Nick Grabbe and Andy Churchill
Opponents of governmental reform in Amherst claim that the new charter, which will be voted on March 27, reduces democracy by concentrating authority in a 13-member council.
Unlike the other scare tactics we have exposed on this blog (rampant development, Big Money in politics and male domination of the council), this one at least sounds like it could be right. The charter does reduce the number of elected decision-makers from 240 (actually, 180, the average number of Town Meeting members who show up) to 13.
But to claim that this is a reduction in democracy is misleading. Democracy is all about representing the will of the people, and the new proposal is designed to better represent the will of the people than our current system does.
Those 180 Town Meeting members comprise only 1 percent of registered voters. And they have little connection to the residents they supposedly represent, because voter participation in Town Meeting elections is so low, because more than half of the members have been virtually self-appointed, and because it’s practically impossible for the average person to keep track of 24 precinct members.
And while many members are conscientious and civic-minded, the structural limitations of Town Meeting – occasional meetings with little opportunity for public input or extended deliberation – keep them from effectively representing the voters at large, even if they want to.
Town Meeting members are largely unaccountable to voters, having no need to articulate their positions before elections or defend their votes in order to be re-elected, due to the small amount of competition for seats. They basically represent no one but themselves.
The Charter Commission proposal will expand power to all the voters, who will choose members of a Town Council in competitive elections in which candidates must debate their positions on issues. These councilors will be expected to connect with and represent their constituents – and if they don’t, they can be voted out of office after two years.
It will be much easier to recruit one or two people every other year to run against a Town Councilor than it is to recruit eight or more people every year to run against the eight people in each precinct who are up for reelection. As was shown recently in Greenfield, well-organized challengers with popular positions can succeed without having to spend a lot of money.
We are fortunate to have a highly qualified town manager to run the day-to-day operations of our town, but we need accountable citizen representatives to provide thoughtful oversight of spending and planning. Right now, we have the Select Board, which can be thoughtful but has limited powers, and we have Town Meeting, which can approve things, but only twice a year and without the benefit of thoughtful review, often ignoring the advice of committees that study issues more deeply.
The new system will bring citizen oversight and thoughtful process together in one body that can truly represent voters.
The Charter Commission recognized the benefits of a council, but we also wanted to make the Council big enough to ensure a diversity of voices. Instead of one councilor per district, we proposed two. This way, one well-known candidate in a district won’t deter others from running, and voters will have two chances to elect a representative they feel comfortable communicating with.
So our proposed Town Council is on the larger size at 13 members – but still small enough for thoughtful, year-round deliberation (same as Greenfield and Barnstable, for example).
The proposal offers new opportunities for citizens without the time to participate in 40-plus hours of Town Meeting a year to learn about and give input on town issues. We included a requirement that the Council hold three public forums a year, open to all residents. We envision these forums as being similar to Town Meeting sessions, but open to everyone.
We also required that district councilors hold at least two public meetings a year in their districts. These district meetings will facilitate two-way communication between residents and their representatives, helping to build the kinds of constituent relationships that Amherst currently lacks.
The charter also requires the manager to designate a staffer as a Community Participation Officer. This person’s role will be to support residents who are interested in getting involved in figuring out the options and process for doing so, as well as to conduct outreach to bring under-represented groups of people into government.
There are also multiple ways in the charter for residents to bring important issues to the Council or take them to a town-wide vote. There is even a “voter veto” provision for those who feel the Council has taken a position that is not supported by the voters.
Finally, the best way to have true democracy that represents the will of the people is to have robust voter participation. The current system’s record here is atrocious, in part because so many voters have no or few choices among candidates for Town Meeting and have no real way of learning the positions of the candidates who are on the ballot. The new form of government includes numerous ways to increase voter participation and knowledge, including moving Election Day to November, when most people expect to vote.
Here’s the bottom line. If you like the idea of having 180 disconnected and unaccountable super-voters making decisions on your behalf a couple of times a year without full information, then the status quo is fine. But if you believe Amherst has outgrown occasional government and deserves year-round democracy that empowers all the voters and provides a structure for more thoughtful spending and planning decisions, you should give the new charter a try.
For us, that’s what real democracy looks like.
Andy Churchill is the chair of the Amherst Charter Commission.