Not This Charter Amherst – Refuted

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.

Comments 8

  1. I think Michelle Obama’s admonition “when they go low, we go high” is beginning to apply here. I do believe that there is a respectful way to carry on the debate, and sometimes we (myself included) may stray off the path. It is important to remember that, when the election is over, we will be back in some uniform condition, either as constituents of a Town Council, or as citizens continuing to try to solve the problem of town government, either through or around this Town Meeting system. We live in a state that governs its municipalities largely through two-thirds majorities. That mandates coalition-building and trying to engage with folks who may have pissed you off in an earlier political episode. I am happy to say that there are citizens in town that I look up to, who are staunch supporters of the existing status quo (or willing to attempt to reform it). That’s the way it should be. But, no matter what happens in March, we must find a way to end the current, corrosive tribalism that plagues the Town’s current politics.

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  2. Irv Rhodes Let those who are pro charter and anti charter stipulate, that we all love Amherst. I love Amherst. but the future of Amherst is not Town Meeting. We can all say that Town Meeting was good for the Amherst of yesterday, but not of today. We must say good by to yesterday, honor it, but welcome tomorrow.


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  3. I find it odd that both Weiss and Gage – without a hint of irony – make the case that a mayor would provide a more robust system of checks and balances. I was at most of those meetings and don’t recall either of them expressing any enthusiasm for a mayor/council system.
    Is there a spreadsheet or other document produced by the Charter Commission that aggregates all the motions/votes? Or would one have to go through all the agendas/minutes to find the vote tallies?

    1. There is no question that Meg Gage was strongly in favor of a manager and not a mayor. You don’t need any document to confirm that.

  4. Nice to know that the Amherst League of Women Voters agrees with me that the Town Manager and the voters are NOT a branch of government.

    Amherst’s current government has separation of powers and checks and balances–just not in the way that Mandi Jo describes. The Select Board is the executive branch government “responsible for the general governance of the town.” (section 3.2 to implement the bylaws, set policies, propose budgets and hire the Town Manager. The Select Board proposes a budget for Town government and sends it to Town Meeting for approval. The Town Manager runs Town government, hires and fires staff, hires the town attorney and decides how to spend the money allocated (or authorized) by Town Meeting.

    The budget process itself is facilitated by the independent Finance Committee which works with the Amherst School Committee, Regional School Committee, 4 Towns group, the Town Manager, Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC) and members of the public. Finance Committee members are chosen by the elected Town Moderator and they make recommendations to Town Meeting on Warrant articles.

    The Select Board also has some legislative power to decide what articles are put on the Warrant and signs the Warrant. Warrant articles can come from the Planning Board, a school committee, the Library Trustees, other boards and committees, and citizens. The Select Board is the gatekeeper for the Warrant and makes recommendations to Town Meeting. The Select Board also decides whether to allow referendum or debt exclusions and overrides to go onto the ballot.

    Town Meeting the legislative authority to pass bylaws, zoning bylaws, authorize tax money to be spent for the budgets proposed by the Select Board/Town Manager, Amherst School Committee and Amherst-Pelham Regional School District and the Jones Library Trustees. Town Meeting cannot, as a body, put articles on the Warrant. Town Meeting can change budget amounts and occasionally does. Town Meeting also has power to authorize the borrowing of money. Town Meeting can vote the final budget number but is not involved in how budget money is actually spent. There is a tacit understanding between Town Meeting and the other branches that when Town Meeting puts money into a budget for say, library assistants in the elementary schools, that money will be spent for it.

    There is a way for citizens to overturn a decision by Town Meeting, but it is difficult to meet (although easier than in the Charter proposal).

    I have growing concerns about whether or not the 5 Charter Commissioners who voted for the Charter proposal actually understand how Amherst’s government works, with its separate branches of government. Do they understand how no one branch has the power to make policy, and to propose, pass and then implement bylaws? Do they know that the City Council they propose has all these powers? Hopefully, Amherst vote

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      You’ve got some facts wrong, Janet. A Town Meeting committee, the Finance Committee, puts the budget articles on the warrant and actually proposes the amounts, not the Select Board. Town Meeting regularly changes those amounts, including for the schools and libraries (2 of the last three amendments were for these two budgets). And, the referenda procedures in the current system are actually more difficult than in the proposal. In the current system, residents have 5 days to gather signatures to overturn a Town Meeting action; in the proposed charter, that’s increased to 14 days. And, in the current system, the voter turnout requirement was not met at the most recent referendum. If that vote had occurred under the proposed system, the voter turnout requirement would have been met. Another error in your comment: the Town Council doesn’t have the power to implement bylaws–it’s specifically given to the Town Manager to enforce and implement bylaws. Town Council can enact them, but the Town Manager is tasked with enforcing them.

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