Mandi Jo Hanneke
Amherst is a pretty great place to live right now. So you may be asking yourself, why move away from Town Meeting? After all, it seems to have served Amherst well.
My response: because Amherst can do better. And the proposed charter will move us in that better direction.
Let’s first acknowledge that much of what we love about Amherst has little, if anything, to do with our Representative Town Meeting form of government.
The summer farmer’s market, the Taste of Amherst, the Amherst Cinema, the fair on the Common, and Atkins Market. All of these beloved events and places aren’t there because of Town Meeting. They exist because Amherst residents, businesses and charitable organizations make them happen.
Then there’s the abundant conservation land. Yes, Representative Town Meeting helped preserve the land, but the Select Board routinely supported these purchases, and the master plan specifically recognized the residents’ desire to preserve it. There is little that charter opponents can point to that would indicate that a Town Council would act differently, especially since those purchases further the master plan, which would be adopted by the Council.
Let’s now turn to why I believe Amherst can be even better and why a Town Council is part of that.
Adopting the charter will create a government that actually knows what the residents as a whole want. With almost no competition to be elected and absolutely no campaigning happening for those elections, Town Meeting members do not have to ask for votes or set out their positions on the issues before being elected. This creates a system where those enacting Town policies and budgets are not able to claim they are voting the wishes of the residents.
Amherst needs a government that knows what the residents want. Currently, we don’t have one. Increased voting, actual campaigns to win a seat on the body enacting budgets and bylaws, and required outreach to the residents will change that.
When the town’s legislature actually knows what the residents want, then acts in conformity with that knowledge, there will likely be less divisiveness in town. While everyone might not agree on the vote, they’ll at least be able to acknowledge that the action was supported by the majority of the residents.
Legislators who meet year-round will be thinking about Town issues year-round. The occasional, marathon structure of Town Meeting means that those voting on budgets, bylaws and citizen proposals that they may not be familiar with or that they haven’t thought about for most of the year. This structure leads to decisions that are made in a vacuum – well-meaning, but made without considering all the resulting consequences.
Our town is complex, having the flagship campus of the state university, two other colleges, farmland, conservation land, and many residents who don’t live here year-round. We need decision-makers to have a robust knowledge of the complexities facing Amherst and the ability to connect individual proposals to those complexities in order to make better decisions. A Town Council that meets regularly, year-round, and receives updates at those meetings from the Manager about the decisions and issues being faced, will be able to connect the dots. Town Meeting, by the nature of its structure and infrequency, struggles with this.
Yes, Amherst is a great place to live. But we can be better. We can involve more residents in Town government at a level that’s right for each person. We can have meaningful dialogue between decision-makers and residents. We can have legislators who make decisions, not in a vacuum, but with full knowledge of the struggles facing Amherst, including finances, capital projects, planning, and zoning, and other issues. We can have legislators who actually know what the residents want, then act in conformity with that knowledge.
A Town Council will do this. Town Meeting cannot.