Dr. Kate Atkinson on why she’ll vote ‘yes’

This guest post was written by Dr. Kate Atkinson, an Amherst primary-care physician.

When I first moved to Amherst, nearly 20 years ago, I liked the idea of Town Meeting. It seemed a way to make sure that every voice was heard. But when I had occasion to attend, I was discouraged to see how ineffective it was. There were complicated issues to discuss, and TM members didn’t seem to have read the materials but rather mostly commented on what other people said.

When I decided to build a new doctors’ office in town, I was truly appalled at how dysfunctional the TM process appeared to be . Most towns would be happy to have a primary-care doctor’s office within walking distance of a neighborhood, but people testified on far-fetched issues, stating that I would be “dumping toxic waste” and that the only way to get to the office was through a residential neighborhood (not true, it is right off Route 9) and how primary-care doctors don’t make a lot of money, so “we wouldn’t get much tax money from her.”  These things were actually said!

This made me start questioning the process. I realized I didn’t know who my representatives were or where they stood on the issues. I didn’t feel represented at all.

My medical building took two years longer than necessary to complete and my costs were driven up by $100,000. The property taxes on my building  are $30,000 a year, so the town lost $60,000 in revenue. In my mind, the whole process was a lose-lose.

These things that happened made it clear to me that we need more centralized leadership.  We need people elected who want to learn the governmental process, become informed of the issues and work in a collaborative manner with other representatives.

I often hear people say that the charter is pro-business. Well, I do run a small business. I provide medical care to Amherst families and I also live in this town, have had children in the Amherst school system, and care deeply about our community.  I’m not a developer. I’m not Wal-mart.  I’m a small-town Family Doctor who wants what is best for Amherst, which does include finding ways to keep our small local businesses and not drive them out of business (which I have watched happen in droves since living here!).

I’m against big development. I like Amherst’s small-town feel, and was dismayed to see that Town Meeting allowed those huge structures downtown. I hope that a smaller, well-informed leadership will take into account the needs of a diverse population, and I think it’s unlikely they will be pro-development, because they will be elected by Amherst voters. And I think a slick developer will be less able to push through a project if we had a more informed and active group of leaders.

I reviewed the basic concepts of the charter, and it looks like the best of all worlds, a smaller government that is more representative, meets regularly and hopefully stays informed of the issues they vote on, and if people aren’t happy they can be voted out. I originally wanted a mayor, like Northampton has, but now I see the advantages of having more voices than simply one.

This is a pivotal moment for Amherst. We’re in dire need of more effective leadership. The 13 council members will be from different parts of town, and the charter will allow for checks and balances but not be the utter chaos of Town Meeting, where everyone feels they need to speak.

I’m really excited about this opportunity for Amherst and I hope we are able to pass this well-crafted proposal.

If you agree with what Dr. Kate has written, please share her post with your Amherst friends and neighbors. If you are new to this blog and want to sample some of the 40 previous posts, click on “Posts” above.


Comments 8

  1. I joined the Planning Board towards the end of the site plan review process for Dr. Atkinson’s project. I take exception to some of her comments, but I agree with her conclusion–that the proposed new charter will be better than the current one.

    Dr. Atkinson brings up an important point. The ZBA and Planning Boards (executive branch) are part of the checks and balances of our town, and they will remain that way. In some communities, the legislative branch can override the planning board –or act as the planning board, in some cases. That has not happened in Amherst under the current gov’t, and it will not happen with the new.

    The fact that I disagree with Dr. Atkinson about some of her observations, but agree we need a new governmental strcture, is one indication that the new charter is “Amherst for All”.

    1. The public hearing process, which required Dr. Atkinson to keep her lawyers and engineers sitting there on the clock, was very expensive for her, Stephen. And at one Planning Board meeting, her presentation was postponed because people were tired and wanted to go home, too much public comment. And, by the time she could be heard again, her financing changed by 2+ points, adding to the cost over the term of the financing. Under MGL 40A, only Parties in Interest are allowed to speak at Planning Board Hearings, yet the process of dragging out the hearings in such a way as to jeopardize projects such as a badly needed health facility continues. I had a teacher show up at my music school, she moved here from Scotland so her son could go to a special school, and she was unable to get a physical for three years. No doctors were taking new patients. When she finally got to see one, they told her she had cancer and they could have saved her if she had gotten in three years earlier. Dr. Atkinson deserves your fullest attention.

  2. The kind of loose, uninformed talk that Dr. Atkinson references is empowered by Town Meeting. There are no fact-checkers in there, and misinformation between members, either before or during the sessions, goes uncorrected. There are no mechanisms to make sure that we are all operating on agreed-upon facts. Multiply Dr. Atkinson’s experience of additional costs (and the Town’s lost revenue) by the number of individuals trying to get something done in the private sector in town and, after awhile, we’re looking at real money being wasted. All under the radar.

    We need more care and caution about facts.
    We need more opportunity for inquiry, and sincere (not grand-standing) give and take.
    We need to be more careful about what we’re doing.
    Government in an arena is not working.

  3. I was in TM when Dr. Atkinson’s building request was being considered. This was TM at it’s most pure dysfunction. She was made into a villain by the not-in-my-backyard contingency, and it was incredibly embarrassing and infuriating for those of us who were trying to support her terrific project and her desire to locate in Amherst – to provide a family practitioner to the residents of her town. We are incredibly lucky that she persisted, rather than going to Belchertown or Hadley. Most would not have done so, and most have not.

  4. It sounds to me that Town Meeting voted in a zoning change that allowed her to build her building. Didn’t Town Meeting help her? Re: comments by the public and Town Meeting-that’s part of open democratic process and citizen participation. Zoning and school decisions particularly bring out the passions. I lived in Somerville and people’s public comments could burn the hair off your head.

  5. Yes, Town Meeting helped her (and future similar medical practices).
    Do we really need 254 legislators to make that decision?
    I think 13 legislators would have reached the same conclusion, and the other 241 neighbors could have been doing other good things for the community.

  6. Why does the plan for a new form of government have to be an all or nothing proposition? What if the proposal was to try the new system out for a few years, two or three, etc. and then require a vote at the end of that time to either keep the new system, or automatically roll back to the current one if that vote fails? Try it before you buy it.

    1. The charter isn’t written with a sunset clause, as you propose above. But, the Charter does have an automatic review provision that requires a review committee be appointed in all years ending in 4. That committee will be able to look at what is working and what might need improvement and propose changes. More about that will be posted on January 31st.

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