Follow the money – and the endorsements

Nick Grabbe

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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Comments 12

  1. I’m guessing this post will stand without comment from the groups opposing the charter, because the hard data you’re citing here (from this week’s campaign finance disclosures) directly undercut one of their most prominent, longstanding talking points: That support for the charter is funded by big-money interests. It’s amazing to me how quickly that argument got completely flipped. All it took was a little transparency by way of campaign finance reports.

  2. So much to say!

    I am against this particular proposed Charter because I am not comfortable that the legislative and most of the executive branches are collapsed into one 13 member Town Council. I have studied the proposed Charter, I’ve read this blog, and I’m still not convinced. That is my right, of course.

    I do resent Nick implying that all members of the NTC and other opposition groups are a “privileged status as members of the elite group of super-voters.” Really? One person, one vote. No one’s vote is valued more than any other person’s vote. That’s the basis of our democracy.

    As far as contributions, some folks may give more money than can afford, others may give less than they can. We can’t assume people’s reasons. One could say that Amherst for All has convinced everyone to give less to look like they are not “an elite.” I do not presume to know why each person donates the amount they choose to give towards a cause.

    And I would say that Town Meeting did not have the final say for the school override. Voters did. One person, one vote.

    Northampton has less property taxes because they don’t have a state university in their town. They only have Smith College. We taxpayers have to make up the difference because we don’t receive taxes from almost two-thirds of our residents. It has almost nothing to do with having a Town Council. It has to do with our unique demographics and the lack of state funding to support town’s who need services for students.

    I agree that many folks have not yet studied the issues. Let’s stick to talking about how the proposed Charter might work. Let’s turn down the hyperbole and incorrect statements. Thank you.

    1. Post

      Terry, you have put forward several assertions that I believe are not supported by the facts.
      First, Town Meeting killed the school proposal, and gave up the $34 million in state money, on Nov. 14, 2016. Voters had previously approved the spending, and all that remained was for Town Meeting to approve the bond authorization. But Moderator Jim Pistrang allowed a renewed debate on the school plan itself, not strictly on whether the town could afford the borrowing, and opponents were able to get enough votes to kill the project. On March 28, 2017, as part of the annual town election, 2,746 voters voted to override Town Meeting’s decision and 2,104 voted not to. That was 56 percent, but short of the two-thirds needed.
      Second, you have misread my statement about a “privileged status as members of an elite group of super-voters.” If you reread my post, you’ll see that I was referring not to the leadership of Not This Charter but to Town Meeting itself. I have great respect for the civic engagement of individual Town Meeting members; it’s the institution I have problems with.
      Third, I have spent many years researching why Amherst’s property taxes are so high. Certainly, the presence of UMass increases our costs for police, fire and public works, and we do deserve more funding from the state to compensate for these costs. But UMass provides many advantages for Amherst as well, not just cultural but also economic, in terms of having an economy that has lots of steady jobs and is buffered from the impact of recessions. I believe we should take greater advantage of the potential for clean economic development arising from UMass-related research. But I have concluded that the big reason for the high taxes is that we have high expectations for municipal services (high administrative salaries and a low teacher-student ratio in the schools, for example) but a narrow tax base. While Northampton relies on residents for a higher percentage of its property tax revenue than Amherst.
      On contributions to the charter organizations, it is clear from the numbers that Amherst for All has received money from a wide range of people while the anti-charter groups have relied on a few big donors. And yet charter opponents maintain that the “yes” side is the side of Big Money? I don’t get your argument. Carol Gray was allowed to say in the Bulletin that the “yes” campaign had received significant donations from “developers, property management companies, and other types of investment or business interests,” but she did not provide any evidence that this is in fact true.
      On the legislative and executive branches, the way I see it is that the town manager is the executive branch in both the current and the proposed systems. The Town Council is clearly the legislative branch under the charter proposal. I know people say Town Meeting is a legislative branch now, but it seldom initiates laws but rather rules on proposals made by others, and it doesn’t deliberate in the way one normally associates with a legislative branch. For more on this, see Mandi’s post on checks and balances.

  3. Reading the Not This Charter filing is interesting.
    I don’t understand how Green Tree LTD, one of the largest developers and landlords in Amherst, can be “retired”? Can a real estate development company retire? The company owns the large apartment/commercial complex within sight of my house.
    The same family owns Historic Enterprises LLC which also donated to Not This Charter.
    And at least one family member also donated.
    That’s the family that tried to stop a mixed use building from being built across the street from their rental properties. That lawsuit failed.

  4. Nick,
    I am glad to see that you read my quote in the paper about the “Yes” campaign receiving donations from
    “developers, property management companies, and other types of investment or business interests.” You mentioned that I provided no evidence. I’m happy to provide more of a context here.

    As for evidence of contributors to Amherst for All who are developers, property managers, and investors, the recent campaign finance report included these donors: Cowls Building Supply, Cinda Jones, Jerry Guidera, Donald Laverdiere, Ronald Laverdiere, Julie Marcus (the principal for a firm of environmental consultants that “has helped public and private clients overcome environmental challenges and move their projects forward”), Theodore Parker (President of Kohl Construction), Jacob Macko who works for W.D. Cowls Land Co., and others who are connected to or are property managers, realtors, planners or other business interests.

    I think your writing is a bit misleading, Nick, where you say “We have a system that turned down $34 million in state money for new schools.” You neglected to say that in addition to Town Meeting votes on the school project, there was also a TOWNWIDE referendum that failed to gain the 2/3 vote needed to borrow the money necessary to proceed with the proposed school project. The townwide vote in favor of the school project fell more than 500 votes short of obtaining that needed 2/3 majority. (See this link: https://amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/42942) Interestingly, the Town Meeting vote on the same issue almost perfectly mirrored the town wide vote. The representative town meeting seems to be quite representative of the town at large on this vote.

    A couple other corrections:
    You said, “On the “no” side, the most vocal people are Town Meeting members. Only one has ever been elected to office by the entire town.” Those listed as chairs of the anti-charter groups include Meg Gage, Julia Rueschemeyer, and Gerry Weiss (all of whom were elected in a townwide election to the Charter Commission and Gerry who was elected to the Select Board); me (elected townwide to the office of Library Trustee); and Michael Burkhart (elected townwide to the Amherst Housing Authority). So, if one crunches the numbers, five of the six people listed as coordinating the anti-charter groups have been elected in townwide elections.

    Another clarification: the larger “donations” you point out to the anti-charter campaigns were specifically noted as “LOANS.”

    Carol Gray

    1. Post

      Carol, the eight donors you cite did in fact give $100 apiece to Amherst for All in 2017. But they represented only 5 percent of the contributors and just 7 percent of the donations. I don’t think that’s a significant influence. In contrast, the donors to the anti-charter group were, by my calculation, 67 percent current Town Meeting members, 80 percent if you include former members. All of these people are entitled to contribute, but anyone can see that the influence of these eight contributors to Amherst for All is much less than that of Town Meeting members who want to retain their power by giving money to anti-charter groups.
      And how do Cowls Building Supply and Julie Marcus count as “developers, property management companies, and other types of investment or business interests”? And what do you have against local businesses?
      On the school issue, Town Meeting declined to approve the bond authorization after the moderator allowed debate on the project itself and not strictly on the town’s ability to borrow the money. That was what killed the project and caused the town to lose $34 million in state money. The referendum last spring, which got 56 percent of the vote but failed to get two-thirds, was on whether to overturn Town Meeting’s action. Can we agree on that?
      Thank you for your correction on more than one leader of anti-charter groups having been elected to townwide office. I have changed the post to make that sentence correct, and have inserted the fact that some of the contributions were in the form of loans.

    2. Maybe we should call it a “draw” in the claims that either side is dominated by “developers, property managers, and investors”?
      By my count, at least 15% of the donors to Not This Charter are “developers, property managers, and investors”, including one of the largest developers in Amherst.
      I’m curious how many anti-charter neighbors live in houses built by Kohl’s? on land that was once owned by Jones/Cowls? constructed from Cowl’s building materials? Oops.

  5. I’m at a loss to understand a campaign strategy that demonizes those individuals who grow the tax base of the town. Should we similarly challenge those whose votes in TM seem to be directed toward maintaining the Town as a kind of park, in a time warp, with costs for town, school, and library services outrunning revenues? The underlying logic appears to be that some folks’ motives are pure, while others are not. It’s a particular, peculiar world view, without the shades of gray, and one should examine its premises before getting sucked into arguing on its terms.

  6. In addition to my profession as a builder – of which I am proud and for which I feel no need to apologize – I am the following:

    – born and raised in a Massachusetts town with town meeting
    – a resident of Amherst for twenty six years
    – a parent of three adult children who attended Amherst schools
    – town meeting member
    – member of the Amherst Historical Commission
    – vice president of the board of the Amherst Survival Center
    – lifelong registered Democrat
    – unrepentant liberal
    – loyal and vocal defender and critic of Amherst

    Anyone who thinks that my personal contribution of $100 is proofthat AFA is in the pocket of “developers” should give me a call. Seriously. I am easy to find. I will gladly explain the many ways I believe our community could be better served by our government, few of which have anything to do with what I do for a living.

    1. I invite everyone to look carefully at Ms. Gray’s argument above. Do we wish to personalize the debate in this way, by suggesting that there are those involved in politics here who do not have the Town’s best interests in mind? Is that the way we want to go? Ted Parker above has felt the need to list his bona fides for good citizenship here. But should that really be necessary?

      1. I presented the list not in my defense (which I do not need) but to remind Ms. Gray to be cautious about making assumptions about a anyone’s motives based on a single one of their qualities. It may be politically expedient, but is reductive and disinformative.

        The momentum and facts are clearly not in their favor. Resorting to ad hominem innuendo is a clear indication that they are playing defense.

        “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell”

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