‘Municipal government is not a hobby’

This guest post is by Julie Marcus, co-founder of New England Environmental and now a principal at SWCA Environmental Consultants.

I am an Amherst Town Meeting member, and I urge Amherst voters to vote in favor of the new Charter, which was diligently and carefully crafted by a diverse group of people from our community. It is a model of compromise and it will see us into the next century.

We residents all want the same things for our community: shared prosperity in the form of decent jobs at all income levels, good infrastructure, excellent schools, caring human services, and reliable public safety. Where we disagree is in how this will be achieved.

There can be no argument that thriving communities have thriving economies, and they depend on private investment and a robust tax base. Town Meeting’s dismaying antipathy toward people who are willing to take risks and invest in our community, and the businesses and projects they propose, threatened both.

This affects not only Main Street, but also housing prices, job opportunities, and the delivery of town services. Investors depend on a predictable regulatory environment, regardless of the actual regulations themselves.

As the former president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and as someone who has worked hard to attract new business to Amherst, and convince existing businesses to stay, the single biggest reason cited for locating elsewhere is the anti-business sentiment of Town Meeting. I want to live in a town with families and young professionals, retirees and students, a cross-section of every part of the population, with neighbors of all ages and incomes. All of these require jobs, affordable homes, services, and schools.

The single greatest responsibility of local government is the education of its youth. With the Town Meeting vote against the schools, we failed the young families in this town, and we should not be surprised that Amherst is no longer as attractive a place to raise children. Our charge was to decide on the responsible allocation of funds for projects presented to us by the School Committee, not to make pedagogy decisions.

Town Meeting’s decision to reject $34 million in state matching money for new elementary schools was an astonishing act of fiscal irresponsibility. If Town Meeting were truly representative, the school vote would have passed, just as it did in the public vote.

We have an amazingly competent and dedicated group of town employees who could be better utilized if we had a more timely, efficient and predictable governmental structure. They are the unsung heroes of this town.

Municipal government is not a hobby. My fellow Town Meeting members often do not understand the complexity of the issues that come before us. They have a hard time focusing on the issues, the structure is not deliberative, and a very few members take up a huge amount of speaking time, giving a very narrow range of opinions and ideas.

Town Meeting members may be elected with just one vote, they are not required to represent their constituents, and there is no built in feedback loop. I support the Charter’s proposal for a 13-member Town Council because it would solve all of these issues, and better represent all of Amherst’s needs in the future.

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Comments 4

  1. Excellent commentary. It illustrates how Town Meeting structure does not allow for consideration of critical trade-offs in costs and benefits facing Amherst. It is regrettable that government has become so complex that it needs full-time attention of elected officials but that is the reality. For better and worse, Amherst is no longer in the context of 1940-50s America when decisions were made without as much weight given to the environment, educating diverse populations, pensions, higher standards for health and safety, etc. I would feel better about Town Meeting if it could organize itself to address the complexities of governing (by having policy committees like our state legislature) but that is not what it does. In mentioning that a few speakers who dominate Town Meeting, you reveal that the format is not really about the weighing of options. No offense to those speakers — but a gathering of 250 people is not where you can hash out the details of policy-making and build a coalition that comes together for the good of the community despite some differences. Indeed, when the full complexity of problems are not deliberated in a legislature, it becomes a forum that elevates ideology over pragmatism. Look no further than the current US Congress, which has been defanged as a true deliberative process, which used to rely on the expertise of members in policy committees. Members now vote tribally with the hard-edged policies determined by party leaders, regardless of what the experts think. I feel some of that has happened in Amherst.

  2. There has always been this uneasy feeling sitting in there that we have been making policy decisions with blinders on, not fully aware of how benefiting X (the interest immediately before us) will affect Y or Z or A, B or C, for that matter. It has been episodic, to say the least. What’s always been amazing to me is how many well-educated people around me have been perfectly OK with that.

  3. Everyone knows our form of Representative Town Meeting doesn’t work. At one point or another throughout the 18 months of deliberations, every one of the nine members of the Amherst Charter Commission voted to adopt a proposal that would eliminate Town Meeting. In the end, they couldn’t come up with a compromise agreement that would get the support of all members. They settled on the proposed improvement. That’s good enough for me – and for the hundreds of people who told us they plan to vote Yes on March 27.

  4. Very well reasoned and compelling as an argument to support the Charter, which promises to bring to Amherst a more competent and truly representative form of governance than town meeting.

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