Charter Questions Answered Part I

What exactly is a “charter”?

In Massachusetts, a charter is what we call the document that defines the structure of local government for a particular community and distributes powers, duties, and procedures to be followed. It is like a constitution for a town, providing a general, overarching framework for how its government should be organized.

Amherst is already well-managed – why change things?

On a day-to-day basis, we do pretty well – and the new Charter keeps our professional manager, to maintain that competent day-to-day management. But the Charter Commission’s discussions with residents revealed that many are concerned about Amherst’s future. Residents mentioned a number of worrisome issues, including tax rates, housing, development, and several expensive Town building projects coming due at once. We need a form of government that can meet regularly, connect the dots, and keep up with the challenges we face. A Town Council that meets regularly and year-round, and is small enough to deliberate while representing all the voters, is the missing piece we need.

Why would we move away from the traditional New England town meeting?

Amherst Town Meeting is very different from the traditional Town Meeting that is practiced in small towns like Hadley, Leverett, and Shutesbury. These towns have an open Town Meeting, in which any resident can participate and vote, usually in a one-day session. Amherst hasn’t had an open Town Meeting system since 1938, when it adopted “representative” Town Meeting. In Amherst Town Meeting, a group of 240+ people is the decision-making body for the town. Residents who do not go through the election process and commit to attending 10-15 night sessions a year are not allowed to vote. So our government is already very different from the Norman Rockwell image of the humble farmer showing up to speak his mind.

Where did this council-manager form of government come from? I’ve heard of select boards and Town Meeting, and mayors and councils, but this is new to me.

Actually, the council-manager form is one of the most popular systems in the country. It combines the strong political leadership of an elected governing body and the effective, day-to-day oversight of a professional town manager. More than 105 million people in the U.S. (about a third of the population) live in municipalities that operate under the council-manager form. Other places in Massachusetts using this model include Barnstable, Bridgewater, Chelsea, East Longmeadow, Franklin, Randolph, Southbridge, Watertown, and Winthrop.

Okay, so we’ll have a Town Manager either way – but aren’t 240 Town Meeting members more representative of Amherst residents than 13 Town Council members?

Actually, no.  240 is a decent number, but it’s not very big compared to 21,273 registered voters. What matters is: Do those 240 people represent Amherst as a whole? Many Town Meeting members are in effect self-appointed, due to low voter turnout and a large number of seats relative to candidates. Some of them even say they don’t see it as their job to represent the viewpoints of constituents at all! They say that simply by voting as they wish, in a large group, they represent the townspeople. If you don’t feel represented, they say, join Town Meeting – it’s easy to get in! But not everyone has the time, interest, or ability to do so.

The charter proposal puts a new emphasis on representing all the voters, not just the 240 who will show up for long meetings. Voters will elect two District Councilors and three At-Large Councilors, who will compete for their votes, and who will have to reach out beyond their personal networks to get elected. Councilors will meet regularly, hold district meetings with constituents, and take input year-round. Rather than a large mass of Town Meeting members voting however they want, all residents will have easily identifiable Councilors who see it as their job to represent the people.

How will 13 Council members be more accountable to voters than Town Meeting?

With 24 Town Meeting members per precinct now, it’s hard to keep track of who represents you and how they voted on key issues. Town Meeting isn’t subject to the state’s Open Meeting Law, so groups of members are free to discuss votes and plan voting strategy outside of the public eye. And members aren’t prohibited from voting on matters that directly affect them. But if you don’t like what your representatives have done on your behalf, it’s hard to vote them out. Many voters don’t get a real choice of candidates, because there are so many Town Meeting openings and because very few Town Meeting representatives have actually campaigned on issues. As a result, voter participation in elections is very low.

The new Charter puts a spotlight on the governing process, enabling the Town Council to better reflect the will of the townspeople. Holding elections in November for a limited number of positions will increase competition and voter participation. Councilors will have to say what they stand for and compete for your vote. Voters will be able to evaluate candidates during campaigns and replace councilors after two years if they are dissatisfied. With council meetings occurring regularly throughout the year, residents will have more opportunities to get organized and make their voices heard. And unlike Town Meeting, the Town Council will be subject to open meeting and conflict-of-interest laws. It will be clear to residents who represents them, establishing a tighter link between the people and their representatives.

Why didn’t the Charter Commission just fix the problems with the current form of government?

There are some things in the current form of government that just can’t be fixed. For example, by state law Town Meeting can’t set its own agenda. Instead it has to wait for the time-consuming “warrant” process to be completed and the Select Board to call a meeting before members can meet and vote. Town Meeting isn’t able to participate in shaping proposals as they are developed; that work is done by various boards, committees, and staff. Town Meeting is only able to come in at the end, to vote up or down on proposals from others.

For its part, the Select Board has the time and the structure to really examine issues for as long as needed and come up with thoughtful proposals. But the members can’t act on those proposals; they have to hand them off to a large group of people, many of whom are considering them for the first time, to vote up or down after maybe an hour of Town Meeting debate. The new Charter combines the best aspects of our current Select Board and Town Meeting while eliminating some of the structural problems that these bodies face.

Won’t competitive elections for Town Council increase the role of big donors in our elections?

First of all, competitive elections are a good thing – they help inform the public about key issues, generate more participation in voting, and clarify what the people want. Second, think about what it takes to get elected in Amherst. Our campaigns aren’t susceptible to TV or radio ads or other expensive ways of getting noticed. Candidates for town-wide office basically need some lawn signs, a newspaper ad, a website, a brochure, and maybe some cheap Facebook advertising. There’s not much else to spend money on. And any contributions over $50 will be made public, so if a candidate were to receive big donations, that could be perceived negatively by many voters. District Councilors need even less, as they only have to reach voters in two precincts.

With competitive elections, the outcome will be determined by candidates’ positions on issues, outreach, and personal contact with voters, not by campaign contributions. Finally, the new Charter adds several new ways to help lesser-known candidates run for office. A Community Participation Officer will help interested residents figure out how to get started, and a new elections web page will give publicity to any candidate who collects the signatures to run.

This post is excerpted  from the Charter Commission’s final report, which was written by Andy Churchill, Tom Fricke and Nick Grabbe.

Comments 1

  1. I would add that in the Commonwealth there is no “separation of powers”. Instead, in Massachusetts checks & balances is defined as accountability, by the voters. For example, when Town Meeting overturned the Nov 8 election, I wrote to the Governor’s Office asking for guidance. I got a letter back saying, simply, it is up to the voters. This was from the Governor. That is why there is no “separation of powers” in the charter; in Massachusetts checks & balances is defined as accountability, by the voters. Otherwise, we would have a judiciary to hold Town Meeting accountable. But we don’t. Because, in Massachusetts, checks & balances is left to the voters, called “accountability”. There is no separation of powers in Massachusetts or in the charter. According to the office of the Governor.

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