Town Meeting voted to rush through an important new policy last Wednesday despite a Select Board warning of a “potential for deep consequences,” a plea for caution echoed by three other boards.
My support for bold action on climate change, and my own low-energy lifestyle, make me no less concerned about how this issue was decided. I think it illustrates a fundamental flaw of the Town Meeting system.
The proposal was to require that all new town buildings generate as much energy as they use. This zero-energy mandate will affect not only big projects like a new fire station and public works building, but also additions costing more than $1 million, perhaps including the ones at the North Amherst Library.
Select Board member Andy Steinberg moved to delay a decision until next spring, so that the full ramifications could be studied. His motion failed, 112-73-2, and Town Meeting then quickly approved the new requirement.
I agree that we must act locally to address the threat of climate change. But with the construction of new buildings still years away, there was no need to rush (except maybe the understandable urge to reject the President’s climate policies). It probably felt good for Town Meeting to vote for zero energy, but with the actual impact in the future, why the urgency?
If climate activists wanted a bigger, immediate impact, there are other things they could have proposed. Municipal buildings account for a tiny fraction of the energy consumed in Amherst, and the campuses have made major strides in efficiency. Most of Amherst’s carbon footprint comes from residences and vehicles. How about a property tax credit for the cost of replacing old refrigerators, which are the biggest residential energy wasters? Or a requirement that rental units have Energy Star appliances? Or help in insulating houses? Or free parking downtown for hybrid and/or electric vehicles? How about a solar-powered, Town-supported charging station for electric vehicles?
I worry about the perfect being the enemy of the good here. The current fire station and public works buildings are energy hogs. What if the new requirements delay their replacement and mean a longer life for these carbon-spewing buildings? Town officials have had difficulty finding a site for these a new buildings, and now the search will be narrowed to ones that are favorable to renewable energy.
But the bigger issue is how Amherst makes big policy decisions. Faced with a complicated issue with a major financial impact, Town Meeting decided it in less than 45 minutes, ignoring multiple requests for a complete study of the details. Town Meeting defied not only the Select Board but also the Planning Board, its own Finance Committee, and the panel looking at plans for a new fire station and public works building. (The Jones Library expansion project would be exempt from this requirement because it is not owned by the town.)
Even if the charter proposal passes on March 27, there will still be an annual Town Meeting next spring. If Town Meeting had voted for a full vetting of the zero-energy requirement, it could have passed it then. Or there could have been a special Town Meeting in February. Between now and then, there won’t be any major action on the fire station or public works building plans.
A town council will be able to consider complex proposals like this one over weeks and months, seeking out all the relevant information and asking all the important questions. Town Meeting decided it in 45 minutes.
This is the last in a series of blog posts detailing problems with Town Meeting. We have previously addressed the inadequate number of candidates and voters, Town Meeting’s inability set its own agenda, its impact on Amherst’s high taxes, and its lack of understanding of complex proposals.
Here are some other problems:
- Members are not required to disclose conflicts of interest, and can vote on articles that affect them financially.
- Members are not bound by the state’s Open Meeting Law, and can engage in private online discussions away from public scrutiny.
- Town Meeting, convening only twice a year, is not nimble enough to react quickly to crises and opportunities.
- Preparation for Town Meeting takes lots of staff time, and that demand will increase with the new advisory committee that was approved Wednesday.
- There is little communication between members and residents, and a third of members decline to receive emails from residents.
- The Town Meeting schedule requires the town manager to propose a spending plan long before he knows how much state money Amherst will get.
- The time investment required deters many from joining; while Town Meeting averaged 22.8 articles per session in 1971-75, it averaged 4.5 in 2011-15.
- Town Meeting members are older, whiter and wealthier than the general population.
- Only 70 to 75 percent of Town Meeting members actually show up for meetings.