Mandi Jo Hanneke
Participation is the key to democracy. We’ve all heard people say it, but what does it actually mean? And, how does the new Charter enable better participation of Amherst’s residents?
Ideally, meaningful participation brings the public into the process, beginning at issue framing and ending at decision making. Authentic, meaningful participation involves residents in decision-making instead of just judging.
So, what prevents someone from participating? Time and knowledge are two of the main ones. A person’s time is limited, so whether it’s standing in line to vote or attending meetings, the more time one activity takes, the less time a person has to dedicate to another.
How can residents be heard now?
If you’re a citizen, you can vote in a local election.
You can call, write or email your town officials and committee members or attend meetings to speak to them.
You can become an elected official or volunteer to serve on an appointed committee.
The Charter proposal keeps all of these ways to have your voice heard.
So, what makes the Charter proposal better?
Town Councilors will have to campaign, and that’s a good thing.
Right now, residents have very little information, if any, on Town Meeting candidates’ positions on items they are likely to be voting on if elected. (I’ll ignore the lack of competition for now).
There was a candidates’ forum this past spring (the first ever), but it was sparsely attended and not reported on in the newspaper. It was hard to find out where Town Meeting candidates stood on the issues they would be voting on.
On the other hand, in the past election, the School Committee and Library Trustee candidates had debates, which were written up in the newspaper. There were campaign signs, websites, flyers, and mailings, all detailing the candidates’ positions. Voters knew where they stood on the issues and could vote based on that knowledge.
With a Town Council of 3 at-large and 2 district councilors per district, there is a high likelihood that the offices will be contested. Not only that, but as the highest offices in town, there will be debates covered by the news media. Residents will be able to read about the issues and where the candidates stand. There will be flyers, mailings, and websites to inform the voters.
The elections will be news, there will be choices, positions will be known, and there is a high likelihood that turnout will be higher, which increases participation in government.
Contacting your officials, especially the legislative body, will be different. All Councilors will have Town emails, posted on the Town website. Right now, email addresses of Town Meeting members are not posted, and you have to call or snail mail members if you want to reach everyone. While you can “email your precinct Town Meeting members,” it is opt-in, and at last check only 67% of Town Meeting members have done so. The web page doesn’t even disclose who hasn’t opted in, so you don’t actually know who receives it.
You’ll also have many fewer to officials to contact—13 for the whole body, instead of 24 just for your precinct. It’s a lot more manageable and a lot less time-consuming for a busy individual to do.
Importantly, the Councilors will need to listen (and want to listen). Right now, there are a number of Town Meeting members who vote their conscience without any regard to what the other 3,800 residents of their precinct actually want. They don’t see themselves as “representatives” even though they are the only 24 people in their precinct who actually have a vote on legislation.
Councilors will recognize and respect the fact that they are “representatives.” As an aid to this, the proposed Charter requires the District Councilors to hold district meetings to meet with the residents. The meetings are required to have public comment; there will be opportunities to directly address your councilors and bring up any issue you have.
And, if a Councilor fails to listen and act according to the wishes of her constituents, she can be voted out. Just look at the recent local elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and even Greenfield, where it happened.
Another difference is the opportunity to speak to the legislature during open meetings. Right now, everyone, including elected members and the public, is dependent upon being picked by the moderator in order to have their voice heard (which must be on the topic at hand). But, the Council is required to have public comment at its meetings, where residents will be given an opportunity to speak on any topic they wish. That’s not currently the case.
But what about the decrease in the number of people actually voting on the policies? Many argue this represents a severe decrease in participation.
While the proposal does decrease the raw number of people directly enacting policy, the increased visibility of campaigns for office, the increased knowledge of the candidates and their stances, and the recognition by all office-holders that they actually represent residents, not just their own views, will resuls in putting the power back into the hands of many.
Giving the power back to the electorate. That’s what the charter proposal aims to do. If you want a higher level of participation, you still have it. Attend meetings, run for office, volunteer for a committee. But for those that don’t have the time to devote to those methods but still want a say in who’s elected, the Charter proposes a better path than we have now.