This guest post is written by Andy Steinberg, a member of the Select Board and former Finance Committee member.
Proponents of continuing government with Town Meeting and a Select Board have said that the proposed charter does not have two distinct elected branches of government, a “legislative” and “administrative,” and therefore lacks checks and balances. The discussion of checks and balances is misleading, because the current charter has no checks and balances between Town Meeting and the Select Board, and because municipalities are not required to have separate legislative and administrative bodies.
In our current government, bylaws and budgets are passed by Town Meeting. The Select Board and Town Manager administer government on an ongoing basis. There is no check and balance of our current Town Meeting. Some cities have a process for a mayor to veto a Council action, subject to the Council’s ability to override the veto with a supermajority vote. For example, Northampton’s Council recently passed an ordinance barring the use of most police surveillance cameras. Mayor David Narkewicz vetoed this Council action and the Council then voted to override the veto. If Amherst Town Meeting, on a citizens’ petition, voted to ban surveillance cameras in Amherst, neither the Select Board nor the Town Manager could veto it.
The more immediate example in Amherst is the net zero energy bylaw passed at Town Meeting. The intent is good but the prescribed process may block the Town from constructing some buildings that are sorely needed, including a new fire station to better serve the central and southern sections of the town. There was no check, no balance, no opportunity for a veto that would require the Town Meeting to reconsider the bylaw.
That also applies to the budget. The current budget process is within the control of Town Meeting. The Finance Committee, which is appointed by the moderator, proposes the budget to Town Meeting. The Town Manager, Superintendent of Schools and School Committee, and Library Director and Trustees propose budgets to the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee is not required to accept the proposed budgets, though it usually does so. Town Meeting members can and do propose amendments to these budgets, often contrary to the advice from the professional staff, elected boards, and its own Finance Committee.
In the last two years, Town Meeting has added money that was not requested or planned in the development of budgets to add library paraprofessionals to the elementary schools, hire an architect to draw plans for a renovation and addition to the North Amherst Library that was not requested by the elected Library trustees or its staff, and funds for community services. There was no check and balance, no opportunity to veto subject to override by a supermajority of Town Meeting.
The proposed budget process for the Council with a Town Manager is the process used in the largest number of municipalities in the United States. Councils adopt the budget, usually including the library, which is proposed to it by the Town Manager. Massachusetts communities are different from municipalities elsewhere, because in most communities schools are independent taxing authorities and do not receive funds through a city or town budget. A School Board sets its budget and tax rate, which is billed separately from the city or town tax bill.
With the proposed Charter, the veto power on a budget will be with voters by the election of the next Council. If voters do not approve of the budgets developed by the Council, the members who approved that budget will be contested in the next election. The Council is small enough to make their votes visible. That does not happen with 240+ Town Meeting members.
The proposed Charter provides that voters can veto a Council action on a bylaw by petition signed by 5 percent of voters and then subject to town-wide vote, as they now can petition and vote to overturn actions of the Representative Town Meeting. There is a significant difference. The current charter requires that signatures be collected within five days after the end of Town Meeting, which often makes it impossible to do so. The new charter will provide 14 days to obtain the required signatures.
One challenge to a consolidated budget that includes municipal, school and library expenses is the decision to allocate the available funds to these separate functions. Amherst has a process in place that incorporates the cooperation of the elected boards, Town Manager, Superintendent, and Library Director. We have formal structures of the Budget Coordinating Group and Joint Capital Planning Committee. Those bodies are continued in the proposed Charter. The Council and the Manager will respect the school and library budget needs and processes, as they do now.
The final major difference will be that the current Town Meeting does not meet throughout the year and is not involved with the implementation of budgets. Most members are unaware of the long-term trends in budgets and the consequences of specific budget decisions. For example, at the 2017 Annual Town Meeting, a presentation was made about the need to add active firefighters to the Fire Department. One evening later, a decision was made to add funds for a purpose not recommended by the Town Manager or Finance Committee. No consideration was given to the information presented on the previous night about the priority need at the Fire Department.
Amherst will benefit from a Council that will meet throughout the year and will have the ability to fully consider the consequences of its decisions, including budget decisions.