Charter keeps what works well now – From the Majority Report

Amherst’s proposed Charter does not change our entire government. It keeps a number of key features that have worked well for us.

For example, most residents who the Charter Commission talked to said that the day-to-day management of Town functions is good. We have skilled administrators, financial stability, and a wide range of services. We have checks and balances between professional staff and citizen representatives. And we have a variety of citizen boards and committees. The proposed Charter preserves all of these elements.

Professional management for a complex environment. With an $86 million Town budget, three institutions of higher learning, including the state flagship university campus, and a rich diversity of people and perspectives, Amherst is a complicated town to administer. The new Charter maintains our tradition of hiring a chief administrator based on expertise in municipal management. We will continue to have a full-time, professional Town Manager to handle day-to-day operations: service delivery, budget development and management, hiring and supervision of Town staff, procurement, legal, finance, and so on. For more on this, click here.

Checks and balances. As with our current system, we will continue to have citizen representatives as a check and balance on the actions of professional staff. Currently the Select Board hires and supervises the Town Manager and develops key policy priorities, and Town Meeting reviews and approves the Town budget. The Town Council will continue these roles. In addition, the Town Manager’s appointments of department heads and members of boards and committees will need to be approved by the Town Council. For more on this, click here.

Resident boards and committees. The Amherst website currently lists 50 separate boards and committees, offering hundreds of opportunities for residents to participate in the operation of our Town. The vast majority of these will continue, and the new Charter creates additional options, such as commissions on ranked-choice voting and participatory budgeting.

Voter initiatives. Under our current Town Government Act, residents can collect signatures to require our legislature or the voters at large to vote on citizen proposals. Under the new Charter, residents retain this power. In addition, the new Charter adds a “voter veto,” which allows voters to collect signatures to force a town-wide vote that can overturn a Town Council decision. For more on this, click here.

Budget and Finance committees. The new proposal retains the key budget and finance committees that promote high-quality fiscal decision-making. The Budget Coordinating Group and the Joint Capital Planning Committee will continue to bring together elected board members and fiscal managers from municipal, school, and library departments for budget planning. The Finance Committee will become a committee of the Town Council, and may include non-Council members with fiscal expertise as well as Council members.

This post is excerpted  from the Charter Commission’s final report, which was written by Andy Churchill, Tom Fricke and Nick Grabbe.


Comments 4

    1. Post

      Professional staff would be the Manager and Town staff (there’s also the Superintendent and Library Director and relevant staff). Citizen representatives would be Town Council, School Committee, Library Trustees and other elected officials.

      Here’s an example of checks and balances between the two:

      The Manager will appoint all department heads and board and committee members (except Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals). But the Council must confirm those appointments. This provides a “check” on the Manager’s appointment authority.

      There is also the Council’s investigatory power. The Charter permits the legislative branch to investigate the conduct of any Town agency (Executive Branch) other than the Library or Schools. This provides yet another check on the Manager and rest of the Executive Branch — again, a check that doesn’t exist currently. Town Meeting has no such authority.

      For a broader discussion of checks and balances see the post “Checks and Balances – Let’s Compare.”

  1. Where are the ‘checks’ on the Council’s power? What independent government body can check or stop the Council?

    And the Town Manager is not a ‘branch of government,’ s/he is an employee of the Council, right? Don’t all employers have a ‘check’ on their employees?

    1. Post

      I’ve described the checks on the Council in the post “Checks and Balances – Let’s Compare.” But here they are again:
      1) The voter veto and resident initiative petition procedures in Article 8. These options allow for the voters to overrule a council action or enact their own legislation.
      2) Elections themselves — more frequent per legislator, potentially more competitive and issues-based, and easier for voters to keep track of their representatives and hold them accountable. Nick has described in detail how campaigns and competitive elections allow residents to actually choose who represents them, and for the legislators to know what residents stand for. The current system is woefully inadequate in this regard.
      3) The required two readings of bylaws before final passage. This allows time for residents who casually follow the government to read about the potential bylaw and contact their representatives with an opinion. Enough outrage and the bylaw won’t clear the second reading. This option isn’t present in the current system.

      In the proposed charter, the Town Manager is the Chief Executive Officer, head of the Executive Branch.

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