Niels la Cour
The writer of this guest post worked in the Amherst Planning Department from 1997 to 2007 and coordinated the Master Plan process. He is now senior physical planner at UMass.
So many times over the past 20 years I have wanted to hold up a big mirror in Town Meeting. I’d like to ask members to take a good look at themselves.
I call the Town Meeting system a Tyranny of Those with Time. Members do not fully recognize that their goals are shared by many of us, but they don’t understand how to sustain them financially.
That lack of understanding was on full display in the Spring 2016 Town Meeting. I listened intently as the chair of the Finance Committee gave her report and talked about the $800,000 in new revenue from a handful of new development projects. I was baffled by the fact that it didn’t elicit any reaction from Town Meeting members. (The school decision, in which Town Meeting turned down $34 million in state money, is an example of its fiscal irresponsibility.)
By always preserving land and passing zoning that inhibits needed development, Town Meeting has created an situation where we have lost 35 percent of our young families in the last decade. We have never reaped the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, which could have paid for more land preservation, police and firefighters, and better public education for the families who do live here.
In Town Meeting, one to two dozen people can sow enough fear and doubt in a few more dozen people, and then they can get enough support to either kill sound zoning or pass a well-intended but ill-conceived zoning that depresses our economy. And they can do this continually, because 80 percent of the seats in Town Meeting are not contested and only 10 percent of the registered voters have participated in recent elections when there’s nothing extra on the ballot.
When I came to work in the Amherst Planning Department 20 years ago, I felt that I had found my dream job. I got paid to do good things for my community. I worked in an open and honest place where we went to extraordinary lengths to operate an open and transparent government. Amherst ranked #5 in the best places to bike in America, according to a magazine I read in my first days at work. I knew I had found the best place to live and raise a family.
I got to facilitate a Master Plan process that allowed over 1,000 residents to participate and have their voices heard and documented. Having read all of those words, ideas, feelings, in the comments and surveys, I knew that I lived in a community where a vast majority of people cared deeply about the environment and living sustainably.
It is that knowledge of our community’s shared goals that frustrates me with our current system of government and its inability to realize our potential.
But what saddens me most is the fact that Town Meeting members are paranoid about the moderate people who understand that you have to have economic development along with environmental preservation. They question our motives while failing to see that we share core values about our community.
Town Meeting members projected all the conspiracies onto planners and staff, who they thought were surely in bed with the developers. I realized then that they project those things on us, because that’s the way they operate. They are self-righteous and believe that the ends justify the means.