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.
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