Before retiring in 2003, I covered Amherst’s Town Hall and Town Meeting for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I have been a member of Town Meeting since 2005 (also for three years in the early 1970s), and I served on the Finance Committee for 12 years and chaired it for three.
So I have a pretty good understanding of how Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting works.
It is not representative of the town’s residents, as anyone watching a session can see. Proportionately, there are many more white heads and white faces – including mine – than in the general population. It doesn’t even represent the will of the voters. In November 2016 a clear majority of voters, more than 2,000, approved town spending for a state-approved, state-subsidized plan to replace two deteriorating school buildings. In January 2017, a minority of Town Meeting members – just 92 people – torpedoed that plan.
Town Meeting’s members are largely invisible. Many members – including me – have never had to compete for their seats, because in many precincts there are not enough, or just barely enough, candidates. Constituents usually don’t know who their representatives are. Some Town Meeting members have even declined to receive emails from constituents through the mechanism set up by the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee.
The 13 councilors proposed in our new charter would be much more out in the open. For one thing, you could watch 13 people in action much more easily than 254 Town Meeting members. It’s true that you can find the attendance and voting records of Town Meeting representatives on the town web site, if you’re willing to slog through voting records for each session while simultaneously examining the Town Meeting warrant to decipher what each vote was about. Voting and attendance records of 13 councilors would be much easier to access.
Amherst residents don’t have a real voice. In an open Town Meeting, registered voters can sit anywhere they like and vote on every issue. People who live in Amherst are entitled to speak at our representative Town Meeting only if the moderator calls on them. But they have to sit in the back of the auditorium, and they can’t vote. Even if Town Meeting members know how their constituents want them to vote, they don’t have to do it.
Town Meeting is slow. Budget issues, land acquisition or sales, zoning amendments, and other bylaw changes happen only twice a year at the required annual Town Meeting in the spring and the special Town Meeting that is usually scheduled in the fall. The warrant for those meetings must be set several weeks in advance of the first session. If something new comes up requiring Town Meeting approval, another special Town Meeting has to be scheduled.
A council that meets twice a month would be far more nimble at responding to town needs. Councilors who meet that often would gain a greater understanding of the day-to- day workings and needs of the town than Town Meeting members get. Currently, dozens of proposals on a Town Meeting warrant must be decided within a few weeks by people who haven’t previously been paying attention, don’t fully understand the details, and often haven’t read the written information sent to them.
The current system makes budget development difficult. Because of Town Meeting timing requirements, annual budgets are drafted in January, well before the town knows how much state aid it will get, and voted on by Town Meeting in April or May. A big chunk of Amherst’s revenue, about 18 percent, comes from state aid. Under the proposed charter, budgets would be proposed in March, with final budget approval by June 30. The extra two months would allow for a more accurate estimate of the amount to expect from the Commonwealth.
The proposed charter provides for more public participation in town government than there is now. It would require the council president to call at least two public forums a year to get feedback on the master plan and on the budget.
Town Councilors representing each ward would have to hold at least two public meetings a year to hear and talk with their constituents. A public comment period would be required at all meetings of the Council, the School Committee, and the Library Trustees. Right now the Select Board and the other two committees may schedule time for public comments, but they don’t have to.
Under the proposed charter, the Town Manager would appoint a community participation officer to encourage and provide support for residents who want to participate in our local government. We don’t have anything like that right now.
Furthermore, Section 8 of the proposed charter sets up procedures for town residents to call for open meetings to consider any proposal; to petition the Council, School Committee, and/or Library Trustees; to submit initiative petitions; and to veto decisions of the Council.
I’m going to vote for this charter to give Amherst residents a greater voice in our town’s government.
If you agree with this post, please share it with your Amherst friends and neighbors. If you’d like to read a quick scan of 40 previous posts, click on “Posts” above. If you’d like to receive email notifications of new posts, go to “Suscribe” in the upper righthand corner.