Scare tactics 4: Concentration of power

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.


Comments 36

  1. Attendance of 180 is high.
    Some of the recorded votes in Annual Town Meeting were hovering around 130, just above a quorum.
    So nearly half of elected TM members don’t even vote at some legislative sessions.
    I would much rather have a a fully engaged and informed Town Council of 13, than a largely disengaged (or, selectively engaged) TM of 240+.

  2. Post

    I did an analysis of Town Meeting attendance in 2013, ’14 and ’15, and found the average to be 179: 181 in 2015, 173 in ’14, and 183 in ’13. I haven’t analyzed 2016 or ’17. I think the reason that the attendance is higher than the added-up vote totals is that some Town Meeting members arrive late or leave early or just don’t vote.

    1. One of the great things about electronic voting, is that we know who is bothering to vote
      Check out this string of votes at Annual Town Meeting

      129, 128, 124 (including abstentions). All just above a quorum.

      The attendance average of 179 is misleading, because legislators wander in and out, like they are at a coffee house.

      1. Post
  3. Still using the pejorative words “Scare Tactics” I see. I repeat…………….Anti-charter residents have legitimate worries; calling them scare tactics sounds like a tactic to demean and diminish those concerns.

  4. Anti-Charter advocates are crying that the new governance plan will lead to rampant unchecked development, disempower women, and hand the keys of Town Hall to an Oligarchy of business interests. By any measure, these are scare tactics.

    What if the new plan is simply an effort to empower Amherst voters through the election of truly representative local legislators that will take into consideration the will of their constituencies? That’s why I got involved.

    It’s time for Town Meeting loyalists to address the significant problems with our current governance system and debate the pros and cons of the new Town Council-based plan. But so far, the roar of the scare tactics employed by the anti-Charter crowd has been much, much louder. Keep it clean – I double dare you!

  5. Where do I start?!
    When you say clean, do you mean like when A4A was campaigning with the signature drive, many of the collectors told people the Commission petition was simply to be a study of our Town government? And if people were reluctant to sign, they were confronted with “so you don’t even think we should study our government?” Or when confronted by me about these “tactics”, I was told to stop accusing A4A or they’d stop posting my remarks? And then once the petitions were certified, A4A magically became Amherst for Change. And the Commission became anything but a real study of what works and doesn’t work; what would be the best way to fix what isn’t working; how do council cities across the state stack up against Town Meeting towns in terms of taxes, diversity, voting statistics, etc. No, it became a steady drive toward a council.
    And here’s a curious stream of thought I’ve noticed. Many charter proponents talk about high taxes and how Town Meeting opposes development, like the large apartment buildings, and the rezoning of the north end of downtown, but insists that the new council proposal isn’t about zoning, while at the same time saying that the new council will be more likely to promote development. And how would they do that ? Yes, by passing the kind of rezoning that TM didn’t pass last year to rezone the north side of N. Pleasant and large portions of S. Prospect, thereby paving the way to build many more or those 5 story apartment buildings that Adam Lussier told a customer would happen if there wasn’t a Charter Commission! And inferring that such actions will lower taxes to boot, which we all know won’t happen. Is that the kind of clean you dare us to replicate?

    1. As I’ve told you before, Gerry, I believe the Charter Commission did study all forms of government. For example, we held several meetings where we discussed RTM and potential improvements. There was at least one meeting where a smaller RTM structure was discussed. For a specific example of what the Commission did, as a whole, to consider improvements, see the link here: http://amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/Index/3049. At that meeting, the Commissioners were to come prepared to distribute a “compare-contrast” or “pro-con” list of the “best town meeting form” vs. the “best council form” they could think of. Notice, all minority members failed to list a single pro or con of a city form (many didn’t even discuss any potential “best city forms”) and all minority members failed to list a single con of the Town Meeting form. The minority, at that meeting, showed its true colors—keep TM at all costs, notwithstanding whether TM was the best form; they refused to even consider that a city form could have benefits to Amherst that a TM form could not provide (by the way, the minority members are the one who asked for that meeting to be held on specifically that topic). On the other hand, all majority members in attendance (Irv was in Florida) came with the full grid completed—listing both pros and cons for both systems, including an altered TM system. That meeting potentially shows the opposite of what many claim, including you. The majority was willing to explore all possibilities, but the minority was not.

      As for me, I considered the possibility of improving an RTM structure, or even reverting back to OTM (I believe I was the only Commissioner who seriously considered that option).
      I read entire books on Town Meeting (some of the same ones Julia read). I read scholarly articles on Town Meeting (some about Amherst’s RTM specifically). I read scholarly articles on mayor forms, on council forms, on manager-council forms, on board of commissioner forms. If there was a form of government out there that had an article about it, I might have read it. In all, I probably read 3 full books and 20+ scholarly articles on governmental forms, their pros, their cons, comparisons between forms and outcomes.
      I thought, long and hard, about what could improve town meeting. In fact, I have charts about it. Some of the improvements I came up with are probably the same ones the SPP considered. Then, I took that “best TM form” (open, in my mind, but I also considered a “best” RTM) and compared it to mayor-council (and then manager-council). I looked at the pros and cons, the values we have, the improvements the public desired based on what many people said wasn’t working. Then, I made a judgement call—which one is better? My decision was a council form. Simply, there are some problems with a town form that cannot be rectified by any “improvement”—the main one being the warrant issuance and timing.
      I read a lot about Connecticut. I had email conversations with Julia about it. I looked into it (reading around 10 CT “first selectman” charters). I read the MGLs about city and town forms and the requirements to see if something like the CT form might be possible. I read the AG’s letter to the Town of Sharon saying their Charter Proposal was against the law, read the case law cited in that letter, and read what I could of their charter (I don’t think I ever found a complete copy). I compared what I found regarding CT form and what Sharon’s proposal was, to what Gerry and Julia were advocating and actually concluded that Gerry and Julia were not advocating for the traditional CT first selectman form, but one that is found in maybe only 1 or 2 towns in CT, and was very similar to what Sharon proposed and the AG said was not allowable. I concluded that it was not a feasible alternative due to the risk it presented that the AG would “strike it down” requiring the Commission to either put an “unlawful” charter to the voters or completely rework the charter to a new form in 30 days. Neither of those options were acceptable to me.
      Given all of that, a case cannot be made that I didn’t “look at all forms of government, including changes and improvements” to the current RTM form in Amherst.

      The truth is that the majority explored the possibility of improving town meeting but ultimately reached the conclusion that even an improved town meeting was a worse system of government for Amherst going forward than a council-manager form. That, of course, is an opinion, and an opinion with which the minority disagrees. But reaching that conclusion doesn’t mean the majority failed to even consider improvements to a town meeting form. It just means that the majority feels that even the best town meeting form out there is still inferior to the Council-Manager charter put forth.

    2. Gerry Weiss, I appreciate all of your hard work on behalf of Amherst. As a fellow citizen I share your passion for our community. Back in the summer of 2015 a bunch of us came together with the idea that what we have now isn’t working and what is the process to possibly change it? We followed State law about campaigns and gathered over 3,200 signatures way before the deadline (which is why the campaign name had to change once we got the signatures, we then became a ballot question campaign, new name, we followed the rules) and we have been transparent about who is involved and what our goals are. Here is the press release we put out at the beginning of the petition drive and it holds up well I believe:
      FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE August 28, 2015

      Adam Lussier
      Chair, Amherst for All
      Cell: xxxxxxxxxxxxx
      Email: adamlussier@xxxxxxxx

      Government Review Effort Begins in Amherst

      A group of Amherst residents has begun a drive to collect the 3,215 signatures needed to reconsider the town’s form of government. Coming together under the name “Amherst for All,” the group outlines its reasons for considering a new form of government on its website, amherstforall.org.

      Amherst last passed a ballot initiative to study its form of government in 2001. A subsequent vote on a proposed structure combining a mayor, town manager, and town council failed by 14 votes in 2003 and by 252 votes when it was brought to the voters again in 2005.

      “We feel it’s time to look at it again, to see if we can come up with a better solution to the challenges Amherst faces today,” said Amherst for All chair Adam Lussier. “We don’t know what the right government structure is. That’s why we support electing a representative study group to take a look at it. Whatever the final proposal looks like, we think it should meet a few clear standards – it should be year-round, representative, and accountable.” [end partial quote of press release]
      I can send you the rest of the press release as a word doc if you want it.
      Anyway, here we are, the Charter proposal you helped shape arrived in my mailbox. I find it an impressive compromise proposal and am happy to reach out to my friends and neighbors and ask them to support it. Well done.

  6. Post

    I for one do not believe that a council would necessarily be more likely to promote development, and I believe the charter proposal is all about democracy, not zoning or development. Because of the composition of the council, with only three at-large members, and because of the state law that requires 10 yes votes (77 percent) if neighbors object to a zoning change, it could be harder. I don’t know whether a council would tighten or loosen development rules, but I’m confident that whatever they decided would be more a reflection of what voters want. I’m content to let them decide. And let’s not forget that those fifth floors of the buildings on the north end of downtown were approved by Town Meeting in 2010.

  7. Gerry:

    I’m going to figure your memory has failed you, rather than conclude that you’re lying. I remember asking you to sign the petiton – more than once. I never said what you claim I did. We were always very clear in our promotion and remain so. We’ve always aimed to be a model of transparency.

    I can’t say that was the same for your slate of anti-Charter candidates. As you may recall, we decided to put together a slate of 9 candidates for the Amherst Charter Commission in response to your effort to do the same.

    And now you’re adopting the same scare tactics as some of your most zealous fellow anti-Charter members. Frankly, I’m surprised – but maybe I shouldn’t be.

    You campaigned to join the Charter Commission in order to save Town Meeting. That’s OK – just don’t pretend that your mind wasn’t always set on obstructing any effort to come up with a better governance plan.

    I’m confident that Amherst voters will decide the fate of their governance based on a careful review of the arguments. At AFA – not A4A – we’re committed to presenting our argument forcefully and clearly, for all to hear.

    I’m confident our arguments will prove the better ones at the polls next March 27.

  8. 1. Mandi. You and I had a very different experience being at all those meetings. In my experience, we spent very little time on the issues that I laid out above. Meg and Julia had the same experience I had. I hear that you disagree.
    2. Clare. Seems like a lot of words to say what? That members collecting signatures weren’t being disingenuous in what they told people? There are dozens out there who told me of the conversations they had with collectors. I stand by my accusations.
    3. Nick. I hear you saying that you don’t believe the council will be more likely to promote development. I’m surprised to hear this, as there has been a lot of talk about the high taxes in Amherst and the need to bring in more business taxes as one of the reasons that a council will do a better job than TM. How would a council be able to improve that situation then? And yes, TM approved the 5th story and you know that we did that because Jonathan Tucker told us that 5 stories would allow for a sloped roof and 4 stories of apartments/businesses. TM wanted to do something to increase the chances of developing pars of downtown and thought the sloped roofs were a good idea. We were duped and I regret my yes vote.
    4. Jerry. Of course you never told me the petition was for a study when you asked me to sign it. You knew I knew better. And you drew up a slate in response to the pro TM slate? I’ll have to take your word for that, but I suspect that would be hard to prove. I believe the record would show my efforts as well as those of Diana, Meg and Julia to pursue changes to town government that would not have to include doing away with TM. The stakes were there on day 1 to keep or get rid of TM. The 4 of us were willing to explore many changes to TM and when one of those changes was voted for, you and others were quite virulent in your response. It didn’t take long for that compromise to be scrapped in favor of a town council. And to all of you: Your signature campaign was based on “studying town government”. You can write thousands of words denying this and attacking the Anti Charter groups, but that fact will not go away with your words.

  9. Post

    Gerry, I believe that Amherst’s homeowners have paid a very high price for Town Meeting’s hostility to business over the years. At the same time, I believe that the way the Town Council will be structured, it will not be easy to change zoning. There will be a heavy tilt toward neighborhood representation, and state law will require 10 councilors (77 percent, higher than in Town Meeting) to approve zoning changes if neighbors object.
    Maybe the Town Council will tighten development rules, maybe it will loosen them, but whatever happens, councilors will have a stronger mandate from voters than Town Meeting has. And if there are multiple candidates and more voter participation, and the subsequent Town Council votes against development, I will shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s democracy.” I think I’m more willing to submit my beliefs to the will of the voters than you are.
    Speaking of which, could you please tell us whether you were supportive or opposed to giving voters the choice of whether or not to create a Charter Commission two years ago?

  10. Strong words Nick……….”Amherst’s homeowners have paid a very high price for Town Meeting’s hostility to business over the year”. Tell me how a council would show more friendliness please.

    1. Post

      I don’t know if the Town Council will be friendlier to business. That will depend on what voters tell councilors they want. But I believe the structure of the Council will make it challenging to pass zoning changes, because of the heavy tilt toward neighborhood representation and the requirement for 77 percent approval if neighbors object.

  11. Do you see why I might have a problem with you using very pejorative language about TM, which implies that a council will do better and when challenged, do you say “I don’t know”?? Can you see why I might find such behavior manipulative? I started out this string of replies by challenging your use of pejorative words. We went down a rabbit hole and the nasty language continues.

  12. Post

    The charter is all about democracy, not development. We believe that voters should have the final say about all the people who make decisions on their behalf. More than half of Town Meeting members are virtually self-appointed. With a Town Council, the level of restraint on development will be determined by a body that better reflects what voters want, and if voters don’t like the decisions, the councilors can be voted out. I personally believe that Town Meeting has restricted development too much, but I’m just one person. If the council is elected in a free, high-turnout election with multiple candidates and it decides to stop all development, my response will be “That’s democracy.” Where’s the nasty language there?
    By the way, Gerry, do you know why Meg abandoned her petition to cut the size of Town Meeting in half? That would have increased the choices available to voters and taken away my strongest argument. I’m guessing that she was told that her petition article would be divisive and split Town Meeting supporters.

  13. Nick, good grief.. You are taking no responsibility for using words like “scare tactics” and “homeowners have paid a very high price for Town Meeting’s hostility to business over the years” . Then you refuse to address my concerns about those words and naively ask ” what nasty about using the word democracy?” This is a total waste of time

    1. Gerry–the high price homeowners (and renters, frankly) have paid for Town Meeting’s hostility to business over time is the high property taxes in Amherst, as compared to other towns and cities int he area. See Nick’s blog post, Why are my Taxes so High?, for an explanation. Stating that is not pejorative when there are facts to support it.

    2. Post

      On the contrary, I take full responsibility for using the term “scare tactics” and saying that “homeowners have paid a very high price for Town Meeting’s hostility to business over the years.” (As Mandi wrote, read the post.) And you have the nerve to accuse me of “failing to address my concerns about those words” (words!) when you have not addressed at all, much less rebutted, the multiple reasons I have given why rampant development and excessive influence of money in political campaigns will not be problems with the Town Council.
      Here’s one thing we agree on: this is a total waste of time.

  14. Mandi, once again, I ask: What will a council do that will be friendly to business and lower taxes?

    1. Gerry, the question, for me, is not “what will a council do that will be friendly to business and lower taxes” as you ask. The question for me is “has Amherst’s RTM acted in a way that the majority of residents approve of. Right now, we don’t know because RTM elections are not contested, positions aren’t aired ahead of time, and people don’t vote (possibly because one’s vote, in many precincts, has absolutely no influence over who gets “elected” to RTM). A contested council election, with positions known, will result in a council that the residents know is acting in a way that the majority of residents approve of; because, the council members will get elected for those positions, or they’ll get voted out because of those positions. So, if the town wants high taxes, no changes to the zoning, and ugly buildings as a result (those two block buildings would likely look much different if RTM had passed form-based zoning), then councilors who support those positions will get elected. Or, if the town’s residents want more commercial development that might result in lower taxes, then councilors who support those positions will get elected. For me, it’s about making sure the legislative body is actually taking positions that the majority of town residents favor.

  15. More than our neighboring residents in other communities, homeowners in Amherst shoulder a greater share of our local tax burden. Our town’s coffers are mostly filled by tax revenue on properties; in Amherst, residential-zoned properties account for more than 90% of our total property tax collection.

    What does that mean? That Amherst homeowners are footing the bill. The long-term result? Home prices rise to the point that homeownership – the proverbial American Dream – is only within the reach of fewer and fewer residents. As home prices go up, only wealthier families and property investors can afford to buy homes that come on the market.

    What has Town Meeting done to tackle the important challenge? Nothing – or worse. By not taking advantage of state funds to invest in infrastructure improvements that make our community attractive to families, by rejecting efforts to diversify our tax base through attracting commercial and non-residential investments, and by stubbornly refusing to adopt property development rules that allow for more mixed uses to encourage more housing development at all levels of need, Town Meeting has failed – time and time again – the residents of Amherst.

    Town Meeting loyalists would rather we focus on the red herrings and scare tactics they toss around. Don’t be fooled, Amherst friends, the failure has been of our current system – it’s time to replace it with a Town Council with real representation.

  16. I think this is how Gerry Weiss sees my position:
    (1) I believe that Town Meeting has been hostile to business, creating a narrow tax base that causes residential taxes to be much higher than they need to be;
    (2) I believe that Amherst residents should vote for the charter proposal, which would replace Town Meeting and the Select Board with a 13-member council;
    (3) Therefore, I must believe that this change will make Amherst more friendly to business.
    There are two fallacies here. First, (1) is not my primary reason for (2). I support the charter because I believe a council will reflect the wishes of residents better than Town Meeting, where more than half the members are virtually self-appointed.
    Second, the structure of the council will make it challenging for advocates of zoning changes to succeed. That’s because 10 of the 13 councilors will be elected from distinct neighborhoods, rather than by the town as a whole. Also, under state law, a council must get three-quarters approval for zoning changes if neighbors oppose them, as opposed to two-thirds with Town Meeting.
    Therefore, the correct answer to the question “Will developers have an easier time of it with a council than with Town Meeting?” is “I don’t know. It will depend on what voters want.”

  17. I’m having a hard time following these streams of thought. I’ll try……. Re: Nick’s last post:
    1) Yes
    3) Yes
    Now to the fallacies: 1) I never said it was your primary reason. However, it is among your primary ones or you would not have begun a blog post with your statement; therefore it must be related. Why make a pejorative statement if it has nothing to do with why we should have a council?
    I understand what you are saying after that. It’s a reasonable idea. I don’t agree with that idea, but I get it.
    But if you only wanted to say “I believe a council will reflect the wishes of residents better than Town Meeting, where more than half the members are virtually self-appointed.”; then why the condemnation of TM as to how, in your mind, it treats business? If you stand by the statement about TM and business, then logically it is one of the reasons to vote for a council. And if it is a reason to vote for a council, then please state how you see a council being friendly to business.
    It seems you, Mandi and Jerry are twisting logic into knots to avoid saying the Z word as a reason to vote for the charter!

    1. Gerry, I’m not twisting logic to avoid the “z” word as you say. In fact, in my last response to you, I talked specifically about form-based zoning. I believe it was a mistake for Town Meeting to not pass it. I believe, if given the chance, the electorate will support council members who would support form-based zoning, as it is one of the responses to the talk (among both charter supporters and opponents) of the “ugly buildings” being built in town–built that way, in my opinion, because Town Meeting failed to pass form-based zoning. But, support for form-based zoning does not necessarily mean support for more development all around town, or different types of development, or other issues you keep bringing up.

      On another note, “business friendly” does not always equate to “more development”. Business friendly can also mean streamlining permitting for businesses who want to open a store in the downtown area or an office park. Business owners have told me that compared to Northampton, Amherst is less streamlined, thereby costing them more money before they can even open. A council will have to be responsive to the hardships business owners face in opening businesses (in already built buildings) in town, because they will see it as part of their job, either by speaking with the Manager about it, or drafting resolutions and bylaws addressing the issues. Whereas, when one of just 240 people, Town Meeting members don’t really see it as part of their job to help out individuals and business owners with issues they have in town, especially since there really isn’t a legislative drafting component of town meeting, town meeting members don’t have an individual working relationship with the manager or select board like a council would, and town meeting can’t just put something on the agenda to talk about, when there isn’t an “action” to go along with it.

    2. Gerry: The fact that you continue to press the implication that dark money politics will take over the town, tells me that you know you have a weaker argument when it comes to supporting Town Meeting over the new Town Council plan. Give voters a good reason to feel that they’re better represented now than they will be under the new plan? I don’t believe anyone can make that argument. Jerry

  18. Jerry, could you please document your claim that I “continue to press the implication that dark money politics will take over the town”?

  19. Here’s why TM is more representative. Many people make the mistake of thinking it isn’t because many TM members don’t need to run to get elected. What makes RTM representative is that when such a large group of people gather, from many walks of life, with many different ideas, opinions, bodies of knowledge and experience and values, they are more likely than not to represent the values and wishes of most of the residents of a town. One example would be the school vote. While I vehemently disagreed with that vote, it nearly exactly mirrored the town wide vote, twice. I don’t believe that a body of 13 will be able to replicate the citizenry with such accuracy. I predict that if this charter passes, within a few years, voter turnout won’t be appreciably higher than it now is; a majority of residents won’t know appreciably more about their government than they now do. I’m not predicting armageddon for Amherst. I am predicting a much less involved citizenry because we now have 240 who know what’s happening in town government and in due time, that number will gradually sink with 13 people being very knowledgeable. I just don’t think that’s a better way to run a town.

    1. Gerry, you like citing the school vote as one that mirrored the Town’s sentiment. But what about the RTM votes on the marijuana articles that did not mirror the Town’s sentiment, or the votes on the Library funding issue, which did not mirror the Town’s sentiment (using as a proxy the Town-wide vote in the Library Trustee elections last spring). 240 does not guarantee that the votes will be representative of the sentiment in town, especially when it’s a near-self-appointed body, instead of randomly selected (like opinion polls).

  20. Mandi Jo, really, “guarantee”?? I don’t guarantee anything will or won’t happen. And I dare say neither can you guarantee any outcomes of this charter should it pass. Of course, TM won’t be an exact replica of town wide votes every time. I said TM is more likely to consistently replicate the wishes of residents than a 13 member council will. I don’t know the stats of the marijuana votes but I’ll trust you on that outcome. And I don’t agree that Library Trustee votes are relevant to a funding vote.

    1. Post

      Gerry, how is it possible that “TM is more likely to consistently replicate the wishes of residents than a 13-member council will,” when more than half of Town Meeting members have been self-appointed, with little or no discussion of issues or meaningful voter choices, and a council will be elected in competitive elections after extensive debate over issues by multiple candidates? That doesn’t make sense to me. You seem to imply some mysterious insight on the part of Town Meeting members into what residents want.

    2. Why don’t you agree that the Library Trustee votes are relevant to all the library expansion votes Town Meeting has taken? In the last local election, there were 6 candidates for Library Trustee: 3 supported the expansion and renovation, 3 did not. The three that supported the expansion and renovation won easily, with one of them receiving 64% of the vote. Why isn’t that a good representation of where the Town’s residents stand on the expansion and renovation? Yet, Town Meeting barely supported (53%) the application of the grant (no funding at all in that vote). Voting by the entire electorate is a good proxy for the electorate’s opinion when there are actual campaigns and candidates run on the issues. The Library Trustees did just that, and the Town’s residents showed us where they stand, yet Town Meeting didn’t “replicate the wishes of the residents” to the same degree. That’s one of the many problems with Town Meeting as it stands—it doesn’t necessarily replicate the wishes of the residents simply by its size because (1) the residents have no way of knowing where the RTM candidates stand, and (2) even if they did, when there’s no competition, a group of people that represent the views of the minority of residents in town can actually win a majority of the seats on town meeting because a resident can’t “vote to oust” a candidate when there are 8 candidates for 8 seats.. A self-selected group of people, just because of its size, isn’t necessarily representative of the whole.

      You’ve argued that non-competitive elections and the large size is good, because in general, that makes RTM generally open to all who wish to attend. But that makes actual members self-selected. And as one academic study said “those who choose to participate are frequently quite unrepresentative of any large public.” (“Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance” Fung, Archon. Public Administration Review; Dec 2006: 66) And that’s one of the major problems the proposed charter is trying to address.

  21. We clearly have never agreed on this issue of representation. I don’t think you can convince me I’m wrong about it and I can’t convince you you’re wrong, nor will I try. You have ideas about what a council will bring and maybe you’re right; maybe you’re wrong. It’s not a fact that there will be competitive elections, or extensive town wide debates (we have election forums now and a small number of people follow them; perhaps the number of people following the elections in the future you envision will increase, perhaps not). These are beliefs and ideas you have, but that doesn’t make them facts. And suggesting that I am engaging in belief in mysterious insight only suggests that you have similar beliefs in the future of Amherst under a council.
    I repeat…………I’m not saying TM perfectly replicates resident wishes; and neither will a council perfectly reflect those wishes either. I’m saying, I’d rather put my faith in a large group of citizens bringing their various wisdoms, experiences and values to the task of debating issues than a small group. A statistic here or there; one academic study refuting my belief isn’t proof of anything.

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      You’re right: we just have different beliefs about what the most democratic system is. But we currently have about 200 people run for Town Meeting every two years; it’s hard for me to imagine that we can’t get 25 to 50 people to run for Town Council, creating races in which voters get to choose, when the stakes are higher and there’s compensation. If it turns out that we can’t get enough candidates for competitive races, I promise I will contact you and admit that I was wrong.

  22. It’s a deal Nick! Would you agree that we should wait at least 2 election cycles to see if you’re right? Loser buys the drinks

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