Mandi Jo Hanneke
As usual, Jim Oldham’s recent Amherst Bulletin column forgets to compare the proposed charter to the current government structure. Why is that important? Because on March 28, Amherst will either still operate under the current system or will have adopted a new system. If something doesn’t exist in either system, Amherst won’t have it on March 28, no matter what.
Why do I keep pointing this out? First, because Oldham, and many other charter opponents, keep arguing that the proposed charter doesn’t have a mayor. Guess what? Neither does the current system!
If you vote “no,” you won’t have a mayor. So ask yourself: Why keep bringing up the lack of a mayor as a reason to vote “no” without admitting that the system they support doesn’t have one either? Maybe it’s because Oldham can’t make a good case that the Representative Town Meeting system we have now is better than the proposed Council-Manager structure.
Oldham’s column implies the presence in the current system of another “safeguard” that isn’t completely there.
He states that the charter “puts most of the committee appointments in the hands of the town manager, instead of sharing that responsibility with elected officials, as is the case currently.” Then he goes on to imply that boards and committees will be undermined if appointed by the manager.
Guess what? There are fourteen town committees that are already appointed by the manager — and nine of them don’t require an elected body to confirm them.1
The proposed charter requires ALL committee appointments made by the manager to be confirmed by the Town Council, creating a level of oversight by elected officials that doesn’t exist now (and won’t exist if you vote “no”).
Had he relayed all the facts, Oldham would have to acknowledge that the proposed Charter handles committee appointments by the Manager better than the current Town Government Act.
Here’s another one: his fear-mongering that the school budget will be micromanaged by someone “not accountable to the public.”2 But Town Meeting does just that, and Oldham lauds it for doing so. Town Meeting members recently added money to the school budget, against the recommendation of the School Committee, the body duly elected by Amherst’s residents to thoughtfully consider the budget and make decisions.
While Town Meeting members are “elected,” in Amherst they are largely unaccountable to their constituents. Why? Because over 80 percent of the Town Meeting seats up for election are uncontested. The public doesn’t have a choice of their Town Meeting members in 8 out of every 10 seats they vote on.
In my precinct, 5, (also Oldham’s) in the last 10 years, a miserable 3 out of 107 seats have been contested, and two of them were just last year! There is absolutely no way I can hold my Town Meeting members accountable for their votes.
Another point: Oldham likes to quote (or misquote2) the charter’s finance article, but fails to reconcile his assertions with the actual powers and duties of the Manager, as set forth in Article Three: The Executive Branch.
The Charter prohibits the Manager from having any powers, duties, and responsibilities vested in the School Committee, Regional School Committee and Library Trustees. (Section 3.2)
One could thus argue that Article 5 only provides the Manager with “pass through” power of the budget.3 It’s the Manager’s job to present a full budget to the Council — one that includes the school and library budgets. Under Section 3.2, the Manager doesn’t have the power to modify the school or library budgets presented to him or her, just the power to include them in the comprehensive budget to the Council.
So, what will happen if the Town Manager begins proposing a comprehensive budget that changes the budgets passed by the School Committee or Library Trustees? There are a few options.
First, as Oldham mentioned, if the Manager’s budget decreases the School Committee’s budget, the Council can increase it back up to the School Committee’s approved amount with the consent of the School Committee. Second, the Council can decrease other areas of the budget. Third, the Council can vote to not pass the budget, requiring the Manager to propose another one. Fourth, as a last resort, if the Manager continually oversteps his or her bounds in budgeting, the Town Council can fire the Manager.
The Charter proposes a structure that will operate differently from the current government structure. For the budgeting process,it will improve the current system. One of the big improvements is in the timing; no longer will the Town staff be required to draft the budget before information from the state on state aid is known. Even charter opponent Meg Gage admitted as much at a recent debate on the proposal.
It also keeps what’s working currently, including the Budgeting Coordinating Group and the Joint Capital Planning Committee.
Town staff were regularly consulted regarding the language in the finance article. And, they, the professionals, thought the proposed budget schedule and process will be better than the current system.
1The Select Board is required by the Town Government Act to confirm the Manager’s appointments to only four committees: Conservation Commission, Historical Commission, Board of Health and Planning Board. All other committee appointments by the Manager are not required to the confirmed by an elected body. Further, as Oldham stated, the proposed charter moves Planning Board appointments to the Town Council. The Select Board currently appoints members to approximately 20 committees, only four of which must be appointed by the Select Board under the Town Government Act.
2Oldham actually misquoted Section 5.4(b) of the charter, adding the word “ultimately” which doesn’t exist in the section. I won’t speculate on why he felt he needed to do this.
3It’s a similar system now. The Finance Committee sponsors the warrant article that seeks passage of the comprehensive operating budget for Amherst, including library, schools and regional school district budgets. The School Committee does not bring its budget articles to Town Meeting separately from the rest of the budget–the Finance Committee brings the entire budget to Town Meeting in one article.
Another item of note: State law prohibits a Council from increasing the budget, except as allowed in specific instances. The Charter Commission could not override that prohibition. The Commission did discuss the drawbacks of the law, as it is different from the law with respect to what a Town Meeting can do.
This post has been updated to correct factual errors and clarify committee appointment authority as set forth in the Amherst Town Government Act.