Peter Demling urges ‘yes’ vote on charter

This guest post was written by Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling.

I encourage you to join me on March 27 in voting Yes for the new town charter. It is the most positive thing we can do for the future of our town and our schools.

The charter provides us with two key elements missing in our government today: a structure to ensure informed decision-making, and a direct line of clear accountability to the general public.

The need to improve how informed our decision-makers are became apparent last year during the Town Meeting discussion and vote on the school building project. Some Town Meeting members said later they would have supported the project if they had known that the state funding authorities did not allow changes to the proposal, as had often been claimed. The reality is that we forfeited the $34 million grant we competed for, and have to start over again.

The prospect of quickly moving through the state aid pipeline in the future also influenced many well-meaning Town Meeting members. But only after these important votes had passed were the facts clearly heard and learned by all: even in a best-case scenario, it will now take at least until the 2030s to complete the construction of two new school buildings with state aid.

A thorough conversation among representatives may have cleared up this and other misinformation. But Town Meeting rules restrict deliberation to a sequence of disconnected and wide-ranging individual statements, with little opportunity for in-depth response, follow-up questions and a chance for all members to speak. This structure inhibits the sincere attempts of members to have a full and meaningful exchange of ideas and a complete vetting of presented information. Claims go unchallenged; misunderstandings are allowed to remain.

This will change under the new charter. Instead of a 254-member body meeting twice a year with limited ability to deliberate, a 13-member council will meet year-round with the full deliberation and public input of open meetings.

On the School Committee, I have seen that a small group of elected representatives, meeting regularly for in-depth, detailed and public discussions, clears away misinformation, and is essential for fully understanding the views of others. Deliberating in this way demands more effort and time; but in my experience, it is the only way to achieve clarity prior to making important decisions.

Open meetings also establish a direct line of accountability to the general public. The School Committee gathers public comment at every monthly meeting, and unlike Town Meeting, we’re required by law to deliberate as a group only during these open meetings. This shines a strong, public spotlight on our actions, demanding that we remain responsive and answerable to the people we represent. The same open meeting laws will apply to the Town Council, which will hear even further public input at local district meetings and public forums.

The public connection thus established, competitive elections will provide the all-important check that representatives are acting in accordance with the public will. Campaigning for School Committee was demanding – as it should be! I had to move outside my comfort zone, and talk to many new people whose viewpoints challenged my previous assumptions. As a result, I have a much broader understanding of how complex school topics affect people differently, and the public has a much better sense of where I stand on issues.

In contrast, many Town Meeting members repeatedly run unopposed, without active campaigns, and few voters can name their 24 representatives, let alone state any of their positions. There isn’t the strong voter connection and robust electoral accountability that a much smaller and open Town Council will provide.

I saw parents and teachers lined up at Town Meeting to speak about the building project, but not given the chance to have their voices heard before the vote was cast – and I knew it was time for a change.

I followed the Charter Commission’s work closely, and I respect the outcome of a process involving an enormous amount of research, deliberation, public engagement and compromise, resulting in a proposal that provides the important missing pieces of government that we clearly need today.

Both the public and our representatives who wish to serve the public good deserve a system built upon a foundation of informed and open decision-making, empowered by strong electoral accountability. A Yes vote on March 27 makes this possible.

Peter Demling is a member of the Amherst School Committee and a parent of three students in the Amherst Regional Public Schools. He has been a resident of Amherst for ten years and is employed as a Software Engineer at MIT. 

Comments 5

  1. I was disappointed by Town Meeting’s votes on the new elementary school proposal, too. But I don’t think there’s anything to support the idea that a more deliberative body would have made a better decision. Governing bodies, whatever their make up, make bad decisions sometimes, and sometimes most of the time. The reverse is occasionally true, also.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Seth. It is of course impossible to know how a 13-member council would have voted on the building project. But the outcome of the vote is not what’s argued here.

      Rather, my position in this post is that a smaller, regularly meeting body, governed by open meeting law, would certainly have made a more informed, open and public decision, regardless of the eventual vote.

      Reason being, TM structure does not allow for the kind of in-depth discussions that are the hallmark of smaller, regularly meeting open boards like the SC and SB.

      It would be unthinkable for the SC to vote an important matter without every rep able to speak at least once. We usually meet on voted items at least twice (and more than that for the biggest items), and everyone has multiple chances to speak.

      By the end of that, we get a very clear sense of accurate information, and multiple Q&A responses have clarified the POVs of others – because we have the time to do so. And the public has watched it all unfold the whole way, with multiple chances for input.

      That’s the key difference: deliberation quality, which is dependent upon the structure and rules of the representative assembly. It’s just not possible under the size and rules of TM. And that’s a key point that this charter addresses.

  2. So I don’t think we’ve gotten a clear answer to this: is there existing right now a private forum of current Town Meeting members? I’m not part of one, but I presume that one exists, encompassing as many as 50 or more Town Meeting members. We know that the discussion that used to occur on the old private Yahoo Town Meeting group is not reoccurring on the public site. So was it disbanded, or did it simply move elsewhere?

    Why are we as voters in the Town kept from knowing this? I know that the answer to this presumably could involve proving a negative, but I, for one, assume that a large scale discussion of Town Meeting members, by invitation only, is currently going on.

    1. There is a private google group called the “Commons Group”. It appears quite active, although I have no way of knowing, as I am not a member. The Charter Commission sometimes receives comments from individuals that are also posted to that group (known because the group is included in a cc on the email to the Charter Commission.) There is also a private google group called “Sustainable Amherst”, which is not particularly active. I am a member (there are less than 45 members, not all of whom are Town Meeting Members) and the last post to that group was on February 2, 2017, nearly 1 year ago.

      1. I think that a private Google group with some substantial number of Town Meeting members is a problem about which voters should be concerned. Like Mandi Jo, I’m not on there. Insiders and outsiders. Tribalism. Is this what voters want?

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