This first statement is from Alex Lefebvre, an elected member of the Jones Library Board of Trustees.
Town Meeting is a New England tradition that has been used for over 300 years. Like other New England towns, Amherst was a historically white community. In 1938, as Amherst’s population grew to over 6,400, Amherst changed its form of government from Open Town Meeting, in which every citizen had a voice, to Representative Town Meeting. While this model no longer provided every eligible voter a direct voice at Town Meeting, the population was still homogeneous and a representative model worked. In fact, up until the mid-1990’s, Amherst remained a fairly homogeneous community, with 94 percent of its population white.
However, between 1990 and 2000, the population of Amherst shifted dramatically. The non-white population increased by 36 percent (from roughly 6 percent to 21 percent) and the white population declined by 7.6 percent. For a Representative Town Meeting model to continue to be representative, the makeup of the members of Town Meeting should shift in tandem with the changing demographics of the population.
Fast forward another 16 years, and Amherst’s population has continued to to move even further away from homogeneity and increasingly toward diversity. According to the Census Bureau estimate for 2016, 29 percent of our population is non-white and 36 percent live below the poverty line. We see similar statistics for the elementary schools; 39 percent of enrolled students are non-white, 27 percent speak a first language other than English, and 32% are low income.
In a truly representative Town Meeting model, our current demographics would translate to at least 70 of our 240 Town Meeting members who are non-white, 86 living below the poverty level, and 65 who speak English as a second language. Even assuming some overlap in the low income, non-white, and English as a second language populations, the current makeup of Town Meeting, while it does contain some amount of diversity, is nowhere near the numbers that would reflect an actual representation of the population of our town.
Equally concerning is the fact that not only does our current Town Meeting not “represent” our population demographically, but voters lack choice in choosing their representatives. For the upcoming election, only two precincts have fully contested ballots for each of the open seats on Town Meeting. Precinct 3 has only four candidates running and Precinct 4 has only three candidates running for eight seats each.
Amherst is no longer a homogeneous small New England town of educators and students. We are a socially, racially, and culturally diverse population.
Town Meeting is a wonderful concept; it just no longer represents our population. I think most people in Amherst wholeheartedly embrace our increased diversity and genuinely want all of our citizens to thrive. My concern is that if people don’t have the means, the time, or the ability to serve, and don’t have any choice at that ballot, how could a Town Meeting that doesn’t look like our population be the best choice for understanding and serving the needs of such a large portion of our town population?
We are a progressive town. Let’s move to a more progressive style of government that truly engages and empowers all of our citizens.
This next statement is from Sarah Marshall, a member of the Leisure Services Commission.
Whose voices are heard in Amherst? Charter opponents tell us that Town Meeting is the Voice of the People, and that a Town Council, because it is smaller, will be less democratic, captured by special interests, or otherwise unaccountable. It is clear to me that many opponents who are (or were) Town Meeting members think that if their particular voices are not “heard” – if they, specifically, aren’t legislating for Amherst – democracy will die.
These people seem to have forgotten about the 21,000 or so voters who are not in Town Meeting, the great majority of whom don’t even vote for their representatives and whose voices are definitely not heard. The majority of Town Meeting members are basically self-appointed, not needing any votes other than their own to become local legislators. How on earth can such members view themselves as representing anyone other than themselves? The absence of competitive elections for Town Meeting is a clear indication that many voters just don’t see value in serving in this dysfunctional assembly or even turning out to vote.
In my view, the proposed charter will give voters a system in which their votes and voices will matter.
This last statement is from Lee Edwards, former dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts.
There are two kinds of Town Meeting in New England: Open (or Direct) and Representative (or Limited).
An Open Town Meeting is an occasion for all those eligible to vote in the town to gather, debate, and decide the fate of whatever items appear on each year’s warrant. If an item is of particular concern or urgency, there can be considerable local discussion before the meeting actually occurs. There can be lobbying, letter-writing, phone calls in support of or opposition to any item on the warrant. There can occasionally be arm-twisting and even politicking, as in: “I’ll vote your way on not paving a road, if you’ll vote my way on not cutting the trees.” Because the meeting is open to all, each person’s vote legitimately represents only that person’s view and, ultimately, that person’s conscience. If you don’t attend, you really can’t complain about the outcome. If your view doesn’t prevail, at least you had a chance to have your say.
Nearly 300 towns in Massachusetts have Open Town Meetings. Amherst is not one of them, having opted instead for a Representative Meeting, in which, theoretically, delegates elected from each precinct represent the views of their constituents in a legislative body. In fact, however, these elected representatives too often behave as though they were members of an Open Town Meeting, with no one to represent other than themselves.
Once elected, they do not routinely hold meetings in their precincts. They are immune from conflict-of-interest restrictions. They can caucus in private. They can overturn the results of town-wide elections by refusing to authorize the bond issues for projects that the voters specifically accepted. They can set themselves up as a voting bloc consistently opposed to actions recommended elsewhere in Town government.
Not direct, not open, not truly representative, Amherst’s current Town Meeting does not serve the town well. The recommendations of the Charter Commission in favor of a much smaller but more responsive Town Council go a long way toward remedying Town government’s existing problems.