Town Meeting defenders don’t like talking about the real problems with our current system. And it’s understandable why not.
They have been unable to refute data showing that a majority of Town Meeting members are self-appointed and that most voters have not been participating in local elections. They’d rather not talk about sending back $34 million in state money for our schools. They ignore the fact that if you don’t like what Town Meeting members do, there’s not much you can do about it.
So some of them have turned to scare tactics. Rather than defending the increasingly problematic status quo, they are indulging in wild speculation about what will happen when voters approve Amherst’s new charter on March 27. Over the next 10 days, this blog will expose these scare tactics, so that voters can focus on the real issues.
Let’s start with the claim that under a council-manager form of government, it will be much easier for developers to get approval for their plans, and that soon Amherst will be overrun with large buildings.
Some defenders of Town Meeting have even said that this was the whole purpose of the Charter Commission. For the record, the commission members who voted in favor of the charter include educators, a retired journalist, a musician, and a consultant. No sign of a developer, or a developer’s influence.
Much of the fear of rampant development centers around the two mixed-use buildings at the northern end of downtown, whose size and architecture offend some people. But they forget that the Master Plan, hammered out over years with intense citizen involvement, called for denser development downtown and in village centers, in exchange for preservation of open space and a more rural feel outside of these areas.
They also forget that the right of these two buildings to have five stories was voted by Town Meeting in 2010. And they discount the fact that these two buildings will bring in about $500,000 a year in property taxes, that they are models of energy efficiency, that they will make downtown more lively, and that they address a pent-up demand for housing.
These are the kinds of trade-offs that should be debated fully in public by the people’s representatives, not decided in an hour by a largely self-appointed group that meets twice a year. When a democratically elected Town Council is in charge of zoning, it will be able to ponder the ramifications of proposed changes for weeks or months, and bring greater knowledge and public input to the decisions. Currently, Town Meeting members have to make far-reaching decisions in one night, and even those who understand zoning well admit to feeling flummoxed at times.
The Council will also be required to publicly discuss and approve the Master Plan, and to hold annual forums on it, to ensure that planning and zoning decisions are consistent with the wishes of the community. If councilors don’t do what the voters want, they can be kicked out every two years. Since development issues will be aired during Council campaigns, elections will give Amherst a better sense of public opinion.
Finally, the new charter actually sets a higher bar to change zoning under a Council than we currently have with Town Meeting. If 20 percent of owners of property within 300 feet of a site proposed for rezoning file a written protest, passage will require yes votes from 10 councilors. That’s 77 percent approval required, compared to 67 percent at Town Meeting. And with 10 of the 13 members elected from districts rather than townwide, neighborhood sentiment will have prominent representation.
The charter is all about democracy, not development. It is about giving the voters the power to determine who will make decisions on their behalf. I don’t know if restrictions on development will tighten or loosen when a 13-member council is calling the shots. But I am confident that the decisions will be more in keeping with what voters want than they are now.
Some defenders of Town Meeting claim that councilors will be more beholden to developers than to voters, because of campaign contributions. I will address this scare tactic in our next post.
I believe that most of us want to see appropriate economic development to broaden the tax base and provide jobs, but we also want to retain our pleasant, peaceful residential neighborhoods. We have to achieve a balance that works for the majority of residents. I expect this issue to be prominent in the debates preceding council elections. I’m content to let the people decide.