Nick Grabbe and Andy Churchill
Amherst may seem like an island sometimes, but it’s not. People all across the country have wrestled with this question: “What’s the best system of local government for representing the people and making good decisions?”
So what can we learn from looking outward, at how other communities govern themselves?
First, the council/manager structure proposed in the new charter is the most popular form of local government in the country. Nationwide, it is used in more than half the communities with populations over 10,000. It governs about one-third of the U.S. population – over 105 million people.
The council-manager form of government was born out of the progressive reform movement over 100 years ago, according to the International City/County Management Association.
“It was created to combat corruption and unethical activity within local government by promoting non-political management that is effective, transparent, responsive and accountable,” according to the ICMA web site. “It recognizes the critical role of elected officials as policy-makers, who focus on mapping out a collective vision for the community and establishing the policies that govern it. It also recognizes the need for a highly qualified individual who is devoted exclusively to the delivery of services to residents.”
In this form of government, the elected council acts as a legislative body, approving the budget, adopting local laws and regulations, and focusing on big-picture goals. It hires a chief executive officer based on education, experience and skills, not political allegiance or support. It’s similar to the board of directors/CEO structure used in complex nonprofit and business organizations, but with the board being accountable to the voters.
Council/manager systems are set up to better manage fiscal complexities and economic development through a more nimble legislature. Further, they can produce savings for towns, through decreased operating costs, increased efficiency and productivity, improved revenue collection, and effective use of technology, according to the ICMA. Their strongest features are flexibility and clearly defined roles.
Turning to Massachusetts, the Department of Revenue noted in 2016 that communities begin turning away from Town Meeting and toward council forms of government “when the traditional, organizationally flatter and less legislatively nimble town model increasingly strains to effectively manage fiscal complexities, economic development, and service demands” as populations grow.
Of the 45 Massachusetts municipalities with more than 35,000 people, only seven (including Amherst) still have Town Meeting forms of government, the report says. The other 38 (84 percent) have town or city councils.
Framingham abandoned its Representative Town Meeting system last year. The remaining communities with this system of government and populations of 35,000+ are Natick, Shrewsbury, Billerica, Arlington, Plymouth and Brookline — and Amherst.
Of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns, 259 (74 percent), have Open Town Meetings. These systems are different from Amherst’s because any resident can attend, speak and vote. Most of these are small towns, and Town Meeting typically takes just one day. Hadley, Leverett, Shutesbury, Pelham and Belchertown have Open Town Meeting systems, and Amherst had this form of government until 1938.
Forty-four communities in Massachusetts have a mayor as their chief executive, working with an elected council. Locally, Northampton, Easthampton, and Greenfield have this model.
Thirteen communities in Massachusetts have the council/manager form of government proposed for Amherst. These include comparable-size communities like Watertown, Bridgewater, Barnstable, Chelsea, Randolph, and Franklin, smaller towns like East Longmeadow, Palmer, Winthrop and Southbridge, and cities such as Cambridge, Lowell and Worcester (which also have “weak” mayors whose primary role is chairing the council). The Cambridge council is shown in photo.
For people concerned that Amherst’s decision-making body will be too small, of these council/manager towns only Barnstable has a council as large as Amherst’s would be, at 13 members, with 10 elected from neighborhoods and three by the entire town.
Amherst has had a town manager since 1954, and the current one is Paul Bockelman. The charter proposal would not change this aspect of town government.
So the proposed council-manager form of government is not some weird experiment. It is a progressive reform that has been used for years, in communities in Massachusetts and across the country.
As Amherst Select Board member Andy Steinberg has noted, “A council and professional manager is the most common form of municipal government in this country. It will provide a more informed, efficient, effective government for Amherst. It will also more clearly respond to the wishes of voters, the core of a democratic government.”
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