This guest post was written by Ellen Story, Amherst’s former state representative, John Olver, Amherst’s former congressional representative, and Nancy Eddy, a former Select Board chair and president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
As former elected representatives who served the people of Amherst for a combined total of more than 80 years, we have followed closely the debate over the proposed changes to town government. This town-wide conversation has touched on a number of fundamentally important issues.
How do we define “representation”? How should our local democracy function? How can we better ensure that all voices are heard? Questions like these tend to strike a chord with us, because we have lived the experience of local democracy in action. Perhaps most important, we have been held accountable for the decisions we made and the actions we took as representatives. We’ll be voting “yes” on the adoption of the charter on March 27, because we believe accountability is one of the most important issues driving this vote.
What does it mean to be accountable? The answer isn’t so difficult.
Following a contentious vote, it means taking a call from a constituent who says “I can’t believe you voted for that!” – and then having to explain your vote. It means greeting passionate constituents at your door in advance of an upcoming vote, and hearing their arguments as they try to inform your decision to vote yes or no.
It means running a campaign in which you take a side on issues that are important to your constituents – and then letting them decide whether or not you’ve earned their votes.
It means taking a stance on important issues as they emerge, informed by numerous meetings with experts and the constituents you serve, who bring a wealth of insights and opinions. Over the course of our careers, this process required countless meetings, phone calls, and emails, and a lot of reading. And you know what? It was all worth it.
For the voters we served, accountability meant that they knew exactly who to contact to discuss the issues they cared about deeply. They knew who to call when they were unhappy about a vote. They knew who to vote for or against, based on candidates’ public stances on real issues. They knew to expect a call or email response every time they contacted us. And they knew they could vote us out of office if they felt they weren’t being properly served or represented.
All of these examples are vitally important signals of a well-functioning government. And they are barely in evidence in the current system, which is simply too opaque for the average citizen. When they vote for Town Meeting members, constituents generally don’t know who they’re voting for, where their Town Meeting representatives stand on important issues, how to share their views and insights with them once they’re elected into office, or how to hold them accountable.
We don’t think this desire for accountability is all that controversial – which makes the rancor over the forthcoming vote on updates to Amherst’s local government a bit puzzling. It’s not as if we’re living in a community where our core values are in question. Most of us chose to live here because we share a set of progressive values that make this a welcoming, diverse, successful, compassionate community. Nobody wants to turn Amherst into a strip mall, high-rise colony, or retirement community.
And yet as we follow the unfolding debate, you’d think that dark forces are conspiring to take over the town. This is simply not the case – these phantom figures do not exist. If you don’t agree, try this simple test: Pause for a moment to consider a friend who doesn’t share your view of this issue. Do their values run counter to yours? Are they trying to squelch local democracy? Are they clamoring to pave paradise and put up a parking lot? Not likely. Let’s save our righteous indignation for those who truly deserve it – not our friends on the other side of this issue – and instead conduct a calm, thoughtful, public examination of the merits of these proposed changes.
We loved serving this wonderful community for so many years. True service in representation demands accountability – a key feature of the proposed changes to Amherst’s charter. That’s why we strongly support these citizen-generated changes to the town charter and hope that you will join us in voting YES on March 27.
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