Amherst’s new charter combines the thoughtful deliberation and oversight of our Select Board and the neighborhood representation of Town Meeting into a Town Council with benefits of both. It’s been said that the Select Board can deliberate but can’t act, and Town Meeting can act, but can’t deliberate. Most towns our size have combined the roles of Select Board and Town Meeting into a representative Town Council, and that’s what our proposal does as well. A Town Council will have both the power to act and the size and meeting frequency to really discuss important budget and zoning decisions in a timely, thorough, and effective way. And with both district and town-wide representatives, it ensures that all parts of town are heard.
- Town Council meets regularly, year-round, and is small enough for give and take on issues. Like the Select Board, the Town Council will meet regularly, year-round. It will be able to respond to issues as they come up, not once or twice a year like Town Meeting does. And with 13 members rather than Town Meeting’s 240, it will be small enough for real deliberation, not just speech-making.
- Councilors gain full understanding of issues before voting. Town Meeting gets a limited time, once or twice a year, to review a large number of important issues among a group of 240+ people and then vote, ready or not. Zoning articles have been identified as a particular challenge for Town Meeting – complicated, technical, and often unconnected to a larger plan for the Town. The Town Council will be able to take whatever time and input is needed to get a full understanding of each issue before making a decision.
- Council can participate as decisions are shaped (not just vote at end, like Town Meeting). Town Meeting has the power and responsibility of approving budget and zoning, but it isn’t able to affect or discuss the process along the way. It can’t set its own agenda. Instead, Town Meeting meets at the end of an extended warrant development process, and it must vote on what it is given. The Town Council will be able to set its own agenda and timetable and participate as proposals are developed, with community input along the way, for better decision-making.
- Council represents all parts of town. Our Select Board is an effective deliberative body, but there is no requirement that those deliberating represent the different areas of Amherst. The new Town Council will have three members elected town-wide, while the remaining members will be elected from five town districts, two Councilors per district, with each district made up of two of our current voting precincts. As in our current Town Meeting, district representatives in the Town Council will be expected to work for the benefit of the town as a whole, but also will be able to talk about how town-wide policies affect particular neighborhoods.
It also supports better planning for the future. Many participants in the charter process have expressed concern about our capacity to effectively envision and promote appropriate plans for the long term. The proposed Charter improves long-term planning in several ways.
- Master Plan adopted by Town Council, not just the Planning Board. State law only requires that a town’s master plan be developed and adopted by the Planning Board. The Charter proposal goes beyond this minimal requirement, requiring the master plan to be publicly debated and adopted by the Town Council, so that it can serve as an agreed-upon blueprint for the future direction of Amherst. The master plan will then provide a foundation for planning and zoning decisions, helping to ensure that individual zoning decisions are not made in isolation, but rather in the broader context of town interests.
- Planning and zoning boards appointed by Council. The Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals will both be appointed by the Town Council. This will help ensure that these important bodies reflect the concerns of voters town-wide, as expressed by their elected representatives.
- Councilors can be fully informed before voting on zoning. By design, a Council can deliberate throughout the year, take input over the course of multiple meetings, and be fully informed before voting on zoning – whereas Town Meeting is limited to voting up or down on the items presented to members at its necessarily infrequent meetings. With the Town Council, zoning and other bylaws will not be able to be “rushed through,” because the Council is required to discuss bylaws at two separate meetings before voting – and any one Councilor can request postponement to a third meeting for further consideration.
This post is excerpted from the Charter Commission’s final report, which was written by Andy Churchill, Tom Fricke and Nick Grabbe.