Commission Considered Improving Town Meeting

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?

Comments 9

  1. It is too bad that the Charter Commission didn’t take the time in 18 months to look at how our Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager form of government was working in Amherst, figure out problems and possible solutions. The Charter Commission could have looked at other successful towns, like Arlington, Brookline, Belmont and Needham — all with excellent schools–for ideas of ways to do things better. First, identify the problem, second, look for solutions and models elsewhere. How hard would that have been?

    Not so hard. In fact, that is what the committee I work on, the Subcommittee on Policies and Procedures of the TMCC, has done in the past year. In that time, we’ve talked to local residents, town employees, really anyone–and people from other towns. TMCC has added an email system so residents can contact Town Meeting members by precinct, modeled on those used in other towns. TMCC also added an Annual Candidates Forum for residents to meet candidates running in their precinct. (One is scheduled for Saturday, March 17th at the Middle School.) Town Meeting just adopted our recommendation to create an Advisory Committee to give Town Meeting members more information about Warrant articles, their impacts of our community (be they environmental, economic, families, specific neighborhoods, the downtown streetscape, etc.) The Advisory Committee was, in part, modeled on Brookline’s Advisory Committee. In conversation with the chair of Brookline’s Advisory Committee, I learned that Brookline faces problems similar to Amhersts: a good number of students, some precincts that lack competitive races, etc. We exchanged ideas. I told him that we had 3 precincts with low number of Town Meeting candidates, but residents in one of those precincts fixed that problem by actively recruiting candidates. There’s an improvement to our town government that doesn’t require Charter Change. Why didn’t the Charter Commission do that? Why didn’t the Charter Commission make the simple suggestion that Select Board and Town Meeting members hold quarterly meetings in each precinct? We can start this today without a Charter change.

    And why didn’t the Charter Commission examine, visit and learn about the 10 communities in Massachusetts that use a sole City Council form of government. Palmer is not far away, nor in Chelsea, Barnstable or Winthrop. If I had been on the Charter Commission I would want to know how that form of government works in practice–its strengths and weaknesses. I would have asked citizens what their experience was, if their town had high levels of citizen volunteers and why so few women served as councilors. Did women have trouble getting elected, raising money or did they not even run? Don’t you want to know this now? Wouldn’t you like to have any information about these cities and towns?

    In a Charter Commission listening session, I pointed out that all but one of Boston Magazine’s Top 20 Boston area school districts were all in towns with a Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager form of government. 8 of 10 Top Massachusetts high schools picked by the US News were in Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager forms of government. The 2 other high schools were in cities — but were charter schools. So, I said I thought that the Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager form of government seemed to be a “special sauce” for education and the Charter Commissioners why they had picked the sole City Council government. Andy Churchill’s answer was: “Because that is what we could get the votes for.” I find that to be a curious (and uninspiring) answer.

    I wish the Charter Commission had been more curious. I wish they had identified problems in our government, looked for solutions, looked at what other Massachusetts communities are doing– and and based its decisions on relevant data. I wish they could have presented us with real, proven options to improve our town.

    1. Post

      Just a note about this comment. It was originally posted to a different blog topic. Nick and I moved it to here because it applies to this post more than the one it was originally posted to. The comment was written before this post was published and before Janet had a chance to read it, although the substance of this post has been written before, once in direct response to a comment by Janet. Please keep this in mind when reading it.

    2. I think this article mostly refutes the inaccuracies in the above comment. Clearly the Charter Commission worked diligently to investigate all options, including Town Meeting.

      More half-truths – Yes, the TMAC had a Candidates Forum…but it was sparsely attended. Yes, TM members are part of an email list…but it is not a requirement and information about who is or isn’t on the list is hard to come by.

      I would also like to respond directly to the argument re: the town government structure being the cause for highly-ranked high schools. The commenter picked four towns which have a median household income ranging from $98,103 (Arlington) to $139,477 (Needham). Amherst’s median household income is $45,999 (Yes, I know that number is artificially lowered by the presence of students.). So you’re saying that rich towns have good schools. Not earth-shattering. That is far more likely to be the reason for good schools than a Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager system. Correlation does not imply causation.

      Not only that but all of those towns are part of the Boston-Cambridge-Newton Division of the Boston-Cambridge-Nashua Metropolitan Area. We are removed geographically and culturally from those towns. That’s why I live here.

      And to say that Brookline and Amherst both have “a good number of students”? Brookline, a town of 58,732 has 7,873 residents (13.4%) between the ages of 18 and 24. Amherst, a town of 37,819, has 21,115 residents (55.8%) between the ages of 18 and 24. No comparison.

  2. I attended a lot of meetings. Improvements to Town Meeting were discussed. At one point, throughout the process, there were so many options discussed and votes taken that all 9 Amherst Charter Commission members support a version of the new governance plan that didn’t include Town Meeting? In effect, the one thing everyone did agree on at some point is that our current system is broken – the members just couldn’t agree on a fix. The consensus is baked in to the proposed new plan: time for a change.

  3. While the town meeting has legislative functions (approval of bylaws and budgets) it’s organized as a caucus: called to order, given an agenda (the warrant), and dissolved at conclusion of business. It’s “representative” only in the sense that you get picked to attend the caucus because it’s impractical to hold an “open” meeting. The limits that town meeting operates under are significantly different from a standing legislative body. Given that, it’s difficult to see how making it smaller, meeting more frequently, or other changes would add to it’s effectiveness.
    A note about Brookline: the Advisory Committee is their version of an “appropriation, advisory or finance committee” formed under MGL 39, section 16. It’s a more elaborate version than that found in other Massachusetts communities, an outlier. Amherst has a Finance Committee and a robust committee system. The creation of yet another advisory committee to review the work of other committees simply reflects the shortcomings of the current town meeting.
    While the council/manager form of government is uncommon but growing in Massachusetts, it’s the majority form of government nationally, particularly for towns the size of Amherst. Conversely, the selectboard/town meeting form is confined to New England, reflective more of the corporate nature of towns formed here during the colonial period.
    The Charter Commission did its work carefully and well, recommended a form of government that will serve Amherst effectively in an uncertain future.

  4. Pushing aside the fact that there was no way that Nick Grabbe, Mandi Jo Hannake, Irv Rhodes and Andy Churchill were ever going to support any form of Select Board-Town Meeting government, given their records of negative statements towards Town Meeting (and well-funded endorsement by Amherst For All), I have to ask if putting together a grid of what I thought are abstract pros and cons really the best way of evaluating how a form of government actually works? I’d be much more curious about how government forms work in action. I’d put up the 3 best Select Board-Town governments (Brookline, Arlington, Concord, immediately come to mind) against the 3 best Mayor-City Council governments, against the 3 best sole City Council governments in Massachusetts and compare them using criteria that could be measured.

    I bet if the Charter Commission had looked at other very successful towns with Select Board-Town Meeting they would have learned valuable information. Each town is structured differently and has different cultures and practices. There are lots of things other towns do that Amherst doesn’t do. In just one year, Town Meeting Coordinating Committee has made 4 changes to Town Meeting that have improved its efficiency and communications with residents. Some of these changes came from looking at other town’s practices and talking to people in government. I am sure that there are many differences in how Mayor-City Council governments are structured and worked, and the same is true for sole City Councils. I would collect date. I would go visit these places and talk to the Town Managers, Mayors, City Councilors and residents ask questions. I’d find out what are the things they think work and do not work. A lot of practices could be ones Amherst could adopt here without a radical change in government structure. (Information and communication practices immediately come to my mind.)

    I’d look at these cities and towns and see how their governments actually work and evaluate results. Criteria would be schools, financial rating, livability, conditions of roads, public transit, economic vibrancy, downtowns and neighborhoods. Preservation of natural beauty, trails and parks would be on my list, since those things have a great impact on quality of life and sustainability. I’d also try to find a way to measure citizen involvement and their sense that their government works for them. Do the towns and cities actually include people from different perspectives and groups? How much does it cost for elected officials to run campaigns? How many women and people of color are in elected positions? Does the city or town have 10% of affordable housing?

    If I was going to look at ways to improve Amherst’s governance, I wouldn’t put a set of abstract ideas on a grid and decide what I think of them. Most of my criteria would be measurable. My evaluation would be based on actual cities and towns. And, when you look around Massachusetts, Amherst is pretty hard to beat.

    1. Post

      Janet, you are wrong. There is a real possibility that I would have supported an Open Town Meeting structure over a Council structure, yet none of the minority members were even willing to consider it as an option. Further, the members in the majority did look at other Council-Manager towns in Massachusetts, with Cambridge and Franklin coming immediately to mind. In addition to everything I said in the post, I read 10 council-manager charters comparing and contrasting them. Andy spoke to a manager of at least one of them (but I believe it was even more). We brought in individuals that had been town managers in towns with a manager-council system. Others spoke with managers of towns with manager-council governments in other states, particularly towns that had large state universities in them. You imply we didn’t do the work. We did.

  5. And I had an extensive email correspondence with the manager and council head of Oxford, Ohio, a town remarkably like Amherst, at about half the size. It hosts a major university about half the size of UMass, and has a council half the size of the 13 members Amherst will have. It was a key factor in my decision to support a manager instead of an elected mayor.

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