A war of words in a campaign of ideas

Nick Grabbe

The two sides of Amherst’s charter debate don’t just disagree on what the form of government should be. They disagree on the meaning of some key words.

Take “representative.” When speaking of “Representative Town Meeting,” charter opponents don’t mean that members represent the citizens in their precincts. They mean that the group is large enough to be representative of all views.

Most Town Meeting members don’t treat residents of their precincts as constituents. They rarely solicit views, most aren’t elected based on their positions, and many don’t even want residents to contact them. If you have a pothole or a dangerous intersection in your neighborhood, it’s useless to contact them.

Town Meeting members are older, wealthier and whiter than the population as a whole, so they also don’t “represent” the town demographically.

Seventy percent of Town Meeting members elected in the last 10 years were from precincts with 10 or fewer candidates for eight seats. So voters didn’t have much choice about who their “representatives” are. Half were self-appointed, because they had no competition at all, and all they had to do to join Town Meeting was sign their own names. (Several of the strongest anti-charter voices come from this group.)

If you define “representative” as charter opponents have, then the current system in effect disenfranchises most residents. If you have to be a Town Meeting member to have your voice heard, and you don’t have the time or inclination to be one, then your only option is voting. But voting is meaningless if your “representatives” don’t need your votes, don’t have to take positions on issues, and aren’t accountable to constituents.

Charter supporters have a different view of what “representative” means. To us, representatives have constituents they are answerable to. By necessity, the 13 councilors will represent the interests of voters. The 10 councilors elected from five distinct parts of town will be responsive to neighborhood concerns. If they aren’t, voters can replace them every two years.

So the councilors will care deeply what their constituents think, and try to help them learn about issues and interact with local government.

Some charter opponents have called Representative Town Meeting “traditional,” implying that it is like the freewheeling annual gatherings distinctive to small New England towns. But our form of Town Meeting is very different from these Open Town Meetings, in which any resident can speak and vote, and which typically last only one day a year.

Actually, fewer than 10 percent of the cities and towns in Massachusetts have a system like Amherst’s, and that number has been declining. Last spring, Framingham voters decided to change from Town Meeting to a council, and North Attleborough is considering such a change. Open Town Meeting exists in 74 percent of the state’s communities, and 16 percent have councils.

If Town Meeting supporters really believe that bigger is better, they should advocate for a change to Open Town Meeting.

Another fundamental word the two sides disagree on is “democratic.” Town Meeting supporters use this word to refer to the 254 members (actually, an average of only 174 vote on articles). The theory is apparently that a large group can tap in to the wisdom of crowds, and it doesn’t really matter how the crowd was selected.

In a recent letter to the Bulletin, Arthur S. Keene said that charter supporters have “contempt” for democracy. Actually, we have a different definition: We believe political power should be in the hands of all voters, not in an elite group of super-voters who are disconnected from residents.

The 13-member council will be chosen in competitive elections, with multiple candidates, ample discussion of issues, and greatly increased voter participation. The goal is decision-makers who have received a true mandate from voters.

Keene maintained in his letter that Town Meeting is “deliberative.” I think he means that lots of speakers stand up and state their opinions. But there is little give and take, questions go unanswered, and misinformation goes uncorrected. The word “deliberative” connotes carefulness and back-and-forth discussion.

The Town Council will deliberate issues for as long as it takes, and not be limited to one night. “Alternative facts” will be exposed, all residents will have the right to voice their opinions, and councilors will be able to have real debates.

Then there’s the word “participation.” Town Meeting members claim that because they are participating in government, albeit only twice a year, the government is participatory. But they comprise only 1 percent of registered voters, and the other 99 percent are not participating as much as they could.

In most communities, that means voting. But in Amherst over the last 10 years, voter participation in local elections has averaged only 15.8 percent, and has it been as low as 6.6 percent. Given the lack of choices, you can hardly blame most residents for ignoring local elections.

The charter contains provisions that allow residents (all residents, not just some) to learn about issues and express their opinions to the Town Council, both on the town and neighborhood levels. There’s even a provision for a Community Participation Officer to help all residents figure out how to participate on boards, at forums and district meetings, or to campaign for elective office.

Few people in Amherst will be ignoring the election on March 27. In part, voters will decide which side’s definitions of these five words make the most sense to them.

If you agree with this post, please share it with your Amherst friends and neighbors. If you would like to read previous posts, click on “Posts” at the top. No municipal resources are used in the creation of this blog.



Comments 9

  1. It is important to understand the difference between a Town Meeting Member and a Council Representative.

    “Representative” Town Meeting, the group’s name, merely distinguishes it from “Open” town meetings. Representative Town Meeting Members are considered super-voters, “the voters who always show up”. As compared to Open Town Meetings, where you have “the voters who show up”. Town Meeting is representative only in the name. Town Meeting Members are not called “representatives”, they are called Members.

    Comparing a Town Meeting Member to a Council Representative is apples to oranges. The difference is Council Representatives have fiduciary duty under penalty of law while Town Meeting Members do not have fiduciary duty, by law. Town Meeting Members, literally, CANNOT represent anyone, only themselves. Because it is the law.

    Council Representatives, on the other hand, are subject to fiduciary duty under penalty of law and are sworn “to protect present and future inhabitants” under penalty law. That is why they are called “Representatives”, because they CANNOT represent themselves, only others, present and future, under penalty of law.

    But, just like a voter who steps into the voting booth and pulls the curtain, Town Meeting Members cannot, by law, represent anyone, only themselves. That is why they are called “Members” and not representatives.

  2. I think that the use of the word “contempt” by anyone in this debate to characterize anyone else is a serious mistake. And let’s hope that doesn’t continue.

    It’s important to point out that I have heard various Town Meeting members claim, with some pride, to be taking steps to stay in touch with their precincts’ residents. It’s all off the record and ad hoc. I have not seen any indication of it in my precinct, but I am assured that it happens elsewhere. Some members may be taking the word “representative” very seriously NOW.

    For those residents who say that they have been rebuffed and/or ignored by their precinct’s Town Meeting members, all I can say as a Precinct 7 member is that completely astounds me. Folks who are doing that should be voted out. I have tried to express some gratitude to residents who have contacted me, even when I disagree with them.

    I would like to see a system that offers definitively and clearly a bit more deference to ordinary voters, the ones with jobs, children, elders to care for, and important community responsibilities and commitments other than Town Meeting. That’s why I’m voting YES.

  3. I have often wondered about this: “If Town Meeting supporters really believe that bigger is better, they should advocate for a change to Open Town Meeting.” To many of us, 254 seems like the perfect wrong size, except for a community with 254 voters.

    The charter revision process works both ways in Massachusetts–citizens governed by Councils can petition to change to Town Meeting form of government. If the Council form of government is so undemocratic, why has this never happened?

  4. Another wonder: if we are looking for a “representative sample” (Mr. Lukacs’ words) in Town Meeting, then where is the proposal to term-limit the body? To assure a continuous flow of new people into it?

    My response to the claim that Town Meeting is more “democratic”: how does the “demos” steer this ship? How do voters affect the direction of their own government? Do voters have power in Amherst? It’s quite remarkable when you think about it.

  5. Here are some concrete facts:

    Councils across the Commonwealth tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. It is simply impossible for a City Council of 13 to encompass the diversity and expertise present in our current Amherst Town Meeting. The majority of council seats in Massachusetts are filled in uncontested elections and incumbent candidates are nearly never defeated in contested elections.

    Who are Amherst Town Meeting members? There are 130 women (56%). Currently, Town Meeting members include people of color, immigrants, gay members, firefighters, teachers, single parents, architects, a dentist, an environmental consultant, the head of the BID (downtown business improvement district), developers, a president of construction company, small business owners, college professors, mediators, university administrators, home grown Amherst residents, environmentalists, housing activists, disabled people, project mangers, parents, caregivers of elderly parents, people who speak English as a second language, attorneys, carpenters, renters, homeowners, landlords, low income residents, experts in municipal government, retirees, current and former members of the Select Board, School Committee, Library Trustees, current and retired local, state and federal government employees, a recent college graduate, therapists, people who live in subsidized housing….I could go on and on… and still not cover the depth and breadth of the experience, expertise and knowledge of the people in Amherst who volunteer to run our government in Town Meeting (and the Select Board and Jones Library Trustees.) In terms of age, Town Meeting members go from 19 to 90 years old, and on average pretty much reflect the ages of voters–but not of Amherst residents overall (likely due to the fact that few college students run for Town Meeting).

    No other government body, other than Open Town Meeting includes more citizens and their different perspectives in governing. No other government body includes as many women.

    Is it more democratic to have more people voting on government decisions. Of course it is.

    In terms of representing the will of the people, it looks like Town Meeting members’ votes likely reflect Amherst voters more than small government body, like a City Council or the Select Board or the Amherst School. In the 4 votes on the Wildwood School project, the percentages in the Town Meeting votes uncannily mimicked the percentage in the town-wide votes. Amherst voters were a bit over 50% in support in the first vote, as were Town Meeting members. On the re-votes, Amherst voters moved in favor by about 10%, while Town Meeting members moved in favor by about 18% (I think). Neither the voters and Town Meeting members got close to meeting the state requirement of 2/3rds for borrowing funds. In contrast, the Amherst School Committee was 80% in favor of the Wildwood Project, while the Select Board was 100% in favor. So who really represented the voters?

    1. Post

      Do you think Amherst women will be too bashful to run for the Town Council? Or that Amherst residents will be too sexist to vote for them? It doesn’t make any sense. Amherst has a long history of gender equality on its elected boards, and this is not going to suddenly vanish with a Town Council, simply because of what’s happened in towns with councils that don’t have a similar history of women’s empowerment.

  6. The debate has deteriorated already. Nobody should think that the next two months of the campaign will focus on how we interpret the concept of “representation” in our legislature. The debate won’t be about the drops in school enrollments, housing shortages at low and moderate income levels, our ever increasing infrastructure needs, or the low voter participation in Amherst.

    Nope – the anti-Charter groups are clear in their focused messaging: they will push their fear mongering as hard as they can, scaring people into thinking greedy developers are puppeteering the hundreds of supporters of the proposed new governance plan. Luckily, there will still be a place to debate the issues on this page.

    Thanks to “A Better Amherst” for keeping it real!

  7. “Is it more democratic to have more people voting on government decisions? Of course it is.” So I again ask the question: do voters in Amherst really have power over their government, over the policies within their government? How do voters steer this ship of state? When do we see “consent of the governed” in Amherst? I disagree with Janet, and there’s no way past it. If you are not on Town Meeting, or on a board or committee, you’re a peasant here. I’m sorry to say that, but that’s the actual reality of “democratic” government here in Amherst.

  8. Yes, Amherst residents have political power through voting at the ballot box, and by joining Town Meeting–which is easy to get on, and by joining the Select Board, School Committee, Jones Library Trustees. Our town is and has been run by citizen volunteers who make government decisions. Hundreds of people are involved in governing.

    And Rich, no one is a peasant to me–even though I wield the power and might of my 1/240th of a vote in Town Meeting.

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