Opponents of Amherst’s new charter have put forward a series of questionable arguments to try to convince residents to vote to keep the status quo on March 27. In the spirit of David Letterman and Top 40 radio, I am counting them down here.
10. “Everything I love about Amherst is at stake.” If the charter passes, we will still have excellent teachers, dedicated public safety workers, abundant land protected from development, and a wide range of cultural opportunities. Amherst will still be Amherst. The biggest change is that we will have decision-makers who are accountable to voters and fully informed about the issues, deliberating openly year-round and required to reveal conflicts of interest.
9 . “Amherst’s form of Town Meeting is used by hundreds of towns in Massachusetts.” Wrong. Only 10 percent of the state’s cities and towns have Representative Town Meeting, and that number has been declining. Of the 45 communities that, like Amherst, have 35,000+ residents, 38 have councils. Amherst’s Town Meeting system is very different from Open Town Meeting, which operates in 74 percent of the state’s communities, mostly small towns.
8. “The charter will cost a lot more.” Stipends will cost $75,000 more a year, but that’s less than one one-thousandth of the budget. And that gap will be reduced by biannual elections, less time-wasting by town employees waiting to speak at Town Meeting, greater efficiency, and more access to grants. The charter will not cause taxes to increase. And any cost increase is dwarfed by Town Meeting’s rejection of $34 million in state money for new schools.
7. “The council will be dominated by men.” Who thinks that Amherst women will be too shy to run? Or that Amherst voters will be too sexist to elect them? We have a long history of gender equity in our elected officials, and there’s no reason to believe that will suddenly change with a council. Cambridge, the only community in the state to give a lower percentage of its vote to Donald Trump than Amherst, has four women on its nine-member council, and one of them is the chair.
6. “There will be no checks and balances.” Actually, the town manager as executive and the council as legislature will balance each other, with the council reviewing the manager’s choices for department heads. Voters will have more power than they do now, to select the decision-makers, unseat councilors and override council actions. And where are the checks and balances now? Most Town Meeting decisions are final.
5. “Councilors will raise their own pay.” The Charter Commission created a disincentive for councilors to increase their stipends. They can raise them only in the first 18 months of their terms, and any raise wouldn’t be effective until after the next election, thus making raises politically risky. And those $5,000 stipends for councilors, which will make it more attractive for low-income residents to run, are far below Northampton’s $9,000 and Cambridge’s $80,000.
4. “Bigger is better.” The “no” campaign is trying to convince you that a system with 240+ Town Meeting members, half of whom are self-selected, is more democratic than one with 13 councilors. A large group of decision-makers without a clear mandate from voters is not more democratic than a smaller group directly chosen by voters. The true test of democracy is not size but the extent to which voters can choose the people who will make decisions on their behalf.
3. “Elections will be controlled by large donors.” Candidates for council will need money only for lawn signs, brochures, and maybe Facebook and newspaper ads. Donations over $50 will be made public, plus there’s a limit of $1,000, and getting that amount from one donor would raise suspicions. Amherst voters are too smart to be influenced by wealthy donors. In Greenfield last November, six progressive council candidates were elected while spending an average of $782, and one beat an opponent who spent nine times as much.
2. “Zoning changes will be easy to get.” The percentage approval required before the council can approve zoning changes will be higher than in Town Meeting, especially if the owners of nearby property object. Ten of the 13 council members will represent neighborhoods, as opposed to the town as a whole, and will be keenly aware of what their constituents want. Zoning may be looser or it may be tighter, but it will certainly be more in tune with voters’ wishes.
1. “This is all about development.” The “yes” campaign is a broad coalition of residents who believe that it’s important to have a democratically elected council to facilitate an informed debate about the trade-offs and ramifications of future development. The council will hold annual forums on the master plan, and the neighborhood councilors will make sure local concerns are considered. And if you don’t like the height of those two new downtown buildings, remember that it was approved by Town Meeting.
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