Improving the Charter – Regularly


Mandi Jo Hanneke

By now, if you’ve read the charter or followed the conversation, you probably have found things you like about it and things you think could be improved. Maybe you think the Charter Commission forgot to put something in. If the charter passes, can it be changed? And if so, how and when?

The answer is yes, if the charter passes, it can subsequently be amended. State law governs the process. In general, amending the charter requires an act of Town Council. If Town Council passes an amendment by a 2/3rd vote, it goes to the voters for final adoption. This is the process that would govern most changes.1

But there are some changes that can’t be done through this process. According to MGL. Ch. 43B §10, if the proposed charter passes, changes to it that affect “in any way the composition, mode of election or appointment, or terms of office of the legislative body, [or]…the manager” must be proposed  by a new Charter Commission.

That means that the Town Council can’t, on its own motion, submit to the voters proposals to (1) reduce or increase the size of the council or change the make up from 10 district and 3 at large to all at-large (for example); (2) change Council term lengths to 4 years; or (3) change the executive to an elected Mayor. Those changes must be done through a new Charter Commission.

You may be wondering, how often would this occur? The Charter provides for an automatic review in every year ending in 4. So, beginning in 2024, the Council will appoint a special committee to look at the current charter and suggest any changes.

Importantly, nobody on the review committee could hold elected office in Amherst at the time of appointment. So, the committee reviewing the charter for potential changes won’t have current Councilors on it; nor will it have current School Committee members on it.

Of course, the Council could propose a change at any time. But the automatic review provision is important and something that doesn’t exist in the current government. It allows the town’s residents to re-look at the government, see what might not be working from an overarching governance view, and propose changes. It takes some control of proposing amendments away from the Council, making sure that the residents of Amherst have the power to propose changes that they feel are needed.

I won’t pretend that the proposed charter is perfect. It’s not. But it can be changed. And, unlike today, the residents of Amherst will have an automatic opportunity to do so every ten years, beginning just 6 years after adoption. It’s another way the charter returns the power to the people.

1Potential changes under this provision include changing the number of signatures required to run for office (like was done to run for Town Meeting recently), or removing the Transition Provisions article one the transition is complete.

Comments 5

  1. Good points, Mandi Jo. I enjoy reading your engaging, well-written and informative posts re the Charter.

  2. Thanks for this, Mandi. I have a couple of questions, probably with obvious answers, but I just want to make sure. Is there no other way for citizens, besides the mandated appointment of a new Commission every 10 years, to initiate a change to the Charter? And, just out of curiosity, if enough Town Counselors wanted to switch to staggered elections, would that count as changing the “mode of election” or “terms of appointment”? Seems to me, it might go either way.

    1. Post

      There is another way. It’s just not in the proposed charter, as it’s governed by state law. Mass. General Laws Chapter 43B Section 10(b) requires the town council to “consider and vote upon any suggested charter amendment which it would have the power to propose…which..is suggested to it by a petition…signed…by as many registered voters…as would be required to nominate a charter commission member” which is filed with the clerk. MGL Ch. 43B Sec. 5 requires 50 signatures to nominate a charter commission member if Amherst’s population stays under 50,000. So, the residents could propose an amendment outside of the 10 year automatic process by collecting 50 signatures. The amendment has to be one a town council could propose, so it could not be to change the length of term or number of councilors, for example.

      I’m not sure about a change to staggered elections. If the change involved changing from 2 year to 4 year terms, then I would guess it would have to be done by a new charter commission (a change to the “terms of office”) but if it kept the two year terms but went to yearly elections, I don’t know what the AG would determine. I think you’re right that it could go either way.

  3. I can’t find the authority for your statement “it goes to the voters for final approval.” Can you please give the citation?

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      Mass General Laws Ch. 43B Section 11: “A proposed charter amendment shall be similarly submitted to the voters at the first such election…held at least two months after the order proposing such charter amendment becomes effective under section 10.” Section 10 governs the amendment process, with section 10(a) allowing proposed amendments to come from the town council or town meeting and section 10(b) allowing them to come from the mayor in a city with a mayor, the select board in a town, or the people in the form of a petition.

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