Mandi Jo Hanneke
As we have noted previously, opponents have made a number of misleading claims about the new government proposal. The latest exaggeration is that the new system lacks “checks and balances.”
This claim is particularly misleading because it implies that our current system has checks and balances that will be lost if the new charter is adopted. However, our current system has practically no checks and balances at all.
No matter how you vote in March, Amherst won’t have a government that allows the executive branch to veto the actions of the legislative branch. Arguing that one should vote “no” on the Charter because the Charter doesn’t have this option is disingenuous — the current government doesn’t have this option either, and a no vote won’t give it to you.
So, let’s look at the checks and balances built into the proposed charter and compare them to the current system.
First, the “executive branch veto.” Neither option has it. So, what is the check in the proposed system on a legislature that is passing unwanted bylaws?
One check is the voter veto and resident initiative petition procedures in Article 8. I’ve described it all here. These options allow for the voters to overrule a council action or enact their own legislation.
Another is the elections themselves — more frequent per legislator, potentially more competitive and issues-based, and easier for voters to keep track of their representatives and hold them accountable. Nick has described in detail how campaigns and competitive elections allow residents to actually choose who represents them, and for the legislators to know what residents stand for. The current system is woefully inadequate in this regard.
A third is the required two readings of bylaws before final passage. This allows the residents time to provide feedback on a matter before it’s enacted but after it’s been discussed. Many times, a matter doesn’t make the local radar (newspaper articles, etc.) until after being discussed at a legislative meeting. If that discussion is the only one before a vote, feedback comes too late.
But, in the proposed Charter, that first discussion is just that — first. There has to be a second one before a bylaw is enacted. That allows time for residents who casually follow the government to read about the potential bylaw and contact their representatives with an opinion. Enough outrage and the bylaw won’t clear the second reading. This option isn’t present in the current system (see: Setting Your Own Agenda for more explanation)
Those are the checks on the legislative process in the proposed Charter. Now let’s look at the checks on the executive side.
The Manager will appoint all department heads and board and committee members (except Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals). But the Council must confirm those appointments. This provides a “check” on the Manager’s appointment authority.
This “check” actually doesn’t exist much at all in the current governmental system. Town Meeting has no confirmation authority and the Select Board confirms only the Conservation Commission, Board of Health, Planning Board and Historical Commission — no one else, not even the department heads.
A second check and balance in the proposed Charter is the Council’s appointment of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. These are two boards that have some regulatory authority. The Charter Commission heard a lot about the current failure of the Manager to appoint Planning Board members with differing views. By moving the appointment of these members to the Council, we’ve moved them closer to the electorate. As such, we’ve made it potentially more likely that the members will have various opinions, as the Councilors will need to be responsive to the electorate in these appointments.
Lastly, there is the Council’s investigatory power. The Charter permits the legislative branch to investigate the conduct of any Town agency (Executive Branch) other than the Library or Schools. This provides yet another check on the Manager and rest of the Executive Branch — again, a check that doesn’t exist currently. Town Meeting has no such authority.
As you can see, the proposed Charter provides various checks and balances, many of which don’t exist in the current system.
While the opposition argues that there are none (especially arguing the lack of a “mayoral veto”), I ask voters to do more than just look at what might be missing in the proposed charter. Look instead at what the Charter has and compare it to the current system — a system that has nearly no checks and balances at all.
In March the choice is yours: keep the current system or vote for the proposed one. You don’t get a “mayoral veto” by voting no, despite what the opposition implies. So, when you hear that the proposal has “no checks and balances,” do your homework and ask yourself: Does the Charter do a better job than the current system on checks and balances? As seen above, the answer is yes.
A reference guide to 30 past posts on this blog is available by clicking on “Posts” above or selecting a category under “Index.”