C’mon, Amherst, we’re better than this

Nick Grabbe

When Amherst voters are asked to approve a new form of government March 27, they will also be asked to reject personal attacks and fear-mongering.

The leaders of the “No” campaign, who are mostly Town Meeting members, have been using scare tactics and misleading statements for some time (See “Top Ten Questionable ‘No’ Arguments”). But they have descended to the kind of negative campaigning that you associate with national politics, not with Amherst.

For those voters who are undecided about the charter, these tactics may convince them that the “no” campaign doesn’t deserve to win this vote. Even if you think some of their more rational arguments make sense, a “no” vote represents an endorsement of the debasement of our political dialogue.

It’s sad that it has come to this. We now see how far the “no” campaign will go in trying to keep the status quo. At Town Meeting, misinformation often goes uncorrected, but I can’t stand by and watch that happen in this important town-wide conversation.

The “yes” campaign is trying to do more than create a more accountable and representative form of government. It is also trying to set an example of a political climate based on facts, civility, reason and respectful disagreement.

There are many examples of the “no” campaign’s misleading statements, and I’m going to cite three of them here.

First, last week’s Bulletin included a column by the three Charter Commission members who oppose the proposal. They wrote that the commission did not explore the many forms of local government, including the current one. They criticized the leadership of Chairman Andy Churchill, and wrote that the commission’s majority were focused just on eliminating Town Meeting because “their backers” were upset with some zoning votes.

This is pure fantasy. The commission did study the current system, and many other forms of government. I was personally involved in an (unsuccessful) effort to achieve a compromise charter that all of us could support. We had no shadowy “backers,” just a desire for good government.

As for Churchill’s role, the three commission members’ written words are belied by what they actually said at the last commission meeting:

“Andy has led the commission with openness and patience, always willing to give any of us the chance to share our concerns and questions, even when it extended our meetings and complicated our process. I’m sure he was urged by his supporters to have more of an iron hand, and I am grateful that he didn’t.” (Meg Gage)
“I have to again appreciate our chair, Andy, who has not tried to strong-arm our process all the way through the end and has given us a lot of leeway to stray far and wide in our discussions. It’s impressive to have that flexibility, especially during difficult debates, and at the same time get a charter drafted…” (Julia Reuschemeyer)

Second, on March 2 the Bulletin carried an ad that falsely claimed that approval of the new charter would result in “high-density student housing,” and that this was its original purpose. The scary tag line was “Whose neighborhood is next?” Last week’s Bulletin ad was even more insidious. It featured a cartoon of a fat cat putting up a sign reading “Designated Area of Outstanding Profitability” and said that if the charter passes, “multi-unit buildings” (i.e., student housing) “can be built in any Amherst neighborhood!” In their mailing, the “no” campaign tried to frighten voters by exclaiming that “everything you love about Amherst will be up for a vote.” (Actually, Amherst will still be Amherst if the charter passes, just more democratic. Read the truth about development and the charter here.)

Third, I met recently with an undecided voter who had heard that the members of the Town Council will receive “salaries,” a misleading word that charter opponents use. She took that to mean they would have full-time jobs and make $60,000 a year. I informed her that the councilors will be part-time and receive stipends of $5,000 a year (much lower than the Northampton council’s stipends), which will make it easier for low-income residents to serve. She’s now voting “yes.”

I can understand why some Town Meeting members are worried about losing their privileged status in Amherst. The “yes” campaign has the support of experienced public servants like Ellen Story, John Olver, Nancy Eddy and most members of the Select Board and School Committee. It has an energetic get-out-the-vote campaign, and this blog has 3,500 readers who have read over 20,000 posts. I wish the “no” campaign would stick to rational, supportable arguments about Town Meeting vs. Town Council and disavow these scare tactics.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, but I guess they bear repeating:

  • Unlike Town Meeting members, I have no personal stake in the outcome of the election. No members of the Charter Commission majority  have any ties to developers.
  • Amherst for All is a broad coalition of residents, and its leader is a prominent environmental advocate.
  • The “yes” and the “no” campaigns both have donors who have real estate interests.
  • Town Meeting defenders routinely indulge in speculation about people’s motives, a tactic that would not be allowed in Town Meeting.
  • With a popularly elected Town Council, development decisions will reflect the will of voters, not the interests of developers.
  • Because 10 of the 13 councilors will be elected from neighborhoods, local concerns will get lots of representation, and it will take only five (and sometimes four) votes to kill a proposed zoning change.
  • If we’re going to live in a college town, with all its cultural advantages and employment opportunities, there are going to be students also living here.
  • UMass houses a greater percentage of its students on campus than nearly all state universities in the country.
  • The two large buildings at the northern end of downtown are consistent with the master plan’s direction to concentrate development downtown and in village centers, to prevent sprawl and preserve open space.
  • The closeness of the newer of the two buildings to North Pleasant Street is consistent with the zoning bylaw, approved under our current form of government.
  • The height of those two five-story buildings was approved by Town Meeting in 2011. And they are not the first five-story buildings in downtown Amherst.

It is my sincere hope that on March 27, Amherst voters will make informed, rational decisions about how they want to be represented and will not be swayed by misrepresentation and emotional appeals on hot-button issues. Let the better angels of our nature prevail.

Comments 4

  1. As usual, a well crafted piece. I no longer have dog in this fight, having moved to Sunderland in October after more than twenty years in Amherst, but I am urging all my friends and associates in Amherst to vote yes. And, indeed, I was a town meeting member for many years, and served on other boards and committees. I think Amherst needs year round government.

  2. Thank you Nick. I have heard many ofd the NO arguements and appreciate hearing reasoned responses to them.

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