in the way town meeting does business reminds me of a Mark Twain quote:

    “Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.”

    Boy, Mark Twain sure knew his stuff…. 🙂

  7. If the Town Meeting were set up like the U.S. House with committees to hear all of the relevant information before anything got to the floor, then it would be more effective, more efficient, and perhaps even less unpleasant to the members. The committees could include all or most of the following: Administration, Aging, Agriculture, Appropriations, Budget, Commerce, Education, Energy and Commerce, Ethics, Finance, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Housing, Police, Public Works, Rules, Science, Technology, Small Business, Taxation, Transportation, Ways and Means. The committees could watch over departments and recommend on budgets. Committees work well in state and federal government, so why not in the legislative branch of local government. That’s a nice technical change that could improve things.

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