Amherst residents who are undecided about our town’s new charter should look at who’s supporting each side – with their endorsements and their dollars.
On the “yes” side, supporters include current and former Select Board and School Committee members, our longtime state representative, and our longtime Congressman. These people have been elected to represent us, they’ve given of themselves in service to Amherst for years, and they know how government works. In addition, more than 100 current and former members of Town Meeting know how it works all too well, and want a different system.
Amherst for All, the group backing the new charter, has received donations from a wide range of people. There were 160 donors in 2017, who gave an average of $70, with the largest contribution $250. It is the same small-donor model that worked for Bernie Sanders.
On the “no” side, the most vocal people are Town Meeting members. Only one has been elected to the Select Board, School Committee, or higher office. The leadership of the three groups fighting the new charter is mostly Town Meeting members.
It’s not surprising that they are trying to convince you to vote “no.” Town Meeting members have a personal stake in the outcome. They likely want to protect their privileged status as members of the elite group of super-voters, most of whom have been elected without facing serious competition. They get to make the final decisions in Amherst – without being held accountable for them.
Look who has sent money to anti-charter groups: two-thirds of the contributions over $50 in 2017 came from current Town Meeting members themselves, four-fifths if you include former members.
And if you’ve heard that the pro-charter side represents Big Money, consider this. One donor contributed $2,400 to the anti-charter groups (nearly 10 times the largest donation to Amherst for All). Just four people contributed a total of $5,000, or nearly half of all the money the three groups raised.
While Amherst for All received $3,376 in donations of $50 or less, the three anti-charter groups received only $380. So which side has supporters with big pockets?
The charter debate does not break down along the typical liberal-conservative lines. This is not Bernie vs. Hillary, it’s not immigrant rights vs. America First, and it’s not Black Lives Matter vs. Support Your Local Police.
It’s not about development, and it’s not about money influencing elections. It’s not about whether Amherst women will be involved in local government (they will, no matter what voters choose on March 27). And it’s not about whether Amherst will have a mayor (it won’t, no matter how the election goes).
What it’s really about is which of the two systems better reflects the wishes of Amherst voters by giving them real choices. We currently have a system in which the majority of decision-makers are unaccountable to voters, and many don’t understand the issues to be decided. We currently have a system that is so unappealing to voters that only 10 percent show up at the polls if there’s nothing extra on the ballot.
We have a system that turned down $34 million in state money for new schools. We have a system that has produced an average annual property tax bill that’s 42 percent higher than Northampton’s.
A “yes” vote on March 27 will give Amherst a 13-member council, with 10 members elected from neighborhoods and three by the whole town, while keeping day-to-day professional management. It will give candidates and voters strong motivation to participate in biannual elections, and it will produce decision-makers who have the time and knowledge to understand the issues before voting on them.
Most important, our Town Council representatives will treat voters as constituents, listening to their opinions and helping them understand how local government works and how they can participate in it. And if voters don’t like what their representatives decide, they can throw them out.
Many Amherst residents are confused about how to vote on March 27. The charter is complicated and many of the voices are strident. I encourage everyone to look at who’s backing each side, and to follow the money.
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