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.