Let’s avoid rancor in charter debate

Nick Grabbe


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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Comments 8

  1. Thank you for reminding us, Mandi & Nick. My takeaway from collecting signatures for the petition was that every single person who signed had their own reason. There is no one reason to change our form of government, only that it is our right to choose our form of government. It is up to each individual to protect that right to choose. All we can do it keep speaking the truth, constant reminding, repeat everything three times. When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how other others see you. The misinformation will feel unfair, but STAY ABOVE IT, trusting that other people will eventually see them for what they are, and see the truth, just like you did. In the words of the great Bob Marley, seize your right.

  2. Kudos I accept your challenge and plan to find a friend who thinks differently and practice thoughtful respectful listening.

  3. Thank you, for writing this piece, Nick. I think what you write about here is extremely important, because at the end of the day we all will still live in the same community, regardless of the outcome of the March elections. And also, thank you for mentioning our correspondence, I still remember well the richness and length of it — I learned a lot from it, and was forced to put my thinking into words in a coherent form. I also saw how much energy you put into the process of the Commission, and how much you learned from it.

    On the other hand, after this blog has been blaming and bashing Town Meeting, it is harder to say: Hey, stop fighting, just because I have now stopped beating on you – and expect immediate results.

    My goal, however, is not just to treat each other respectfully, but also considerately. I know we all are doing our best, no matter how much we disagree. I like to say, on the level of universal human needs (peace, prosperity and positive connection are examples) there are no disagreements, no matter how differently we look at a situation. The disagreement comes through the strategies we use to satisfy those needs.

    I also know in some ways it is quite an up-hill battle to explain how replacing 240 people involved with town government with 13 can lead to more democracy. Nevertheless the only good outcome can come from working together instead of butting heads. So, I applaud this post, and will carefully watch the process, as we go ahead and build (hopefully together), our future.


    1. “an up-hill battle”, Gabor? Okay, let us begin. How can replacing 240 people involved with town government (even though only 180 typically show up and a quorum of 120 is all that is required?) with 13 lead to more democracy? In this country, the purest form of democracy is an election by the voters, one person – one vote. I guess one could say that if more people voted, that would be “more” democracy.

      And, in fact, more people turned out to vote for the Charter Review Petition than in the history of Amherst. In our state constitution, written by John Adams, in the preamble, the first right, above all, is the right to choose our form of government. So, would one call that “the most” democracy, in our history?

      But I don’t think that’s what you meant. I think you meant “more representation”. What is the difference between 240 Town Meeting Members and 13 Council Representatives? Under the law, Town Meeting Members are without fiduciary duty, while Council Representatives have fiduciary duty under penalty of law. Now, it is up to the voters to decide which is “more” democratic, 240 Members, by law, accountable only to themselves, or 13 Representatives, accountable under penalty of law.

      Because, who do those Members “represent”? Only themselves, under the law. They, cannot, under the law, represent anyone but themselves. The same as when a voter steps into the voting booth, closes the curtain, and casts their ballot, Town Meeting Members cannot be Representatives. That is why they are called “Members”.

      What is “more representation”, then? Is it 240 Members with none or 13 Representatives with fiduciary duty under penalty of law? Council Representatives are accountable under penalty of law and Town Meeting Members are immune to the law. Which would you choose? None? Or accountable under penalty of law. You get one vote, the same as anyone else, Gabor. This time, your vote doesn’t count more than anyone else’s. Because this is democracy in its purest form: one person – one vote.

      1. Yes, Kevin, I agree with some of your points. I like how you explain who Town Meeting members represent. You say “[TM members] cannot, under the law, represent anyone but themselves.” I agree. Yet, I have read many times on this blog and elsewhere, that TM members should represent others. So does this mean that all those calls urge TM members to be illegal?

        I think the secret here is Human to Human communication. My neighbor ask me what’s going on in Town Meeting. They may talk to me about a concern they have. You bet, I will consider their opinion (agreeing with some, disagreeing with others, can’t agree with everyone), because our continued good relationship is important to me. I rather envision this process as a filtering function. The extreme weeds get culled first as ideas trickle through.

        This Human to Human communication takes shape in politics too. People talk to each other. People in power talk to each other. The fewer of them are in power the larger the difference between insider-insider talk and outsider-insider talk. You bet my opinion will count less to people in power (like a council member – unless, maybe, I am a friend or neighbor), than someone they connected to closely.

        And even the thing “under the penalty of law” What does it really mean? Do they get locked up if they don’t represent their constituency precisely? Where is the limit, over which they are held to this law? How many politicians really get successfully sued for not representing their constituency? I suppose much less than they get sued for inappropriate behavior, if you know what I mean.

  4. Post

    Thank you for your conciliatory note, Gabor. I do enjoy debating town issues with you, and I appreciate the respect you show for our differences. I agree with most of the things you wrote in your comment.
    On “blaming and bashing Town Meeting,” I have refrained from attacking individual members, and have not maintained that they don’t care about the town. My criticism is with the institution itself, especially the lack of sufficient candidates to give voters meaningful choices. I don’t see how I could argue for replacing Town Meeting and the Select Board with a Town Council without criticizing how they operate.
    I remain baffled why Meg Gage abandoned her petition to cut the size of Town Meeting in half, which would have increased voter choices and taken away my strongest argument.
    I understand your position to be that a larger group of people is better than a smaller one, no matter whether or not they have actually been chosen by voters. I assume you know that a majority of Town Meeting members have been essentially self-appointed over the past 10 years. I think you would say that because the group is large, they are more likely to represent a diversity of viewpoints.
    My definition of democracy is different. I maintain that a 13-member council, elected every two years, is much more likely to present voters with a debate over issues and real choices on Election Day, promoting much more voter participation, and thus operate with a mandate from voters. And if voters don’t like what they decide, they can easily be replaced. It’s a way of ensuring that the decisions they make reflect the will of the voters.

  5. I think it’s worth noting that the only people writing in support of Town Meeting tend to be current or former members of TM (like Gabor). Supporters of the new governance plan are both regular folk and TM members (like me). That’s my point about how TM seems to work only for its members – in other words, only people who are in the “elite clique” of TM want to maintain the status quo. Think about that for a bit…

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