What I love about Amherst isn’t at risk

Mandi Jo Hanneke

So I got a postcard in the mail today. Maybe you got it too. It said the proposed charter “threatens everything we love about Amherst,” and that “everything you love about Amherst will be up for a vote.”

And I thought, “Wow!” Is this what conversation in our town has devolved into? But beyond that, I wonder, what does the opposition think a council-manager structure threatens?

Because I love a lot about Amherst, and most of what I love has nothing to do with the existence of Representative Town Meeting.

I love the Community Fair. I love the Block Party sponsored by the Business Improvement District. I love the Norwottuck Rail Trail, owned by the Commonwealth. I love the Taste of Amherst organized by the Chamber of Commerce.

I love the eateries in Town: Atkins Farms (especially their cider donuts), Glazed Donut Shop and Insomnia Cookies, the Black Sheep, among so many others in town.

I love the variety of cultural places we have: Mead Art Museum, Beneski Natural History Museum, Eric Carle Museum, Amherst Cinema, and the Fine Arts Center.

None of these things I love about Amherst is a result of the existence of Representative Town Meeting.

Then there are events and locations that do involve government: Amethyst Brook and all the other conservation land and trails. Mill River and Groff Park. Jones Library. Winterfest. Fourth of July at UMass. But these parks, trails, and events don’t exist solely because of Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting.

Do the opponents really think that parks, trails, and events like Winterfest are threatened if we adopt a Council-Manager charter? I know I don’t. If I did, I wouldn’t support it.

So why the alarmist view that everything I love is at risk? I truly don’t know. A rational debate about the benefits and drawbacks of a Council-Manager system, versus the benefits and drawbacks of the Representative Town Meeting system we have now, is possible without the scare tactics.

So, please, don’t be swayed by the opposition’s excessive fear-mongering. Everything we love about Amherst isn’t at risk. It’s not threatened and it’s not up for a vote.

What is up for a vote on March 27 is the relationship each of us has with our elected representatives in Town government. Do we want a relationship where we don’t truly have a say in who they are, and they don’t have to heed our wishes? Or do we want a relationship with our representatives where they are accountable to us, seek out all of our opinions, and give a voice to all of us, no matter what time limitations we have?

I believe that a Yes vote creates a better Amherst — one where the government gives voice to all us, not just the privileged 254 who happen to have the 40+ hours a year to be in Representative Town Meeting.

Comments 8

  1. When we got that postcard, we laughed. Then we googled “exaggerated sense of self-importance”. We live in an ecosystem of local, regional, state and federal influences. Town Meeting only exists, for example, because it is enabled by the state. And the state very much limits TM’s authority (and it will limit Town Council) . Then there is that pesky NGO and private sectors, which sometimes do great things in spite of the government. Not to mention all the other random things we love about Amherst. Will we really be voting about this beautiful winter morning?

    It is Not This Charter’s exaggerated sense of self-importance, that has caused me (and others) to work even harder on the YES campaign. We have the “Only I Can Fix It” problem at the national level–we don’t need it at the local level.

    1. I can really relate to your comment, Stephen. In a two-sided non-war battle the more intense tool either side uses the more intense the answer will be. It looks to me, that many felt wronged by Town Meeting (not the rest of the government) and how it worked. They didn’t feel appropriately represented through that structure, didn’t feel their presence in the system get acknowledged, so they wanted to change the charter.

      I was sad to see, and several times pointed out, how the focus many times shifted on to how bad Town Meeting is (as in an “elite, old and white un-knowledgeable occasional government status quo” just to say a few, now, of course, also self-important, I see :-), rather than how good the new charter would be (as in “we researched it thoroughly, and these are the ways elsewhere it works so much better than town meetings in general”). I and many others felt irked by those attacks and generalizations, and those things discourage communication and connection in general. Over this time I had a very long and rich correspondence with Nick himself. We probably would have had a hard time to disagree more, but we managed to refrain from animosities, and while neither of us changed our views, I, personally, learned a lot from our private debate.

      I know Town Meeting is not perfect, neither the people in it, nor the structure. I know the Council, if it comes to be, will not be perfect either. And neither are totally awful systems, they each have their advantages. But when Town Meeting, and all the politically active people in it, are being put down as I mentioned above, they will, understandably be energized and reach for similar tools, just like you, and work even harder to… mention all the things that they see are wrong with the charter proposal, and none of the good things. We have teachers in place who showed the way. And they probably had similar teachers in something Town Meeting did.

      And so the fight escalates. Just like in the national government. Is this the best we all can do?

      1. Hi Gabor
        Thank you for your really thoughtful response!
        Most Town Meeting members and anti-charter folks do not have this “exaggerated sense of self importance”. The very few who put together that postcard–and are not defending its message on social media–apparently do.
        Most of us have the humility to understand that the town is a subdivision of the commonwealth, and our local government can do what the state allows. (And the commonwealth can only do what the federal government allows–or doesn’t prevent). Those various land protections that make Amherst special ? Those were all protected by local, state, federal laws, NGOs and sometimes plain, old good will. What I love about Amherst are the random acts of kindness–we won’t be voting on those on March 27.

        I am a Town Meeting member who denounces the “localist” hyperbole that “everything you love” is at stake. I hope other Town Meeting members will join me.

  2. The most important four word phrase in this entire debate for me was written by Kay Moran: “out in the open”.

    I don’t care if there isn’t a flood of candidates, although I hope there is.

    I don’t care if voter turnout increases, although I hope it does.

    I do care that every single resident in Amherst, even if she or he is working 60+ hours per week, even if she or he cannot leave home, even if she or he cannot make the commitment to be a super-voter in Town Meeting, has a regular say about town government at the ballot-box, and a reasonable ability to lobby the main actors in that government on a regular basis.

    For me, the transparency in this proposal is everything. For too many Amherst residents, town government is like curling or cricket or opera: impossible to follow and incomprehensible to make informed judgements about on Election Day. We need government “out in the open.”

  3. Whatever the rhetoric, changes in the structure of government are always about power: who gets to set the agenda, shape the debate, make the decisions. What IS at risk in this referendum is the power of a relatively small group of town meeting members who have been able to wield that power for years by directing debates and manipulating the rules. They seem to be the people behind the anti-charter groups, and they are understandably loath to cede that power. The openness of a town council’s deliberations will undermine this regime.

  4. I do think there is a relationship to the beauty and strengths of Amherst, its active citizens, its vibrant town center, well-funded schools, solid finances, preserved open space and farms and its Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager government. Look at how important education is to each of us and economically to our town. Look at how many people want to live in Amherst and visit here. Look around you and look at the best towns to live in Massachusetts–they all have have this form of government. Almost all the best school districts are in towns with Select Board-Town Meeting. Look at New England –and note that Select Board-Town Meeting-Town Manager is the vast majority of governments. Look at how many citizens are active in these communities, the number of women involved in government, and how well educated our children are in Massachusetts.

    1. Post

      I’m curious where you get your best lists, Janet. The lists I found were populated with council towns–Waltham as one of the best places to live in the country, for example. Also, Somerville, Franklin (Council-Manager), Cambridge (Council-Manager), Boston, Newton, Newburyport, etc. None of which have Representative Town Meetings. And of course, other lists are populated with towns with less than 5,000 residents, so they must have Open Town Meeting, a different structure than Representative Town Meeting.

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