Mandi Jo Hanneke
As fans of Hamilton will know, there is a point in the musical where Hamilton refutes Farmer Seabury as he barks from the top of a box: “Heed not the rabble who scream revolution, They have not your interests at heart.”
Nick and I have already addressed all six of the opposition’s reasons to vote no. I summarize them here, and link to the more extensive posts. It’s your one-stop shop for answers.
Reason #1: The Charter will “Eliminate Checks and Balances in Government.” It’s surprising to me that they even make this argument when the current system, the system that they support, has no checks and balances on the legislative body at all: 1) Town Meeting actions cannot be vetoed; and 2) Without competitive elections and without members who actually see themselves as representing the voters, residents can’t even hold members accountable for their actions. For more on this, see Checks and Balances: Let’s Compare.
Reason #2: The Charter will “Make Elected Leadership Weaker and More Diffuse.” This is an interesting argument because it fails to acknowledge all the ways the Charter promotes better decision-making by our elected leaders. Our elected leaders will be better able to consider the long-term issues affecting the Town, and be better able to deliberate. I explain more in The Charter Connects the Planning Dots and Control Your Own Agenda. Nick talks about the Council’s ability to supervise the Manager in his post The town manager: If it ain’t broke…
Reason #3: The Charter will “Introduce Money into Local Politics.” Think about it: we already have several elected positions that require running a campaign town-wide and nobody has ever complained that it costs too much or that candidates are being “bought.” Further, I have faith that our residents vote on the issues, when they know the candidates’ positions. The person who raises the most money is not guaranteed a win in this Town—Jennifer Page raised more money than Peter Demling in the last School Committee election, but lost, in part because of her stance on the school building project. If our Town Council candidates have to make their positions known, their success or failure will be a result of the positions they take on the issues—just as it should be. Nick addresses this issue extremely well in Scare tactics 2: Big Money in Elections.
Reason #4: The Charter will “Reduce Public Accountability and Voter Engagement.” This is a strange argument, given that there is no public accountability now (see #1 above). In addition, the proposed charter reduces the terms of elected officials from 3 years to 2, thereby making each official face the voters more often. Further, all the research available regarding elections supports that voter turnout in November elections is higher than turnout in non-November elections. Higher turnout results in more voter engagement, not less. I’ve addressed both of these issues in In Elections, Predictability is Good and Comparing the Ballots.
Reason #5: The Charter will “Lessen Representation, Diversity, and Citizen Participation.” Again, this argument rings false. As Nick so succinctly sums up the participation claim: “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.” I explain more on how the proposed Charter fosters participation at whatever level a resident wishes to engage in Charter Enables Better Participation and Community Participation Officer Explained.
Further, there is no support for opponents’ claim that women’s participation will suddenly plummet. Towns that switched from a Town Meeting form to a council form did not dramatically reduce or increase the percentage of female participation in their government—in fact, they stayed very similar. My post Scare Tactics 3: Women won’t run for or serve on the Council sets forth, with data, the reasons why Amherst’s women will continue to be equally represented in government.
In addition, it amazes me that the opposition claims that renters are well represented on Town Meeting. Approximately 50% of this Town rents, yet less than 20% of Town Meeting members are renters. That is some seriously bad representation of renters on our legislature. Nick has found that Councils can be more representative of under-represented populations, both in actual numbers and in viewpoints. Nick explains in Town Meeting: Do Elections Matter.
Reason #6: The Charter will “Make Government More Costly.” First, Amherst has an $88 million budget. Even if the proposed Charter increases costs by $75,000, that’s less than one one-thousandth of the budget, an extremely small price to pay for more thoughtful and accountable decision-making – and it doesn’t take into account the cost savings of local elections every two years, 90 fewer nights of staff time spent at Town Meeting, etc. Second, as explained in the post Community Participation Officer Explained, the Community Participation Officer is not likely to add any costs to the budget, because it is not foreseen to be a new position. In fact, one of the co-leaders of the Not This Charter group, Meg Gage, admitted as much at many Charter meetings. To now claim the opposite is hypocritical. Third, the Councilors cannot raise their own stipends; any increase must be done well before the next election and cannot take effect until the next Council is seated, thereby giving the residents plenty of time to voice their opinions at the ballot box. Nick addresses the cost issue in more detail in How much will new system cost.
As you can see, the opposition’s reasons to vote “no” are easily refuted. What I find even more interesting, though, is that the opposition to the proposed Charter doesn’t really argue for the current system, even though a “no” vote keeps that system. They’re not arguing the current system is better. As Hamilton says in in the musical: “They don’t have a plan, they just hate mine.”
I urge you to compare the plans. When you do, you’ll see that the proposed Charter is better than the current system. It engages all the residents and provides for real deliberation and accountability by our elected decision-makers — characteristics that are vitally important in government and are missing from the current system.