A Response to Jim Oldham’s Finance Concerns

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.

Comments 16

  1. I want to add two points about Bulletin columnist Jim Oldham.
    First, voters have not really chosen him to represent them in Town Meeting. The last four times his name has been on the ballot (2015, 2012, 2011 and 2008), there have been the same number of candidates, or fewer, as seats available in his precinct. So there has been no possibility that Oldham would NOT be “elected.” In the last three of these four elections, his vote total has been suspiciously similar (72, 73 and 74) and turnout in his precinct has averaged only 10 percent. A similar lack of electoral legitimacy applies to Mary Wentworth, another vocal charter opponent.
    Second, who the heck offered Oldham a monthly column in the Bulletin, anyway? Actually, it was me. After the defeat of the last charter proposal in 2005, in my role as editor of the Bulletin’s letters and columns, I offered Oldham the column that he has continued to write every since. I did this not because I agreed with his opinions but because I felt that they were under-represented in the newspaper. Do I regret this decision now that we are on opposite sides of the current charter debate? Not really. I think my offer to Oldham was the right thing to do at the time.

  2. Mandi Jo and Nick,

    I don’t enjoy reading and listening to either side of this debate. There’s too much focus on discrediting the individuals and groups on both sides.

    I find it useful when you present facts and refute points made by your opponents. I don’t appreciate when you focus on your opponents themselves. I say the same to those arguing against the charter.

    As an example, you counter specific points in Jim Oldham’s columns which was exactly what I was hoping for from this blog. But then you speculate about his motivations. I’m not going to vote based on depictions of the people advocating for either side. I’ll enjoy reading your blog if you could just address the differences between the systems of government and refrain from discussing the people involved in the debate.

    1. Andra, Perhaps they went too far in this article but I think this blog has done a really good job sticking to the facts when faced with many personal attacks. Nobody is enjoying this debate and I fear the impact it will have on our town moving forward. But I do hope you also express that frustration to both sides – as far as I am aware there are no fact-based outputs coming from the anti-charter groups. However, they do seem to get ample coverage in the local paper! Can someone explain why people like Jim Oldman get to write 5 columns in the paper in the last 7 months while my 200-word opinion piece trying to correct a misstatement in a previous – also large column written by an older white male – took 4 weeks to publish ?

      1. Laura, I’ve been keeping track of Bulletin op-eds since Jan. 1, 2017. There have been 14 anti-charter op-eds (seven written by Jim Oldham) and 10 pro-charter op-eds.

      2. Laura,

        Yes, I really do say it to both sides. I’m doing what I can to bridge the gap being created by this debate. There’s no good reason it has to be disrespectful of those holding opposing opinions. I understand there’s reasons; there’s a history of distrust. Most people will vote based on their assumptions about the dysfunction of Town Meeting or their assumptions of the effect developers’ money will have on the elections/decisions in a council-manager system.

        Nick answers your question about how Jim gets to write a whole column. Nick gave him that space years ago. I have a possible answer to your question of why there is an imbalance of letters to the editor and why it took 4 weeks for yours to be printed. We saw this in the election for State Rep. I talked with Larry Parnass, the editor at the time, about letters we knew were submitted that weren’t printed for weeks. The answer appeared to be that he had lost the letters in a barrage of emails and didn’t have staff to keep track of the letters pouring in. It was a harder task when there were 6 candidates to balance. It seems to me they should be able to keep a balance of columns and letters when there’s only two sides. I suppose Nick knows better whether being understaffed might be part of what’s happening with the opinion page in the Bulletin.

    2. Post

      Andra: Thanks for pointing this out. I have removed the offending statement (as quoted by Nick above). I try to keep speculation out, but sometimes I fail.

    3. Andra, I don’t like speculation about an individual’s motives, either, so I reread Mandi’s post to see what you’re referring to. I am guessing that it is this sentence: “He didn’t do that because it would undermine his argument, and he’s counting on an under-informed public to not realize this.” If so, this seems to be very mild speculation compared to the claim by some members of the opposition that charter supporters are motivated by a desire to make development easier.

  3. I’m a little confused here about the assertion in footnote 1 that “The Select Board confirms the Manager’s appointments to only four committees: Conservation Commission, Historical Commission, Board of Health and Planning Board. The proposed charter moves Planning Board appointments to the Town Council.”

    When I was appointed to the Amherst Public Art Commission almost 6 years ago, my appointment by the Town Manager had to be approved by the Select Board. From the June 7, 2012 APAC Minutes: “Terry welcomed Rene Theberge who has applied to join APAC. His appointment and Jenny Lind’s must be approved by the Select Board. Have things changed since then?

    1. Post

      My statement is based upon the language in the Amherst Town Government Act, the current charter. It states, in Section 4.54, “The town manager shall appoint, with approval of the select board, members of the planning board, conservation commission, historical commission, and board of health. The town manager shall appoint the assessors and members of boards, committees and commissions as are needed or as provided by town bylaws, town meeting action ,or act of the general court. All appointments to boards, committees and commissions shall be made on merit and fitness…” Maybe current practice is different. But, if we’re comparing what’s required, then the manager currently has almost blanket appointment authority for boards and committees. The proposed charter requires all board and committee appointments to be confirmed by the Town Council. The current Town Government Act does not.

      UPDATE: There is similar language in the Select Board section of the Amherst Town Government Act. Therefore, there is no “default” of who appoints committees not named in the Act. Currently, approximately 20 committees are appointed by the Select Board and 14 by the Manager (5 of which are required to have Select Board confirmation, per the Act.). Your appointment was actually made by the Select Board, not the Manager.

  4. Hi Andra and others–

    Here are some facts on what is in the Charter proposal re: budgets and what happens now in our government. I am hoping this will help clarify the debate here and in town.

    Currently, Town Meeting is the legislative branch of our government that approves the appropriation of tax money to fund the budgets sent to it by the Amherst School Committee, Regional School Committee, Select Board and Jones Library Trustees. Each of these budgets is approved by an elected body of elected officials– i.e. the School Committee members, Library Trustees and the Select Board members. The Select Board, school committees and Library Trustees all have executive powers to hire and supervise their superintendent, library director or town manager, each of whom run day-to-day operations year-round. They each set their own budgets and each go separately to Town Meeting to authorize tax money to fund their budget and operations. Town Meeting, also has the legislative power to borrow money to fund repairs or buildings (i.e. school doors, fix the War Memorial pool, build a fire station, replace the playground at Groff Park, etc. ) Town Meeting can increase or decrease the amounts requested in each budget.

    (Amherst’s independent Finance Committee, appointed by the elected Town Moderator, facilitates the budget processes (which also involving Shutesbury, Pelham and Leverett because of the regional school district), starting in the the Fall and ending in Spring Town Meeting. The Finance Committee also does an analysis of Amherst’s financial condition, budget projections, and makes recommendations on all budgets and relevant bylaws.)

    In Mayor-City Council forms of government, the mayor is the elected head of the executive branch of government. The mayor runs city government, hires department heads, set budgets and spend the money authorized by the city council. The city council , the legislative branch, has the power to authorize (or appropriate) tax money to fund the budget and to borrow money. (The mayor may or may not have power to set the school budget–it depends on their charter.)Typically, the mayor also has power to veto city council decisions, and the city council can override a mayoral veto. This recently happened in Northampton over a city council decision on downtown surveillance lights and in Greenfield over the setting different tax rates for businesses and residents.

    This Charter proposal lacks this usual separation of executive powers and legislative powers found both in traditional Select Board-Town Meeting and Mayor-Council forms of government. (See Charter Section 2.5, “all powers of the Town shall be vested in the Town Council as a whole, which shall provide for the performance of all duties and obligations imposed upon the Town by law.”) There is no separate government body, i.e a mayor, with the power to veto a city council’s final decisions and to act as the elected head of the executive branch running the day to day operations of city government. (Merriam-Webster on-line definition: “a system that allows each branch of a government to amend or veto acts of another branch so as to prevent any one branch from exerting too much power.”) There is no Select Board as the elected head of the executive branch running Town Hall–or separate legislative branch of Town Meeting. There is only the Council.

    And the Charter proposal sets up a budget process very different from our current procedure or a usual Mayor-City Council procedure. While the elected schools committees and library trustees would retain their executive authority to hire and supervise their superintendent and director, they no longer would set their own budgets–this power goes to the town manager. Instead, the library trustees and Amherst School Committee and Regional School Committee send their 3 proposed budgets to the town manager. (Charter, Section 5.4(a). (After this, I don’t see any other involvement by the school committees or library trustees after that in the proposed Charter since there is no language about the Trustees or school committees making revisions.)

    After the Town Manager gets these 3 budget proposals: “the Town Manager shall submit to the Town Council, a proposed budget for the ensuing fiscal year, including municipal, school and library components as determined by the Town Manager, with an accompanying budget message and supporting documents.” (Charter at 5.4(b)). The town manager also includes her/his report and budget message. (Charter at 5.4(b) & (c)).

    Then follows is a review and recommendation by the “Town Council’s Finance Committee,” (Charter at 5.5(a)), to the Town Council. (This Finance Committee may include non-voting members of the public.)

    Next step is in section 5.5(c): “The Town Council shall adopt the budget, with our without amendments, by June 30th. In amending the budget, the Town Council may delete or decrease any programs or amounts except expenditures required by law. Except on the recommendation of the Town Manager the Town Council shall not increase any item, or the total of, the proposed budget, unless authorized by the general laws.” If the council does not act on an item in the budget proposed by the town manager, that item “becomes part of the appropriations for the ensuing fiscal year.”

    Town manager can submit a request for a new appropriation of money. (Charter Section 5.6) Again, nothing about changes being requested by the school committees or library trustees.

    I hope this is clear and puts to rest any incorrect perceptions or interpretations. The Charter proposal is a long and complex document.

    1. Janet’s comment addresses both “checks and balances” and budget. The entire discussion of checks and balances is misleading and meaningless. Municipalities are not required to have separate legislative and administrative bodies with checks and balances as in the federal and state constitutions. There is no check and balance of our current Town Meeting. Janet cites the example from Northampton, where the Mayor vetoed a recent Council action regarding surveillance cameras. If Town Meeting on a citizens’ petition voted to ban surveillance cameras in Amherst, neither the Select Board nor the Town Manager could veto it. The more immediate example in Amherst is the net zero energy bylaw passed at Town Meeting. The intent is good but the proscribed process may block the town from constructing some buildings that are sorely needed. There was no check, no balance, no opportunity for a veto which would require the Town Meeting to reconsider the bylaw.

      That also applies to the budget. When the Town Meeting added money that was not requested or planned in the development of budgets, such as adding library paraprofessionals to the elementary schools, the North Amherst library design, or funds for community services, there was no check and balance, no opportunity to veto subject to override by a supermajority of Town Meeting.

      Several statements about the current budget process need clarification: (1) The town, school and library budgets are not separate. They are presented as a consolidated budget. That is why the budget votes are subparts of a single Warrant Article. (2) The Select Board does not present or approve the budget for municipal functions. It is the Town Manager’s budget. He asks for the Select Board’s input. The Select Board may support it by formal vote, but it is not the board’s budget. The School Committees and Library Trustees approve those budgets. (3) The consolidated budget is approved by the Finance Committee and it presents the budget to Town Meeting. The Finance Committee is not required to accept proposals from the Town Manager, School Committees and Library Trustees. The Finance Committee is a body of the Town Meeting and appointed by the Moderator. Again, there is no check or balance from the Town Manager or the Select Board. (4) The only limitation on Town Meeting is that it cannot vote amounts higher than may be listed in the Warrant because it would be outside the scope of the Article. That is more likely in capital and borrowing Articles. Operating budget Articles do not specify amounts.

      The proposed budget process for the Council with a Town Manager is the process used in the largest number of municipalities in the United States. Councils adopt the budget, usually including the library, which is proposed to it by the Town Manager. Massachusetts communities are different from municipalities elsewhere because in most communities schools are independent taxing authorities and do not receive funds through a city or town budget. A School Board sets its budget and tax rate, which is billed separately from the city or town tax bill.

      With the proposed Charter the veto power on a budget will be with voters by the election of the next Council. If voters do not approve of the budgets developed by the Council, the members who approved that budget will be contested in the next election. The Council is small enough to make their votes visible. That does not happen with 240 Town Meeting members.

      One challenge to a consolidated budget that includes municipal, school and library expenses is the decision to allocate the available funds to these separate functions. Amherst has a process in place that incorporates the cooperation of the elected boards, Town Manager, Superintendent, and Library Director. We have formal structures of the Budget Coordinating Group and Joint Capital Planning Committee. Those bodies are continued in the proposed Charter. The Council and the Manager will respect the school and library budget needs and processes as now.

      The final major difference will be that the current Town Meeting does not meet throughout the year and is not involved with the implementation of budgets. Most members are unaware of the long-term trends in budgets and the consequences of specific budget decisions. For example, at the 2017 Annual Town Meeting, a presentation was made about the need to add active fire fighters to the Fire Department, with a statement from a Fire Fighter. One evening later, a decision was made to add funds for a purpose not recommended by the Town Manager or Finance Committee. No consideration was given to the information presented on the previous night about the priority need at the Fire Department. Amherst will benefit from a Council that meets throughout the year and will have the ability to fully consider the consequences of its decisions, including budget decisions.

      1. I am hoping that everyone who comes to this blog will look at Andy Steinberg’s comment here VERY carefully. It’s worth it.

  5. I’m a little alarmed that Jim Oldham is carrying a grudge about the non-reappointment of Denise Barbaret to the Planning Board by the late Town Manager John Musante, some 9 years later. This is exactly why the non-turnover of Town Meeting is a bad idea!
    He also makes some misstatements:
    “A former manager left Planning Board seats empty rather than appoint someone [Denise Barbaret] opposed to the majority agenda — an agenda that led to the construction of several large dormitory buildings downtown.”
    Assuming that the “several dormitories” are actually the mixed use buildings developed by Archipelago, he fails to note that Denise actually voted with the majority on Boltwood Place (7-0)

  6. I like Jim Oldham’s commentaries in the Bulletin, even though I often disagree. He tends to stick to the substance, and I appreciate that. Instead of focusing on Jim, I prefer to blame the insistence of the unnamed “editors” of the Bulletin for taking up so much space on the Commentary page for their frequently uninformed editorials. I don’t read them, and I must admit I find it somewhat insulting to be lectured by somebody, presumably from across the river, who cannot put his/her name to his/her writing. We once had a Commentary page without this, and I remember that I looked forward to the breadth of opinion each week. I doubt that there was ever a popular demand for the Bulletin’s disembodied view, and now we see that various letter writers are being crowded out. Don’t blame Jim. Blame the honchos at the Bulletin.

  7. Thanks for pointing out that particular sentence. No it’s not egregious, but it’s distracting from the message and facts Mandi Jo was presenting in a logical manner. I’m relying on a back and forth to get at the truth of statements on both sides because I choose to spend my own time on climate issues rather than going into enough depth to figure the charter out myself. I’m one of the uninformed to some degree, we all are really. Which is why it’s great to have a forum like you two have created to drill down. From the back and forth on the committee appointments in these comments, I now have what sounds like the facts of what the current and proposed charter say plus the idea that the practice might be that the manager runs appointments by the Select Board even though it’s not required in the charter. Not relevant to the debate since a future manager might not, but I’m more informed about how my government works.

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