Three months from today, Amherst voters will go to the polls to decide the fate of the proposal for a new form of government.
Will we spend the next three months tearing each other apart, demonizing those we disagree with, indulging in anger, straining friendships, and giving voice to half-truths? Or will we have a respectful and fact-based debate about the benefits and trade-offs of each alternative?
The choice is ours.
As members of the Charter Commission’s majority, Mandi Jo Hanneke and I voted for the plan to replace the Select Board and Town Meeting with a 13-person Town Council. Right up to the election on March 27, we will explain the details of this proposal on this blog and why we support it.
But we would like to do more than to endorse a form of government that we believe will be more accountable, democratic and efficient than what we have now. We would also like to promote a more civil political climate in Amherst.
There’s been too much rancor in our public debates. I have been through three charter reform debates in the past 22 years, and have seen how divisive they can be. But I have faith that here in Amherst, we can reject the nasty tribalism and ill will that passes for political debate on the national level.
I believe one reason for the rancor we’ve seen in Amherst is that we have a dysfunctional political system with no reliable way to engage voters or measure public opinion.
I believe our town elections have been largely meaningless over the past 10 years, because there haven’t been enough candidates or discussion of issues to give voters information, choices or the motivation to participate. I believe that under the new form of government, elections will be perceived as important, stimulating debate and attracting many candidates and voters, and that will result in a Town Council that has a true mandate to make decisions on residents’ behalf.
How do we create a climate of respectful disagreement over the next three months?
Let me introduce you to my friend Gabor Lukacs. He and I met through our common interest in growing fruits and vegetables, using bicycles and limiting our use of fossil fuels. He grew up in Hungary, under an oppressive regime, and really enjoys being part of Town Meeting.
A year ago, we had an extensive email debate over Town Meeting and its decision to reject $34 million in state money for new elementary schools. We disagreed, vigorously, but we tried to be courteous to each other and explore areas of common ground. You can read about our dialogue here.
What does “respectful disagreement” mean? It doesn’t mean smoothing over differences. It means avoiding name-calling, exaggeration of others’ views, speculation about motives, dirty tricks and ad hominem attacks. It means sticking to verifiable facts and resisting the temptation to make snide put-downs of people we disagree with.
It means getting beyond superficial assertions. For example, those who are critical of the Town Council proposal should not just announce that it will produce rampant development or big-money campaigns. If they really believe this, they should cite towns with council/manager systems that have these problems, or just respond to the reasons I’ve articulated on why these will not be inevitable results of the new charter (development here, big money here).
Here’s a challenge for people on both sides of the debate. Call or email a friend who’s on the opposite side, invite him or her out for coffee, and practice respectful disagreement. Don’t shy away from conflict, but keep it civil. You might get some perspective on his or her motivations.
Here’s another, tougher challenge. Try to think of an argument made by the other side that you can concede make sense. You don’t have to change your overall position, but this exercise may help you realize that this is a complex decision and that no form of government is perfect.
I’d like to thank the 1,484 people who have read 8,144 pages of this blog over the past three months. And to everyone in Amherst, Happy New Year. Let’s set a high standard for civility in our debate over the charter proposal in 2018.
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