Mandi Jo Hanneke
“The Charter Commission didn’t even consider improvements to Town Meeting”. This is a claim being made by a number of opponents of the charter proposal, including some members of the Commission itself. But, for me, the claim can’t be further from the truth.
The Charter Commission did look at improving the current Representative Town Meeting structure. In fact, 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 council form (many didn’t even discuss any potential “best council 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 council 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 Rhodes 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 some opponents of the proposed charter claim. The majority was willing to explore all possibilities, but the minority was not.1
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).
So, where’s my proof?
I read entire books on Town Meeting2 (some of the same ones Julia Rueschemeyer read). I read scholarly articles on Town Meeting (some about Amherst’s RTM specifically). I read scholarly articles on mayor forms, council forms, manager-council forms, board of commissioner forms, participation, participatory planning, participatory budgeting, voter turnout, and representation in government. In all, I read at least 3 books and 30+ scholarly articles on these various topics.
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 minority considered or proposed. Then, I took that “best TM form” (open, in my mind, but I also considered a “best” RTM) and compared it to a mayor-council form (and then manager-council).
I looked at the pros and cons based on the improvements the public desired from 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 also read a lot about Connecticut (reading around 10 CT “first selectman” charters). I read the MGLs about municipal governments 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 to what Gerry Weiss and Julia Rueschemeyer were advocating and actually concluded that they 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 decided this 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 was 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.
1It must be noted that at least one member of the charter commission stated on at least one occasion that he would never be able to support a system that did not include town meeting. Did that member explore all options?
2Some of the books I read: Real Democracy: the New England Town Meeting and How it Works; and Town Meeting: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England.
3Some of the articles I read: City Government Structures: An Attempt at Clarification; Voter Turnout in City Elections; The Cabals of a Few or the Confusions of a Multitude: The Institutional Trade-Off Between Representation and Governance; Engaging Communities in the Policy Making and Implementation: Does it Make Any Difference?