Mandi Jo Hanneke
Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting is not like the traditional idea many people have of town meetings — that Norman Rockwell painting, where anyone can stand up, speak and vote. That’s Open Town Meeting, and it’s pretty much only found in small towns – places like Pelham, Hadley, and Leverett.
Let me give you an example: A few years ago, New Salem had a warrant article on whether to bring broadband access to the town. Friends of mine were really interested in seeing that happen. So, they showed up at Town Meeting and voted. They’d never showed up to a Town Meeting before and didn’t show up again. But, when an issue they were interested in appeared, they could vote on it. They didn’t have to plan three years in advance and get themselves elected in order to do that.
That’s participatory government. And Amherst abandoned it for “Representative” Town Meeting 80 years ago.
In Amherst, if residents are not elected members of our Representative Town Meeting, they cannot vote on budgets, bylaws, and resolutions. Instead, residents have to rely on the 24 Town Meeting members from their precincts to represent them. Yet, in Amherst, many of our “representatives” respond quite negatively when contacted by residents seeking to have a say in their government.
For example, a constituent wrote to Representative Town Meeting members the following: “I want to remind TM members that they represent their constituents and I am one of them who is fully and unequivocally supportive of the school project.”
A Representative Town Meeting Member replied: “Who the hell are you????? …I disagree… I am a voice FROM my neighborhood and do my best to make thoughtful and informed decisions FOR my community. Every voter has the option to become a town meeting member. Those who do, do so because of THEIR concerns and beliefs and in accordance with them. … I will vote my conscience.”1
Another Representative Town Meeting member wrote with respect to the constituents contacting her in advance of the school vote: “The “Yes’ voters who have contacted me personally have been respectful though insistent that I change my position. I did not appreciate being asked how I would vote and when obliging, being the subject of interrogation as to the sources of my thinking etc. I listened and tried to be patient. I found the 60 page package of information ‘over the top’ and did not read it before recycling, (I say this to discourage this form of ‘participation’ that had the opposite effect on me than was intended).”
Yet another wrote: “I have been lobbied by both sides of the argument and refuse to even read the letters in the huge expensive packet–over-kill. I got the message! I do not want to discuss this issue any more and did not read the letters in the paper today. I can’t wait for this vote to happen and be done with it for a while! DO NOT CALL! I will scream.”
These are not isolated stories. Residents of Amherst reported being hung up on when calling Representative Town Meeting members. They reported being yelled at, told not to call, and never receiving return phone calls after calling all of their Representative Town Meeting members. At least one Amherst resident reported receiving the response “unsubscribe” from a Representative Town Meeting member to an email sent to the “email all your Town Meeting members” list.
Is this how we want our elected leaders treating residents and the information provided to them so they can make informed decisions?
Our 37,000 residents who can’t vote in Town Meeting deserve to know that the people making decisions on their behalf actually recognize their privileged status and seek to represent the views and positions of those who don’t have that status.
They deserve to know that the 254 Representative Town Meeting members are casting votes with the views of their constituents in mind, not just voting their own opinions. Our 37,000 residents deserve to know where potential Representative Town Meeting members stand before electing them to their privileged status. Otherwise, our 37,000 residents really don’t have a say in their government.
If our “representatives” refuse to divulge their voting intentions, throw out information from constituents without reading it, and don’t even want to be contacted, our government can no longer claim the mantle of being representative of the people. That’s where Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting stands today.
1 These quotes came from postings to the old YahooGroups Town Meeting Listserv. I kept them anonymous because I do not intend to shame any particular Representative Town Meeting members. Instead, I use them to demonstrate that this viewpoint is prevalent throughout the body. Bold has been added by me. All caps and other punctuation are original to the individuals’ quotes.