Sandy Pooler earned a lot of respect among Amherst residents during the five years he spent at Town Hall as finance director. Two years ago, he left to become deputy town manager in Arlington, but he still keeps an eye on what’s happening in Amherst.
I spoke to him recently about the charter campaign. Even though Pooler no longer lives in Amherst, he made a contribution to Amherst for All, the pro-charter organization. I asked what he thought about the proposal for a 13-member Town Council to replace Town Meeting and the Select Board.
“A smaller group of people can work together more and pontificate less,” Pooler said. “Sometimes there’s a danger of bodies that get too big, and you lose the collegiality and get into factions. A smaller group has to work together and does a better job of talking about issues and considering different points of view and coming to a resolution, rather than just staking out positions and arguing.”
Arlington also has a manager and a large Representative Town Meeting. But Pooler said this form of government works better there than in Amherst.
“Arlington doesn’t have the kind of political chasms that have developed in Amherst,” he said. “Things stay more on an even keel, with reasonable discussion. Last year, we had a proposal for mixed-use zoning in some parts of town, and it passed overwhelmingly. You don’t have the issue here of people thinking the Planning Department is in the pocket of developers.”
Pooler said he has not been impressed with the level of the debate around development in Amherst.
“I thought it was not policy-based,” he said. “It devolved into issues of personality and faction. In my career in municipal government, I’ve seen good and bad policy debates, and in my experience, Amherst has not been a good example of good policy debates.”
In addition to his service in Amherst and Arlington, Pooler worked in Newton for 12 years, first as chief budget officer and then as chief administrative officer.
There’s much more interest in Town Meeting elections in Arlington than in Amherst, he said. And Amherst Town Meeting does not seem to be representative of the town as a whole.
“The first time I sat down at Town Meeting, I was shocked,” he said. “It was skewed in a lot of directions I found sort of surprising. Members were much older than I expected, and almost all white.”
Pooler doesn’t buy the theory that election campaigns for Town Council will be influenced by big financial contributions.
“That doesn’t strike me as a valid concern,” he said. “Amherst has always impressed me as a nice-sized community where people know each other. It won’t be Big Money that will sway people.”
Pooler has a message for Amherst residents who wanted the Charter Commission to recommend a mayor instead of a manager. He said that 90 percent of what a professional manager does is ensuring the efficient delivery of high-quality services, as opposed to making policy decisions.
“A council will be receptive to people’s ideas and will share those ideas with the manager,” Pooler said. “Managers are attuned to the populace. They’re ‘political’ in the best sense of the word, because they’re acutely aware of public sentiment.”
Many people in Amherst would have had a “visceral” reaction to a proposal to have a mayor, he said. “And just because you win elections doesn’t mean you know how to run a government,” he said.
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