Mandi Jo Hanneke
Transparency, openness, and accountability are three hallmarks of representative democracy. The proposed Council-Manager structure does better on these three matters than our current Representative Town Meeting.
One of the League of Women Voters’ Principles of Good Government is that “adherence to open meeting law must be strictly maintained.” The proposed charter observes this principle. Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting does not.
The Town Council will be subject to open meeting laws and conflict of interest laws, requiring councilors to deliberate and discuss the issues out in the open and to disclose conflicts when they arise. This means that Councilors will not be able to get together (even just a minority of them) and discuss the pros and cons of matters that will be coming up for a vote at a Council meeting.
And, in Council meetings, a Councilor will have to disclose any potential conflicts, including if that Councilor stands to benefit or be harmed financially by a council action.
These two principles are some of the hallmarks of an open and accountable government.
Yet, surprisingly, Representative Town Meeting isn’t subject to either open meeting or conflict of interest laws. And when asked, Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting members refused to voluntarily subject itself to these rules. They dismissed the matter on June 6, 2016, due to concerns that too many members would have to recuse themselves from votes such as the budget (because they pay taxes).
The result is that the body making decisions can hide from the public without violating the law. In fact, there are private listservs (three that I know of) that include large numbers of Representative Town Meeting members that discuss, in private, their voting plans prior to arriving at Town Meeting.
Furthermore, there have been many times when Representative Town Meeting members advocate to their fellow representatives a position on the floor of Town Meeting that would benefit them personally, all the while failing to disclose their potential benefit from the vote because it’s not required now.
This is not how government should work.
The proposed charter corrects these flaws in the current system and brings deliberations back out into the open, all while requiring the people making the decisions to be forthright about any potential benefit or harm they may face by the vote. It’s how government should be.