Checks and Balances – Revisited

Mandi Jo Hanneke

The proponents of the status quo like to reference the federal government’s legislative, executive and judicial branches, then point to the proposed charter and claim it is flawed because there aren’t similarly separate branches.

Well, guess what? Municipal government is not like the federal system.  For one thing, Amherst doesn’t have a judicial branch, and probably never will.

The proposed council-manager system is the most widely used form of municipal government in the country for towns with 10,000 people or more. It is not some weird experiment. It dates back to Progressive-era reforms designed to balance professional management with elected community oversight.

If this widely tested model was critically lacking in important checks and balances, don’t you think the hundreds of towns using it would have noticed by now?

Actually, it is our current system that lacks checks and balances, especially as it relates to Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting.

There is no check on Representative Town Meeting. The Select Board or Town Manager cannot veto Representative Town Meeting actions. And, there is no recourse at the ballot box for residents when Representative Town Meeting members face no competition for re-election.

That’s a problem. It’s a system that leaves the other 37,000 residents out in the cold if they don’t like what Representative Town Meeting is doing.

And nearly all appointments, except for the Finance Committee, are made now by a single branch — the executive, without any input from our legislative branch, Representative Town Meeting.

So, then, you might ask yourself, why are the status quo proponents claiming that checks and balances are so important? I don’t know.

As just mentioned, in our present system, the “executive” cannot override a “legislative” action. If Representative Town Meeting passes a bylaw, neither the Select Board nor the Town Manager can veto the action.

Yet the proponents of this status quo have made it sound extremely important that the proposed charter lacks a mayoral veto of council actions – despite the fact that a mayor is not on the table in this election. Ask yourself, if the charter proposal included a mayor, with veto power, would the charter opponents suddenly begin supporting it?

So, maybe the lack of an “executive veto” is just some way they are trying to tear apart a pretty good proposal in hopes that residents won’t realize the current system has the exact same “flaw.”

Then there is opponents’ new claim that having the Town Council confirm the Town Manager’s department head appointments is an unjust limitation of the Town Manager’s authority.

In my view, having the Town Council confirm the Town Manager’s appointments creates a balance of powers that encourages both branches to work together. But, to opponents, it represents too much of a check in a proposal that they claim has none at all.

By the way, this confirmation process is similar to a current relationship that already exists in Amherst: the School Committee confirms the Superintendent’s appointments of senior staff like the Assistant Superintendent, Business Manager, and Special Education Director.

The proposed council-manager structure will have shared responsibility among various branches of government, which is another way of thinking about checks and balances.

The Town Council will have responsibility for enacting bylaws and the budget, while the Town Manager, the Chief Executive Officer, will be responsible for implementing the budget, overseeing day-to-day operations, and enforcing the bylaws. This separation is detailed in Section 1.3 of the charter.

Further, the Town Council will be prohibited from inserting itself into the administrative affairs of the Town by Section 2.3(b).

And what about the voters? The proponents of the status quo like to say that voters aren’t part of the checks and balances discussion. I disagree.

I believe the voters are the most important check of all. When candidates have to make their case and state their positions, both before getting elected and when standing for re-election, we give the residents a chance to say yes or no to the policies and positions proposed or enacted. It’s the best way, in my mind, to ensure that the government is actually representing the will of the people.

Isn’t that ultimately what checks and balances is about?

Comments 2

  1. What is the check on the Council’s power? Where are the separate legislative and executive branches of government? A Town Manager hired by the Council is not a branch of government. A vote is not a branch of government.

    In our current Amherst Charter, the Select Board members are the elected heads of the executive branch, hire and supervise the Town Manager — and run Amherst government year-round. The Select Board also has legislative power–it controls what articles go onto the Warrant , call Town Meeting into session and put on overrides. Town Meeting’s legislative power is limited by the fact that cannot initiate legislation on its own, a big check on its power. Citizens also can directly petition Town Meeting, a long and honored tradition, with only 10 or 100 signatures, depending on the timing of the Town Meeting session.

    Also, Town Meeting does not control or decide the budgets for the elementary schools, regional schools, town government or the libraries. These final budgets are submitted to Town Meeting, which only votes the final number for these budgets, authorizing how much tax money will be spent on each budget. It also does not control how this money is actually spent. In contrast the Council will decide the final budgets for the elementary schools, regional schools, libraries and town government, authorize the spending of tax money to fund them and control how the money is spent on town government and the libraries.

    Also, there will no longer be an independent Finance Committee appointed by the Town Moderator to assist in the coordinated development of budgets, set the % increases and independently evaluate each budget.

    1. Post

      Janet. Again, you seem to be mistaken about the current budget process. Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting controls the amount of money budgeted to the Library and schools by virtue of voting to approve the budget. In fact, Town Meeting in recent years has attempted (and sometimes succeeded) in changing the amounts of those budgets to increase or decrease them for specific projects that the other duly elected boards (School Committee in particular) has supported or not. Similarly, the Town Council will vote on the bottom line budget. It has absolutely no authority to control how the money is spent, no matter what you want to believe. The Town Manager will control the spending of the town budget, the Library Director and Library Trustees control the spending of the library budget and the Superintendent, School Committee, Regional School Committee control the spending of the two school budgets.

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