Last week I wrote about 10 questionable arguments of charter opponents. This week I’m keeping it positive. Here are 10 positive things that Amherst residents will notice if they approve the new charter on March 27.
10. Residents can call meetings. Whenever you have a specific concern about town government, the schools or the library system, and can get 200 residents to write in support, the appropriate elected board is required to hold an open meeting to discuss your concern (provided it’s something the board can act on).
9. November elections. Most people are accustomed to going to the polls in early November. Amherst’s local elections have been in March, and that’s one reason why we have had such low participation. Moving elections to the fall and providing residents with real choices of candidates will increase voter participation, and result in real mandates for office-holders.
8. Ranked-choice voting. The most innovative part of the charter will enable residents to rank their choices among candidates. If no candidate has more than half the vote in first-choices, candidates finishing last are eliminated round-by-round until one has a majority. It’s been hailed by democracy advocates as a model for fairly representing the full spectrum of residents.
7. Constituent services. The 10 district councilors will regard their voters as constituents, meaning that they will serve as liaisons to town government. If you have a problem with a dangerous intersection, you will know who to call. The councilors will relay the concerns to the town manager, who can do something to solve the problems.
6. Resident participation. More voting means more participation. The charter also provides for townwide forums three times a year, district meetings, and a mechanism for voters to petition the council or call a referendum. The charter does not change the system of volunteer boards and committees, enabling hundreds of citizens to continue participating in the process.
5. Professional management. If the charter proposed an elected mayor, it would have been a much more radical change. Instead, we will still have a non-political manager to handle the day-to-day functioning of town government, while leaving policy decisions to the council. This provides for continuity, access to best practices, efficiency and professionalism.
4. Patient deliberation. The 13 councilors will be better able to engage in give-and-take on difficult issues than a much larger group. Important decisions will be made over time, with maximum resident input and gathering of information, instead of in one night. Councilors will have the time to take proposals to their constituents for comments.
3. Thoughtful planning. There will be annual forums on the master plan, to update the one produced 10 years ago to guide hot-button issues like land use and development. To make planning more in tune with what voters want, the Planning Board will be appointed by the elected council, not the manager. Councilors will take their time to be fully informed before voting on proposed zoning changes, which in some cases will require three-fourths approval.
2. Timeliness. The Town Council will meet year-round and be able to deal with crises and opportunities. It can participate as decisions are shaped, not just vote on them at the end of the process. The town manager can propose a spending plan much later, so he or she will have more information about how much state money to expect.
1. True accountability. Candidates for Town Council will have to express their opinions in a campaign. The 13 winners will have two-year terms, requiring them to stay close to residents. If we don’t like how our councilors are performing, we can replace them. District councilors will have at least two public meetings a year in the neighborhoods. And residents will know exactly who’s representing them.
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