Charter Questions Answered Part II

I have seen some changes to our downtown that I don’t like. Under the new Charter, would we have more of this kind of change?

The Charter seeks to promote democracy, not development. Under the new Charter, the voters will choose Council members, who will bring their understanding of what the voters want to decisions on the master plan, zoning changes, and Planning Board membership. If voters don’t like what Councilors decide, they have an opportunity every two years to throw them out. So the rules for future development in Amherst will better reflect the public will.

Remember, recent changes happened under our current form of government, which lacks a central focus on what we want our town to look like. With the Council approving a master plan for Amherst and placing zoning decisions in that broader context, we will actually have a public and comprehensive conversation about these issues, instead of important planning and zoning decisions being made piecemeal and out of sight.

With two-year terms, what if there’s a complete turnover of the Town Council, School Committee, or Library Trustees?

We’ve talked to officials from other towns with two-year terms, and they don’t remember this kind of wholesale change ever happening. Even during local controversies, voters tend to replace committee members selectively. When there’s a vacancy on an elected board, a two-year term is short enough to encourage interested candidates to run. And once board members gain experience, many stay on to provide leadership, institutional memory, and mentorship to newer members. Of course it’s possible that if a whole elected board was seen as terrible, dissatisfied voters could replace it. And that’s a good thing – that’s what accountable democracy looks like.

Do we risk confusion about Town Council vs. Town Manager roles?

The council-manager model is a very common form of government across the country. So it has been widely tested and found satisfactory – it is not a risky experiment. The council-manager structure is similar to the decision-making structure in complex nonprofit and business organizations. A board of directors sets policy, hires and supervises a chief executive officer to execute that policy day-to-day, and votes on the budget and other major decisions. The voters will elect a Town Council as their “board of directors” to provide policy leadership and legislative decision-making, and that board will hire and supervise a Town Manager as chief executive officer with significant authority to manage town affairs, but with approval of key appointments and decisions by the people’s representatives.

Can the Councilors set their own pay? Why are we paying them anyway?

We set the Councilor stipend at $5,000 per year, approximately halfway between Greenfield’s stipend of $2,000 and Northampton’s $9,000. The stipend isn’t enough to live on, but we feel it appropriately recognizes the time commitment that will be necessary. In addition, it increases access to elected office for those with fewer resources, who may need to pay for child care, transportation, and other expenses. Councilors can’t simply increase their own stipend without facing the consequences – no proposed stipend increase can take effect until after the Council members face the voters in the next election. Since this would likely become a campaign issue, it provides a disincentive to increasing the stipend.

Will the new form of government cost more than the current one?

There are some changes that are easy to see, and they cut both ways (more for stipends, less for local elections every other year, etc.). But it is important to recognize the large costs we are paying now for staff time spent supporting our Select Board and especially our Town Meeting. We estimate that Town staff will spend a total of 90 fewer nights at meetings (often attended by multiple staff) by no longer attending Town Meeting sessions, while staff time supporting the Council is not likely to be significantly more than that spent currently supporting the Select Board. In addition, numerous Town staff have told us how most Town business comes to a halt in the month or two before Town Meeting, as warrants are prepared and large amounts of material are developed and sent out to bring Town Meeting members up to speed. A more nimble Town Council will free up staff to do more other types of work, including pursuing additional revenues from state, federal, and nonprofit sources.

Remember, we are dealing with a Town budget of $86.6 million, according to the most recent Finance Committee report. Even if none of the $75,000 in new stipend costs were offset by the other factors mentioned above (highly unlikely), that would increase our annual budget by less than one one-thousandth! It won’t raise our taxes, and better representation of the people is worth it.

Will Amherst become a city if the Charter passes?

Amherst will still be Amherst, regardless of what our form of government is called. With a more representative, year-round, and accountable structure, it simply will be a better reflection of what the townspeople want. Massachusetts General Law has provisions that apply to either “cities” (those with a council form of government) or “towns” (those with a town meeting form). So in the state’s technical definition, Amherst will have a city form of government, but the Charter states that we will still be known as the Town of Amherst.

Why didn’t the Charter Commission recommend a mayor?

Some of us wanted the political leadership of a mayor, while others felt the professional management of a town manager was key. We tried combining the two roles, having both a mayor and a chief operating officer, but we couldn’t get a balance of these roles that a majority could support. In the end, a majority of the commission felt that a council-manager form that keeps our professional management while updating our citizen representative structure was a good fit for Amherst at this time.

Isn’t a 13-member Town Council kind of large?

Not compared to our current 240-person Town Meeting! Our Council will be a little larger than most others in the state (although Barnstable and Greenfield, among others, have 13-member councils). We made this slight trade-off on the side of greater representation and participation. Instead of one District Councilor per district, we have two. This is likely to encourage more candidates to participate, since one well-known candidate in a district won’t scare off others from running for one of two seats. With 13 members, the council will also have the capacity to create committees for in-depth work.

Are we moving from a bottom-up to a top-down power structure?

We don’t have a bottom-up power structure now. We have a disjointed and somewhat hidden power structure, where citizen decision-making is divided between a Select Board and a Town Meeting, and where members of the legislative body are not bound by open meeting and conflict-of-interest laws. Too many discussions of key issues take place out of the public eye, including in private email groups set up by Town Meeting factions. We have a Town Meeting that is understood by those in it, but that is a “black box” for many other residents outside it, who are frustrated that their government is too time-consuming for them to participate in, but too unaccountable for them to influence.

This proposal updates our system to be more responsive, more accountable, and more effective. It expands the base of our power structure by making that power accessible by all the voters. It offers a full range of opportunities for participation, including voting, public forums, district meetings, citizen committees, citizen initiatives, and elected service. By restoring the key democratic relationship between the people and their representatives, it empowers the voters and enables an ongoing conversation among all of us about what we want Amherst to be.

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

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