Top Ten Questionable ‘No’ Arguments

Nick Grabbe

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.

Please share this post with any Amherst friends and neighbors who are undecided about how they will vote on the new charter March 27. If you are new to this blog and want a quick scan of 50 past posts, click on “Posts” above. If you’d like email notices of future posts, go to “Subscribe” at upper right.


Comments 12

  1. On January first, 241 of us will be able to use our 40 hours/year of volunteerism on something other than town meeting. That’s almost 10,000 hours/year (expert level!) of human capital that can be put to great use.

    1. That may be the biggest side benefit of our adoption of the charter updates, and I’m glad you mentioned it. Town meeting is full of awesome people with great ideas. It will be a fearsome thing when we unleash all that talent.

      Overall, this is a great, useful post. Charter opponents cycle through so many of these arguments that I tend to forget them after a while. Although the latest one, the “everything I love about Amherst” message, dials the drama up to 11. Probably won’t forget that one.

      1. Seriously, think about the fact that there are Town Meeting people serving on the Town Meeting Advisory Committee, which was recently created to advise and educate fellow Town Meeting members on the issues. (!) Set aside the fundamental ridiculousness of that for a moment, and think about all the time those people pour into such a committee. There has to be a more productive, valuable use for all that brainpower, civic-mindedness, and goodwill.

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          The creation of the Town Meeting Advisory Committee is essentially an admission that Town Meeting members have been making decisions that affect all of us based on inadequate information. Thank you for bringing up the point that there are many capable, thoughtful, dedicated people in Town Meeting. The problem is the governmental structure itself, not in the people who participate in it.

        2. Mr. Hazlip’s comment reminds me of something I’ve observed over the years: nothing wastes sincere volunteer time quite like Town Meeting. I’m not just talking about the hours spent sitting in there, waiting to vote, occasionally hearing something said that was informative or on point. I’m talking about the hours and hours and hours preparing reports for Town Meeting, that then go to some shelf in Town Hall to sit for all eternity, or the time spent beforehand fretting about how to effectively present articles for Town Meeting with the narrow time limits set by the rules. It often feels like a game show in there. Ultimately, Town Meeting becomes the emperor who must be appeased. How many times have we seen “your presentation did not meet with Town Meeting’s approval”? (Sniff.) We could use a process that is kinder and gentler to ordinary citizens……and more respectful of their time.

  2. #6 is probably the strongest No argument; the Town Manager is not a check on Town Council because the Town Manager is hired by, and can be fired by, the Town Council. A lot of the other arguments coming from the No side are pretty out there, but this one is clear and to me, a good reason to Vote No. After all, representation isn’t the only important aspect of democracy. Without a check or balance on their power, there will be little incentive for the Town Council to act in a representative manner instead of in their own interests.

    We need power structures which still function when the worst of us inhabit them. I would like to see Town Meeting replaced with a more representative body, but effective checks and balances are a must have in any solution I’d vote for. As for now, a slow and conservative Town Meeting is not the worst thing to happen to a town.

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      Jesse, please read the latest post on the blog, written by Andy Steinberg, the Select Board member and former Finance Committee member. He understands checks and balances and the legislative/executive argument better than you or I do.

      1. Nick, I’ve read it. It didn’t have any new information in it that I wasn’t aware of.

        I had previously considered the Select Board a soft check on the Town Meeting because they could decide what NOT to bring in front of Town Meeting, but having recently read more of our current charter, I’ve come to understand that with just ten citizen signatures items can be added to the Warrant, so that’s not even a soft check.

        I would have loved to see a charter with some sort of actual check implemented, but seeing as the current government doesn’t have any either, and that the proposed charter improves on our government in a lot of other ways, I’m coming around.

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    Jesse, that’s great to hear. Just about everyone can identify one or two things in the new charter that they don’t agree with. I sure can! It seems to me that the important question is whether the new form of government provides more representative, accountable representation, and more efficient decision-making, than the current one. I believe it does.

  4. There is a reason left off this list that deals my “Yes” vote: the lack of sunshine and open meeting law purview over Town Meeting. I’ve lived all over the US and this fact is shocking. Even backwater towns in North Carolina where I grew up were under that scrutiny and, as the son of a small town alderman, it did much to stop “good old boy” deals and smoky room politics. In my years in Amherst, I have seen Town Meeting start out in a good direction on way too many issues only to see the outcome be the exact opposite for head scratchingly strange reason or , worse, no reason at all. I won’t ascribe all of that to a lack of ethical oversight, but I’ll be damned if a chunk of it isn’t the product of a outside of the light of day discussions. If you are a Town Meeting member and you ever talked about an issue before Town Meeting with two or more Town Meeting members to organize voting blocks or to twist arms, I am talking to you.

    Also, the absurdity of Town Meeting is only evident to those outside of it. It looks like a Party Congress, not a body of deliberation. Frankly, every Town Meeting I’ve had the time to attend I walk away from wondering if there isn’t a collective call for “All Power to the Soviets” at the closing of the proceeding.

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