An insider’s view of Town Meeting

This critique of Town Meeting comes from a longtime Town Meeting member.

Some people view Town Meeting as the only defense against their neighborhood being ruined. Do they outnumber the people and their friends who have served in Town Meeting, know how bad the process is, and swear to have nothing to do with it the rest of their lives? We’re going to find out.

In the next four months, we’re going to learn whether political forces in Amherst have placed the Town in permanent gridlock, essentially under glass as a museum piece, or a theme park for elderly people, rather than a living, breathing community.

Town Meeting is part parallel universe, part aristocracy of people with lots of time, part House of Lords, part seasonal festival. It’s also part parlor game, part game show (“Your time is up!”).

Town Meeting members have no obligation to think about anyone but themselves. They send volunteer board members on wild goose chases and then strangle them. They also strangle the town’s revenue stream.

The system appeals to people’s vanity, and provides a place where they can exercise their whims. It’s a place where falsehoods go uncorrected, a place where no one is forced to answer questions, a place where you never know which 180 people will show up.

Town Meeting has no reliable fact-checker, and has become like Donald Trump or Fox News, one more forum where, if you repeat it enough times without rebuttal, it becomes true.

It has turned into an orgy of self-display, a festival of rhetorical plumage, the embodiment of baby-boomer self-indulgence: “I am right, so whatever I do or say is right.”

Being a member of Town Meeting is great – if you like not having to answer to anything, maintaining a private life while exercising public power, not having anyone monitor whether you’re doing your homework, never having to explain why you voted a certain way, and being able to show up or not as you alone see fit.

The unwillingness to defer to others, even when popularly elected and having done their homework, is an Achilles Heel in our community, the dark flip side of “Question Authority.”

Our government structure is not set up to congeal public opinion into something coherent. The primary function is to delay and obstruct. It’s an inherently conservative system, a car stuck in Park. It works best for a deeply conservative (about change), highly inattentive electorate.

But no system of government wastes civic energy like this one. We’ve been swimming in this tank so long, we don’t recognize how much energy it takes. There are people who think inefficiency is a virtue, or worse, the key measure of how much democracy we have.

Town Meeting infects the culture of the town and ruins how government works. It plays to the worst tendencies of our town.

Some people are apprehensive about “the consent of the governed,” i.e., essentially saying that free, fair, wide-open elections are the playthings of monied interests. It’s an incredibly well-educated town, yet we don’t seem to trust well-educated voters.

What a difference it will make in our political culture when all votes matter! It’s time we embrace the future and ask: Are we a progressive or a defensive community?

Comments 17

  1. Post

    If you think “An insider’s view of Town Meeting” is strongly worded, you should see the parts I deleted!
    I want to address some things before the comments start rolling in. No, I did not write this. I don’t have the depth of knowledge of Town Meeting that the writer has, and this isn’t my style of writing. Yes, I know who the writer is, and I am satisfied that his or her reasons for staying anonymous are legitimate.
    For any Town Meeting loyalist who’s thinking about criticizing this blog for posting an anonymous statement, I’d like to point out that some false information was recently posted by the anonymous “Town Meeting Works” on an anti-charter Facebook page.
    I hope commenters will resist speculation about who the writer is and concentrate on the specifics of the post. The reality is that many people who know Town Meeting well believe it’s time for a change in Amherst.

    1. I can’t claim to have written it but I can say as I sat through Town Meeting sessions for nearly 9 years that I have thought most of what is written here. Sadly. I am not proud to say our beloved Town Meeting has fallen this badly but it has. If you (the reader) were involved in Town Meeting years ago and thought it was great, I will warn you that it has changed, it is not the Town Meeting you once knew. That is my opinion.

  2. I actually don’t think it matters which town meeting member wrote this. The fact that any town meeting member could have written it is what makes it so powerful in it’s eye-opening honesty. It doesn’t happen often in life, but once in a great while you can just feel it in your bones that something is true. Thank you to whoever wrote this for your friends and neighbors and for all the people in town you don’t even know and probably never will.

  3. Here’s an idea for TMCC – the mostly self-appointed leadership group of the mostly self-appointed members of Town Meeting: survey your members on the new governance plan. Now that is has gone out in the mail to every household, as “representatives” this simple question: do you plan to vote for the new Town Charter proposal next March 27? That would be an useful function for this newly energized leadership group.

  4. This post is very well written, and I agree on all points. It would have more force if only it weren’t anonymous.

  5. This article is a normal reaction to this kind of assault on our rights by a small, self-appointed group that overturned a fair and legal election, dictated educational policy over our elected School Committee, and voted in the biggest tax increase in Amherst history without the voters’ say. The elephant in the room, the enormity of their crimes against the voters of Amherst, is overwhelming. The question is, will we let them win by getting sucked into their bottomless pit? Or can we, for just 90 more days, just sit and watch Town Meeting drown in their own mud?

  6. This EXACTLY captures one of the things that bug me most about Town Meeting: “Being a member of Town Meeting is great – if you like not having to answer to anything, maintaining a private life while exercising public power, not having anyone monitor whether you’re doing your homework, never having to explain why you voted a certain way, and being able to show up or not as you alone see fit.”

  7. Indeed a cleverly written article: it is all an emotional rant and no content at all – except, maybe, it does say that in average, 180 people show up at meetings.

    I agree with Brian above, that any Town Meeting member could have written it. The person would not have had to be a Town Meeting member either, because, again, there are no facts here, only judgments (If you find any facts, please let me know, maybe I am just slow.)

    I even wonder how, if that person is indeed a Town Meeting member, could they have the stomach to remain a part of a gathering they feel so awful about.

    The one thing this article is really good at, is creating divisiveness. Those, how disagree with what is happening politically in Amherst will feel fully justified to continue judging the process, albeit more eloquently, since this article gives them phrases to reuse, and those who agree will feel either alienated or energized to fight back.

    Good job, crew!

    1. Zoning has a 50-year horizon, Gabor. How many times has a zoning vote come before Town Meeting and the effect on our grandchildren over the next fifty years come up for discussion in Town Meeting?

      Financing the schools has a 30-year horizon, How often did the effect of our actions on our ability to finance our other capital projects over the next thirty years come up for discussion in Town Meeting?

      The library must be built to last 50-years. How many times has the useful life of our town library over the next fifty years been discussed in Town Meeting?

      The answer my friend is not once, my friend, the answer is not once.

      And who is going to pay for this mess? Not you and not me.

      So, why should we care? If you can answer that question, why should we care, then you understand the necessity of this proposed charter. Why should we care?

  8. Wow, this is a new low for this blog. An unattributed screed. “[I]nfects the culture,” “congeal public opinion,” “orgy of self display,” “part aristocracy.” No wonder no one signed it.

    Here’s what a long-time political writer and old friend told me when I had just moved to Amherst and asked him how I should vote on the 2003 Charter vote: “If Amherst gets rid of Town Meeting, there will 240 fewer citizens that know what is going on in their government.”

    I can name him if you want. Whose advice do people want to follow?

    1. Recognition by those in Town Meeting who support that form of government that the sentiment expressed by the Town Meeting Member who wrote this post is a sentiment that a number of Town Meeting members share would be the first step to recognizing that Town Meeting, as it stands now, is broken. Failure to even admit that these sentiments are out there, shared by a number of people who serve in the body (and those who don’t), and are valid based upon observations made by individuals in our town has been one of the biggest barriers to improving our current government. If one can’t recognize there are problems, one cannot improve the system. Just look at the results of the first year of the SPP—the committee received dozens of different ideas as to ways to improve Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting, ranging from the slight (white cards) to large (dramatically reducing the size) to everything in between. Yet, the committee accepted only three of them–white cards, email lists (not mandatory) to allow residents to more easily contact members, and a new committee that many feel will be duplicating the work of our many already existing volunteer committees. All other ideas were dismissed, including suggestions that would have made members more accountable or would have likely shortened the number of sessions RTM takes, thereby allowing more individuals who have less time to devote to town governance an opportunity to serve. It’s the failure to improve the RTM in Amherst over the decades that led to the sentiments expressed in this post and to the Charter Commission being formed in the first place (for the third time in two decades).

      Nick and I felt that the sentiment expressed in this post was valid, shared by others, and therefore should be aired. Given the comments we are seeing, the person’s desire to remain anonymous is obvious. Let’s focus on the content of the post, why Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting got so bad that many individuals share this view, and what can be done to fix the matter, instead of the fact that the person writing it didn’t feel safe in putting a name to it.

    2. During the debate about ratifying the United States Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the 85 Federalist Papers, all of which were published anonymously.

      Were the Federalist Papers opinions rather than fact? You betcha. Were they divisive? Clearly. Were they effective? It would seem so.

      There is value in debating the issues and avoiding ad hominem argument. I also find it both disingenuous and almost comically ironic to attack an argument for being anonymous while defending an institution which is exempt from open meeting law.

      With all due respect I am tired of the claim that this charter proposal, if adopted, will be divisive or will cause “rancor” (the favorite word of warning of one member of the Charter Commissioner.)

      Clearly, the question of Town Meeting’s dysfunction is already divisive. Who can credibly deny that some of its recent decisions have stoked rancor.

  9. The way this anonymous Town Meeting member feels is the way a lot of us feel at out twice-a-year marathon sessions. I’m willing to bet that a lot of the Town Meeting loyalists would be quite surprised to learn just how many members are ready for a change. Go ahead TMCC, here’s a leadership opportunity for you: poll your members on their support for the new Charter. We would be happy to publish the results on the AFA Facebook page.

  10. It’s voluntary. Why on earth Clare, Mandi Jo, Jerry, Ted, Kay and Mr. Unhappy are you Town Meeting members? Why take a seat away from other people who want to serve?

    1. Service, and a call to it, is not always about convenience and happiness, nor should it be. Criticizing members of any organization for finding issues with the status quo and then requesting that they leave prevents any sort of active change to occur at all within a group. This works if you are 100% satisfied with the status quo (or a beneficiary of it), but isn’t good for the people of Amherst.

  11. Post

    I’ve seen enough of Amherst Town Meeting over the past 37 years to know that I would never want to be a member. But let me take a stab at answering the question of why these supporters of our new governmental system, who know how unaccountable and unrepresentative Town Meeting is, have nonetheless been members.
    The flippant answer is “because it’s the only game in town.” But I think it has something to do with a feeling of civic duty, of wanting to be involved, of wanting to contribute. Because their sense of civic duty is able to survive their awareness of Town Meeting’s many problems, I admire them all the more.
    And if the supporters of keeping Town Meeting retain their own sense of civic duty after a “yes” vote and want to get involved in the new governmental system, I will admire them, too.

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