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Many charter opponents are Town Meeting members. Why am I not surprised?

Nick Grabbe

As we spent months listening to Amherst residents tell us what they wanted the Charter Commission to do, we noticed an interesting thing:  most of the people who were vocal about keeping Town Meeting were Town Meeting members themselves.

When you think about it, it’s not surprising if a majority of Town Meeting insiders favor keeping the status quo. It is, after all, their power base.

They are comfortable with a vision of democracy in which 240 people govern the town (actually, an average of only 180 show up), and some will tell you it doesn’t matter how they’re chosen, how occasionally they meet, or how accountable they are for their actions. Our vision of democracy is that the voters should be in charge, choosing in contested elections their representatives in 13 visible Town Councilors, who will meet and deliberate year-round, and can be unseated if their constituents are unhappy with what they decide.

I’m sure that Town Meeting members are sincere about what they believe will be best for the town. And I applaud their civic-mindedness and willingness to serve. But I wonder if some of them are afraid that if Amherst’s representative body were chosen in truly meaningful elections, with multiple candidates and intense voter interest and debates over issues, they would not be able to control things the way they do now.

Of the 25 people who signed the opening statement of “Not This Charter,” 20 are Town Meeting members. (Others are former members or spouses of members.) My reaction to reading the list of their names was, “Well of course they want to keep Town Meeting!”

One of them told the Charter Commission that the whole charter debate boils down to who has power in Amherst. I had to agree.

They would like power to remain with Town Meeting, which is comprised of about 1 percent of registered voters and is largely disconnected from the other 99 percent. Supporters of the new form of government want power to reside with a Town Council made up of residents who have a genuine mandate from voters and who interact regularly with them as constituents.

What do we mean when we say that a majority of Town Meeting members are “self-appointed”? We mean that the voters were not given choices among candidates when they were elected, and all they had to do to get on the ballot was to sign their own names.

Here are two examples, one from each side of the charter debate. Jim Oldham, who supports Town Meeting as a Bulletin columnist, has been on the ballot in 2015, ’12, ’11 and ’08, and each time there have been eight (or fewer) candidates for eight seats. There was no possibility that he would not be elected! Mandi Jo Hanneke, my blog partner and Charter Commission vice chair, was one of nine candidates for eight seats last spring, and one of eight candidates for eight seats in 2014.

Being a Town Meeting member is a great deal. You get to make the final decisions on spending and zoning, yet you don’t have to attend any of the board meetings beforehand, where the issues are debated. You don’t have to pay attention to the conclusions of members of volunteer boards and committees who study issues, often for months; you can instead vote your preconceptions or make snap judgments, twice a year. You don’t have to take positions on issues before elections, which are typically low-turnout affairs in which more than half of the precincts have had little or no competition. You don’t even need to show up very often.

During a recent 10-year period that I researched, 96 percent of Town Meeting members who sought reelection were successful. And in the precincts where there are multiple candidates, winners have often been elected solely on the basis of name recognition, not positions on issues.

They can use a private Town Meeting members’ listserv, and don’t have to release their email addresses to voters. If they haven’t done their homework before a Town Meeting session, it’s easy for them to hide their lack of preparedness. Some ask questions that reveal how little they’ve been paying attention or how late they arrived.

Town Meeting members don’t have to declare conflicts of interest when voting on issues that affect them financially. This is not theoretical; some Town Meeting members have spoken out against measures that could affect their business interests. And the state’s Open Meeting Law doesn’t apply to Town Meeting members.

I understand that people with power seldom give it up willingly. And so I think that Town Meeting members who support the status quo are acting completely rationally. Town Meeting does work well – for them.

A recent post on this blog, “An insider’s view of Town Meeting,” showed that not every member feels this way. I have a list of 40 current and former Town Meeting members who support the new government proposal because they’ve seen how frustrating and unrepresentative Town Meeting is. They understand that the voters, not self-appointed insiders, should have the ultimate power.

So when you talk to someone who favors keeping Town Meeting, maybe you should ask, “Are you a member yourself?” There’s a good chance the answer is yes.

Comments 19

  1. Nick, If the charter is so great you ought to be able to defend it on its own merits without maligning those who find it flawed. You disqualify members of TM from commenting on the charter, simply because they are members of TM, as if their ideas and their convictions are not worthy of consideration simply because of this affiliation. Should developers, who have a clear interest in supporting the charter, also be so disqualified? Members of TM represent a broad cross section of Amherst. They represent not only a vast array of experiences and expertise but they also represent an impressive civic sensibility, the paragon of citizenship. Where you see self-interest and lack of substance, I see a deep commitment to community, backed by the willingness to give of one’s self and one’s time. I am always impressed by the array of expertise gathered in TM and by what I can learn from TM members. In these fellow citizens I see people who know a lot of things who bring valuable insights to civic debates and whose ideas are worth consideration in the public sphere. You do them and your readers a disservice when you dismiss them so blithely.

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      Art, Mandi and I have written more than 10 posts explaining and defending the charter, and will do more. The commission’s final report, mailed to all residents a week age, goes into great detail. I’m not sure what you mean by “disqualifying members of TM from commenting” — of course they can comment, as evidenced by our publishing your comment and those of other TM members opposing the charter. I’m just letting readers know that it’s not surprising that they oppose it.
      When I criticize Town Meeting as an institution, I’m not “maligning” individual members. In this post I applauded their civic-mindedness and service, and said they are sincere about what they believe to be in the best interests of the town. The problem is the system, in which voters have so little say over who their TM members are, both by virtue of not enough candidates and a small number of voters. For example, the two Town Meeting members who are defending it in this week’s Bulletin have no mandate from voters, because voters have never had many choices when they’ve been on the ballot.
      The charter is all about democracy, not development. As I wrote here, there are numerous reasons why it will be very difficult for developers to get zoning changes approved by the Town Council. As I wrote here, there are numerous reasons why large donations will not determine the outcome of council campaigns. If find it amazing the Mary Wentworth is saying that council campaigns will cost between $5,000 and $10,000. Does she not know that the six progressive council candidates who won the election in Greenfield last month spent an average of $782?
      Are you doing a blog, too, Art? What’s the address?

    2. Hi Art. I appreciate the distinction here – I think most of us “regular residents” who aren’t TM members totally respect the commitment exhibited by TM members. That part of Town Meeting – getting 240 people engaged in local politics – is beyond admirable. And those who take part in it should be appreciated. I trust we can continue this debate without somehow suggesting that Town Meeting members are anything but engaged and civic-minded. I certainly believe that’s the case.

      For so many of us, a key issue is representation – which you cited several times in your note. The mere fact that there are 240 TM members does not mean they are representative of anyone other than themselves – a point that can be made without implying they’re somehow “only in it for themselves.” It’s just that they are not beholden to anyone, and many were essentially guaranteed a slot merely by putting their names on the ballot. Others were “elected” only by happenstance. I personally will admit voting for people simply based on the fact that I recognized their street name, or liked the sound of their name. We don’t know who we’re voting for, it’s ridiculously difficult to reach them, and it takes an Excel chart to figure out how they voted.

      I know that for the people in TM, the experience must be invigorating and engaging. I don’t like the idea of taking that away. But my family deserves a system that is truly representative – and this is not it, not by a long shot. Please do not take this as an attack on these committed Town Meeting members. We deserve to know who we’re voting for, how to engage with them, and how to hold them accountable – year-round. Town Meeting fails on all of these fronts, despite the wonderful contributions of its individual members. I think that once you’re actually IN Town Meeting, especially for many years, it becomes more difficult to imagine the reality of the local democratic experience for the rest of us.

      Thank you for your comments, and for considering the other side of this important debate.

      Bennett Hazlip

      1. As someone who grew up in Northampton, with a father who was a City Councillor (and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor), I immediately recognized a problem right after being elected to Town Meeting. Until very recently, it has been truly like serving in a different world, separate from, as Mr. Hazlip aptly puts it, “the reality of the local democratic experience for the rest of us.” But I did not see my uneasiness about it reflected much in other members around me. It’s been weird, characterized by an odd complacency, and that sense of the strangeness of it all has not left me over the past decade in there. Mr. Kubiak has also outlined beautifully in these comments how THIS Town Meeting has presumably evolved into something different from what he has observed in other communities, something truly sheltered from voter inspection and participation. I assume that Town Meeting was different in past decades, but what we have now is not right, and I’m glad that we’re finally examining things.

  2. The ending is just right – a good question to ask. I’m sure most town meeting members would say that being part of TM means they understand why the TM process works so well for the town and should be kept (rather than wanting to keep the process that works for them!).

  3. My introduction to town meeting, Amherst style, was to attend a “precinct meeting” which I discovered was intended for town meeting members, not citizens. Having participated in (and planned) open town meetings in three other communities, this was something of a surprise. Town meetings are always a bit of “inside baseball” but this was even more so. The lack of campaigns, low voter turnout, and an oddly scheduled election simply reinforce the “insider” aspect. It’s designed to be convenient, not competitive or responsive. It’s a safe bet that if you asked any given Amherst voter to name their “representatives” they couldn’t.

    1. Here’s a symptom of how bad things have gotten on the accountability front. I have had several conversations with aware town residents in which we speculate about the existence of chat rooms and on-line forums of Town Meeting members from which we have been excluded. Who knows? Asking to call the question prior to any debate on January 31 provides some circumstantial evidence that “the fix was in” on that night. Other nights, like on the ZE article? We just don’t know what’s going on. “Inside baseball” indeed.

  4. Nick, you write “So when you talk to someone who favors keeping Town Meeting, maybe you should ask, ‘Are you a member yourself?’ There’s a good chance the answer is yes.” There is another group of people who say they favor keeping TM but have never served themselves. When I ask, “Why not?” the most frequent answer is that it takes too much time. Unfortunately, these people will be voting against the charter change because of a romanticized idea, not an informed one.

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      That’s a really good point, Nina. Some people who have never seen Town Meeting are content with the status quo because it places no responsibility on them. But if supporters of the charter emphasize to them that Amherst only pays lip service to democratic ideals and that Amherst Town Meeting is very different from the Norman Rockwell image of regular folks getting together to make decisions in a small town, then maybe they can be persuaded to give the charter a try. But there’s a lot of work to do in reaching them.

  5. The insiders being referred to are people like:

    the retired chair of the high school math department, a single mother of 2 kids that works nights and grew up in Amherst, a retired kindergarten teacher, another single mother who lives in subsidized housing, a divorce mediator, a professor of law, parents of children who are now or were in our schools, a board member of Kestrel Trust, property managers, stay at home parents, an environmental consulting group owner, the head of the BID (business improvement district), Planning Board members, advocates for immigrants, many retired professors expert, scientists, environmentalists, therapists, local business owners, developers, construction company president, a farmer, several architects, tech company founders, former Select Board members, a recent college graduate, ex-school committee members, retired government employees …I could go on and on and on.

    Many, many Town Meeting members, Select Board members, School Committee members, Jones Library Trustees, in addition to serving as the volunteer heads of Amherst government, also volunteer in other parts of our community– serving on town boards and committees, working for non-profits, volunteering at the senior center, making meals for hungry people at the Survival Center, coaching teams, helping their churches, supporting the Fine Arts Center, tutoring children, doing political advocacy, etc. These are the people that spend hundreds of hours serving in our government.

    1. This is a very nice list! Town Meeting members should be commended for their service. But a nice, interesting, varied membership list (of 240 people who meet twice a year) doesn’t magically make for a representative, responsive, accountable, year-round government body, which is what we deserve.

      Bennett Hazlip

      1. And we all know, how a nice, interesting, varied set of 13 council members, whose election will likely get supported by a few powerful groups, and can decide about their own compensation, while wielding both executive and legislative powers will indeed magically make for a representative, responsive, accountable, year-round government body. Yes, I see no problem with this plan, whatsoever, it has always worked!

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          The Town Council members will not be able to set its own compensation. The Charter Commission, not the council, has set the initial compensation. And the council can increase compensation only for the NEXT council (that is, after the next election), and can only do so in the first 18 months of a term.
          The council will not wield both executive and legislative power. The town manager will have the day-to-day responsibility, as he does now. I find it useful to think about the Town Council being a combination of the deliberation and oversight of the Select Board and the neighborhood representation of Town Meeting.
          By “a few powerful groups,” I assume you mean citizen groups like Amherst for All and Town Meeting Works. If so, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t rallying with kindred spirits before an election a part of democracy?

          1. Thank you for your answer, Nick. However if the council only sets compensation for the next council, we have two cases:
            a) if every council member is replaced by others after the first 2 years, then they indeed wont benefit themselves from the compensation change. But then, we have a larger problem than how much Amherst spends on the council: the new council will give very different guidance to the manager, and that will result in chaotic politics.
            b) If several to many incumbents will be reelected (I am hoping so, that would show that towns people are not abhorred by the first council in general), than they will benefit, right?

            Executive vs. legislative power: the town manager is selected and appointed by the council. I know from my own experience, that I will do the bidding of my employer. I suspect this may be the case between the council and the town manager. In addition the people on the council will have a much better access to the manager than me or other people off the council, so buddy-buddy can easily happen, that’s just human nature. It happens right now between the select board and town leadership. We talked about that previously and disagreed then, but I continue to see the signs.

            Few powerful groups: When the Charter Commission has been elected, there were two groups, “Amherst for All”, and “TM works”. They each put in energy about supporting (their) specific candidates. There was no overlap in who they each supported, and ONLY supported candidates got elected. So I don’t mean ‘developers’ would be behind those groups necessarily, but ‘interests’ will be in general. Thus there is a good chance the elected candidates will mostly represent the group having supported them just like it is with the Commission. Nothing wrong wit that, provided we know about the council members’ allegiance to the groups having supported them. And if they stray, name-calling might ensue like what happened to Julia as she was changing her mind.

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      This comment by Janet McGowan displays her strategy of distraction. She’s trying to plant the idea that I am disrespecting the service and expertise of Town Meeting members. THIS IS FALSE. To quote myself, “I applaud their civic-mindedness and willingness to serve.” There are many capable people in Town Meeting, and I hope that many of them will be candidates for the Town Council. My problem is with the institution itself: the low number of candidates and voters, making more than half of members self-appointed; the inability to thoroughly deliberate over issues over time; the lack of discussion of issues during the period before the election; the crazy twice-a-year schedule that forces the manager to produce a budget long before he knows how much state aid to expect; misstatements that go uncorrected. Yes, I am critical of certain Town Meeting members who argue against measures that would affect their business interests without declaring conflicts of interest, and members who ask questions that have already been explained; and members who like to interrupt speakers with fake “points of order.” Who wouldn’t be?
      Janet McGowan is trying to distract readers from the substance of these posts. She doesn’t respond directly to any of the points being raised, essentially saying, “Pay no attention to that; look over here!”

  6. And all these fine people don’t leave town or disappear when Town Meeting is replaced by a duly elected Town Council. We’ll surely find ways to contribute to our community. Take my TM seat, please! I’ll find other ways to remain engaged and involved – especially with a governance structure that I know can be relied on to reflect the true will of the community.

    1. I really do wish that Jerry Guidera would stop repeating that “Town Meeting works for Town Meeting members only.” It’s simply not true. Town Meeting works for a particularly stubborn defensive approach to the future of the Town, a perspective that may get elected under the new charter in certain precincts, but certainly not in others, and probably not town-wide. Also, there are many of us sitting in there, who recognize how sloppy, reckless, uninformed, and reactive the existing Town Meeting decision-making process is. There is debate in there that is excessively protracted by the body, almost as if there were an underlying strategy to exclude those from service who have typical family and professional commitments. Jerry’s phrase sounds great, as phrase-making often does, but it’s inaccurate, and does not reflect what is going on, either within Town Meeting, or in the electorate in general.

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    With reference to Gabor’s second comment:
    Yes, the council could be entirely replaced, or stay exactly the same, after the election, but the likely outcome is that some councilors would be reelected, some would not run again, and some new members would join. If councilors voted to raise compensation for the next council, that could be an issue in the campaign or, if councilors weren’t running again, it would not affect them financially. Someone has to decide on compensation increases, and this seemed to be the fairest way to do it, and provides a disincentive to raising the compensation.
    Occasionally, there could be a large turnover on the council, sparked by a particular issue. For example, in Greenfield six progressive candidates were elected last month, largely on the basis of their opposition to the council’s rejection of sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants. This can tend to ensure that councilors’ votes stay in tune with what voters want.
    What you write about the town manager doesn’t strike me as being any different from the situation that exists today with the Select Board. So where do we disagree?
    Your third point I find particularly interesting. Some people argue that we currently have what are essentially two political parties: the pro-Town Meeting party and the anti-Town Meeting party. It is not necessarily bad for people of like minds to band together; after the charter vote, the dividing line might become some other issue. (I don’t think the current two sides can be labeled “conservative” and “liberal.”)
    With the Charter Commission slates, we saw two defections: Julia voted no after being endorsed (mistakenly) by Amherst for All, while Diana abstained after getting the support of Town Meeting supporters. I think this kind of separation of two sides based on core beliefs is a problem only when it’s rigid (as it is now on the national level). I think it’s healthy for a democracy to have independent-minded decision-makers whose positions are dictated by facts and conscience rather than political affiliation. In Burlington, Vt. four political parties are represented on the council. I expect all kinds of coalitions to form on the Amherst council.

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