The core function of democratic government is to represent the will of the people. But the Charter Commission repeatedly heard that in our current form of government, many town residents don’t feel represented, don’t know who to call with input or concerns, and don’t feel like they can influence public decision-making unless they themselves participate in long, time-consuming meetings. The new Charter strengthens the ability of our government to represent all of us.
- Representing residents overall (not just those with time to go to meetings). In our current form of government, the 240 residents with time to participate in Town Meeting are involved in decisions that affect our town; the rest of us are on the outside, looking in. The new Charter puts more of an emphasis on representing the will of the broader community, through a Town Council that is specifically designed to represent all the voters and neighborhoods in Amherst.
- It’s clear who represents you (and they can be voted out if they don’t). With 24 Town Meeting members per precinct now, it’s hard to keep track of who represents you and how they voted on key issues. And if you don’t like what they’ve done on your behalf, it’s hard to do anything about it. In half the precincts, voters have no choices because there aren’t enough candidates. The new Charter puts a spotlight on the governing process. It gives us a smaller representative body that can be held accountable by all the voters, rather than a largely self-appointed body where members can vote as they choose without facing any real consequences.
- You know who to call (and your Councilors will expect it). Under the new Charter, District Councilors will serve as a key new point of contact between residents and their local government. As accountable public representatives, it will be in their self-interest to keep you informed and connected to the government that administers Town operations on your behalf. If you have a problem or want to express an opinion, you can call on them to help you navigate the system and resolve the issue.
- You know when to vote (every November). The new Charter moves the Town election day to November, every odd-numbered year between state and federal elections. No more wondering when in March or April you should vote – now you just show up every year, on a Tuesday at the beginning of November, and vote for president, governor, or local officials.
- Keeping representatives close to voters (two-year terms). As in the vast majority of communities with a Council form of government, the new Amherst Charter specifies two-year terms for most elected officials. This lets us have November elections while accommodating Massachusetts law, which makes it very difficult and costly to have local and state/federal elections overlap (as would happen with three-year terms). But it also helps keep elected officials responsive to their constituents, because they have to face the voters every two years.
- “Ranked-choice voting” to be studied for implementation (ensures representatives have majority approval). All 9 members of the Charter Commission supported moving to ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has more than half the vote in first-choices, candidates finishing last are eliminated round-by-round in an instant runoff until one candidate has the majority. Adopted in a range of progressive places from Portland, Maine, to Berkeley, California, it is widely hailed by democracy advocates as a model that more fairly represents the full spectrum of voters.
The new charter offers a variety of ways to participate. Our current Town Meeting offers intensive participation and power for 240 people. The new Charter offers a variety of ways for the other 21,000 registered voters (as well as other residents) to get involved in Town governance.
- Talk to your representatives. The Council itself will be an important gateway for resident engagement, with District Councilors providing a new point of contact between residents and their government. Successful councilors seeking re-election every two years will have a powerful incentive to communicate with constituents and respond effectively to residents’ concerns. If you need help accessing your local government, now you can call a Councilor.
- Come to the new district meetings and public forums. Each Council district will hold constituent meetings at least twice a year, for two-way communication about Town issues, proposals, and concerns. In addition, the Charter creates annual Town Forums on the budget, the master plan, and the schools, with public input required and all residents welcome.
- Talk to the new Community Participation Officer. Many residents may want to get involved in Town governance in a way that works with their life circumstances, but they don’t know how. The Charter proposal includes the new role of a Community Participation Officer, who will help residents figure out how to participate in boards, committees, and campaigning for office. This role, which may be filled by a new or existing employee, includes a particular focus on encouraging underrepresented populations to participate.
- Serve on a board or committee. This proposal retains Amherst’s extensive range of citizen boards and committees. These will continue to provide important opportunities for residents to develop expertise, propose policy changes, and provide oversight to Town government.
- Run for office. Successful District Councilor campaigns will require energy and organization, but also take place on a small enough scale to encourage new candidates to give it a try. In addition, the Town will provide all candidates with a place on the Amherst website for posting campaign positions, helping to lower the cost and level the playing field for new candidates running for office.
- Petition the Council or gather signatures for town-wide referendum. You don’t have to be on the Council to make legislative changes. Voters can collect signatures to force the Council to act on a proposal, or they can force a town-wide vote to either approve a proposal or veto a Council action.
- Vote! (the single most important role in democratic government). We anticipate that the greatest impact of the new Charter on citizen participation will be to expand the number of residents who participate in Town government by voting. Our new November election calendar will make election day a more predictable and accessible event. And a Council ballot that offers each voter only two district-level contests and three town-wide contests will empower voters to judge their representatives by issues and qualifications in a way that Town Meeting ballots seldom attain.
This post is excerpted from the Charter Commission’s final report, which was written by Andy Churchill, Tom Fricke and Nick Grabbe.