To find out how a council-manager system works, I met recently with one of the most experienced municipal officials in Massachusetts.
His name is Jeffrey Nutting (shown in photo), and since 2001 he’s been the administrator of Franklin (population 32,065), a town with the same governmental system that’s proposed for Amherst. He has been the president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and has been the manager of Medway and Stoneham and the interim manager of 11 other towns, all with Town Meeting systems.
Nutting knows his stuff. And Franklin’s council-manager system has made great progress on some major challenges that Amherst has struggled with.
The average annual tax bill for a single-family home in Franklin is $6,100, compared to Amherst’s $7,269. And yet since Nutting arrived, Franklin has been able to spend $10 million on a new fire station, $10 million on library improvements, $6 million on a new senior center, $10 million on a new public works building, $6 million on acquiring and renovating a building for municipal offices, and $7 million on recreation improvements – all without tax increases! It has also built a $100 million high school and a $33 million K-8 school with the help of tax overrides.
Meanwhile, Amherst has been stalled on more than $100 million for necessary public buildings: for the elementary schools, the Jones Library, a new fire station and public works building. Approval of overrides to help pay for them is uncertain because of our already high taxes, and Town Meeting has declined to accept $34 million in state funding for new elementary schools.
“That was not a smart move,” Nutting said. Franklin just got $6 million in state funding for downtown traffic and streetscape improvements. It didn’t turn down the money.
The main way that Franklin is able to fund all these improvements to public buildings without raising taxes is that it has a much broader tax base than Amherst, with more revenues from local businesses to help pay for them. While the commercial sector pays just 10 percent of the property taxes in Amherst, in Franklin it pays 20 percent (about the same as in Northampton).
The other way is that Franklin’s council operates year-round. “People don’t have to wait nine months for an answer,” as with a Town Meeting form of government, Nutting said.
“We can get things done for citizens, not for politicians or special interests, and this can be a new sidewalk or a new fire station,” he said.
The Franklin council has nine members and meets twice a month. After every election (every two years), Nutting sits down with the council to work out a goal-setting document that guides his day-to-day work. The council then uses this document to request regular updates and evaluate his performance.
The average turnover in each Franklin election is two to three members, and the average councilor serves six to eight years.
As in Amherst’s charter proposal, the council ratifies Nutting’s choices for major municipal positions. Nutting makes appointments to citizen committees, but its Planning Board is elected. Candidates for council don’t spend a lot of money on campaigns, he said.
“The beauty of this system is that we can protect citizens’ interests but also move forward in a timely and predictable manner,” he said. “There’s less politics and less minutiae, and more surety in government. It’s just more efficient.”
When informed that Amherst would spend $75,000 a year more on stipends for elected officials if voters approve the new charter, Nutting called that amount “stamp money,” compared to his overall budget of $120 million.
He compared the speed of a council-manager system to e-mail, while Town Meeting systems resemble the postal service.
Open Town Meeting, the kind Nutting worked under in his previous jobs, remains popular in small towns in Massachusetts. But “representative” Town Meeting, the kind that operates in Amherst, has become less common. And of the 45 communities in Massachusetts with more than 35,000 population (including Amherst), 38 have councils and not Town Meetings.
Of course, Franklin is not Amherst. But it provides a model for how a council-manager system works. With experience in 14 different communities, Nutting is an authoritative voice on the many benefits Amherst could gain from switching to a council-manager system.