Amherst’s Town Meeting Leaves 37,000 Residents Out in the Cold

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.

Comments 11

  1. One of those eye-opening interactions was with me. I couldn’t believe it. Others more familiar with our undemocratic system told me they were not surprised.

  2. I have experienced the same kinds of sentiments from Town Meeting members (in the context of the school vote). I called a number of members from my precinct as well as emailed to the TM precinct email lists. I got the ‘unsubscribe’ reply several times from people, who clearly did not want to engage. I tracked down one TM members email address, was then told to use a different address, did this, and then never got another reply. I called and left messages and never heard back. I understand that the school vote was a big deal and many TM members felt overwhelmed. But the school vote WAS a big deal and being representative does mean to be available to constituents when there’s an important issue to decide! It’s time for change.

  3. Representative town meeting as I understand it, represents a cross-section of town residents defined geographically by each precinct. Elected town meeting members are under no obligation to vote according to their precinct constituents. It is regrettable that the Townmeeting members cited responded to voter requests in an off putting manner. My contacts with TM members have not been limited just those members from my precinct. I have found TM members civil , interested in hearing my opinion on issues and open to taking in any new valid information I offer. That the TM member is then free to vote by ” personal conscience” is an important democratic value upheld by RTM.

    1. Hi Tim. Thanks for this measured post. I’m sure that the vast majority of TM members are kind, reasonable, thoughtful people. I only want to respond to address the issue of representation brought up in your post. Either it’s a representative system, in which elected representatives serve those in their precinct, or it’s… something else.

      My issue with TM is that many of its members want to have it both ways. I can’t count the number of times over the course of this campaign that I’ve seen TM members speak enthusiastically about their experiences in “participatory democracy.” An open town meeting would be participatory government – where anybody shows up and speaks their piece. That’s true, radical democracy. But we don’t have an open town meeting, and we don’t have participatory democracy. (Not that I think that would work well for a town our size anyway.) We have a “representative town meeting.”

      This gauzy notion that “well, because there are so many people in TM, from all over town, it is actually ‘representative’” just doesn’t hold up. If it’s representative, then the representatives themselves should be accountable to their voters. It doesn’t mean anybody gets strong-armed into voting against their conscience, but it does mean they should be easily reached and open to hearing from their constituents. It means their constituents should know who they’re voting for and why, and should be able to keep track fairly easily of how their representatives have voted on their behalf.

      Plus, the system should support all that. Even if every one of the TM members “representing” me had, say, an open forum at their house for all their constituents, anybody could see that such a system couldn’t work. Because each of us have 24 TM reps!

      This system FEELS very democratic, particularly to TM members, but in reality it falls far short.

      1. Thank you for writing, Bennett, that there are kind and thoughtful people in Town Meeting, especially the vast majority. Unfortunately there is no mention of those TM members in this post. Of course not, because the aim of the post is to show how inconsiderate TM members are so we can get rid of them. I get that.

        I believe though, just like Mandi Jo writes, that my job as a TM member is to make an informed decision about issues that are on the warrant of Town Meeting. There are a few issues that people feel very strongly about. With those few issues, like the school vote, town meeting members, including myself, were inundated by letters and contact in and out of our respective precincts. Maybe some TM members got tired of that, and reacted, but the final conclusion was, that in both votes the TM totals were within 1% of the town-wide votes. It is also true, that the ex-officio members of TM (like select board other boards, Town Manager, etc.) were almost exclusively for going ahead of the shcool issue. So I ask logic and conscience, which is more representative? A body, (in which people are actually called ‘members’, not ‘representatives’), which votes very close to the wider body, or a small subgroup of that body, who are near unanimous for the outcome you want? Would you feel represented, if you were on the opposit side, and your ‘representatives’ voted near unanimously for something you are against?

        If the TM contact doesn’t work to your taste, maybe it is better to fix it, than to just trash the whole system, and replace it with something that doesn’t have any better track record. Even if they would represent you (and only you).

        1. Hi Gabor. Thanks for this. I only have one point for you in response. I don’t care whether the select group of people who attend Town Meeting are called “members” or “representatives.” The fact is that the system is a representative town meeting, and those (mostly wonderful, civically engaged) people are the representatives. They are supposed to represent me. And yet when I vote for them, I have no idea what their positions are on anything. I don’t know who they are. (With an exception here and there.) Figuring out how they voted is difficult. Contacting them is difficult. Getting a response is even more difficult. All of which leads me to the conclusion that this “representative” system is anything but. And no incremental improvements are going to somehow make it representative.

          I find the suggestion that I am looking to “trash the whole system” to be condescending at best, suggesting that because I was unhappy with one vote that I want to bring an entire system down. Here’s what really happened: I saw how Town Meeting worked for the first time.

          Thank you for your service as a Town Meeting representative.

  4. I am stunned by the accounts listed above, and by the willingness of those inconsiderate members to put their feelings in writing, so that they live on. As a matter of belief but not of knowledge, I’m fairly sure that these attitudes were not true of a majority of the body…..EVER. These written responses, however, are a little like the cop who mistreats a citizen at a traffic stop: it reverberates far beyond the incident in question, into something as remote as the impartiality of jurors at a criminal trial when any police officer must testify. These slaps in the face to neighbors ripple the pond similarly. I just don’t know what these members were thinking, but they reflect the sad reality that what Town Meeting once was for the Town of Amherst, it is not now. Whatever happens on March 27, the public trust is seriously damaged, and, for several long-time members who served this town faithfully and respectfully, the essence of what is good about Amherst, I am sorry about that.

  5. Tim Holcomb writes, “Elected town meeting members are under no obligation to vote according to their precinct constituents.” The problem here is that about half of Town Meeting members are NOT elected, meaning that they are from precincts where there were eight or fewer candidates for eight seats, so voters had no choice at all. And an additional 20 percent of members have a very low level of electoral legitimacy, meaning they are from precincts where there were nine or 10 candidates for eight seats. Another problem is your use of the word “constituents.” Right now Town Meeting members don’t have constituents, i.e., voters they are answerable to. That’s one of the main improvements of the new charter: much greater accountability.

  6. Lots of successful communities have Select Board-Town Meeting governments–Brookline, Arlington, Needham, Lexington, Amherst, Belmont, Wellesley, Winchester…..I could go on. All have excellent school systems. Amherst has hundreds of Town Meeting members and has had thousands. Thoughtful, respectful, dedicated–and listening. I am sure that there are a few crabby apples–always more memorable and emotionally jarring than the many, many hours Town Meeting members spend listening to neighbors and town residents.

    And then there is the other side of the penny. Are the councilors in the 9 Massachusetts Council-manager governments all uniformly kindly and respectful, with all votes representing their constituents’s views? Where is this place? And how does anyone represent all their constituents when they have different points of view? The school project vote is a perfect example-voters were almost divided equally for and against the school project in the November vote–as were Town Meeting members.

    Focus on results: Amherst Town government works well, as the Charter Commission found. It’s a citizen-led government: the successful New England government model that the rest of the country should adopt.

  7. I am expecting Town Council members who will have done their homework, which will not just be listening to constituents. In other words, I am expecting Town Council members who are smarter than their constituents because they’ve spent more time thinking about the issues. What’s unique about this electorate, and no charter vote changes it, is that we have many, many people here who defer to no one once their minds are made up. This is the governance problem that lingers beyond March 27. Just ask any School Committee member who has served in Amherst in, say, the last 5 years. We are going to need Town Council members who have powers of serenity way beyond the average person, because there will be so many around them who think that they can do better.

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