A Better Structure for Bridging Divisions

Mandi Jo Hanneke

One of my strongest reasons for supporting the charter is that I believe it will finally allow Amherst to have the kind of community discussions we need to have, because the body that has to vote on proposals will finally also be able to truly deliberate about them in a way that leads to productive compromise.

This was driven home to me Tuesday when I recorded a conversation with Maria Kopicki and Oliver Broudy for Oliver’s podcast, “Let’s Be Reasonable.” I was talking about this inability of Representative Town Meeting to effectively deliberate tough issues, particularly in the instance of Inclusionary Zoning. I won’t get into the particulars, but in short, everyone in Town government agrees that the current Inclusionary Zoning bylaw (intended to promote the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments) is not working. The reasons it’s not working are at issue. But for more than four years, everyone has recognized that it needs to be fixed.

Yet the structure of Representative Town Meeting has produced an impasse. The Planning Board proposes a fix, and it fails. Those who didn’t support the Planning Board fix propose their own fix, and it fails. The back-and- forth cycle has been going on for four years.

Our Representative Town Meeting is not set up to fix something when two sides have different beliefs about how it should be fixed. The floor of Town Meeting isn’t structurally able to deal with the discussion that’s necessary to lead to compromise legislation. You can’t amend items on the floor to the degree necessary. You can’t have a true deliberative conversation on the floor.

And, as Maria Kopicki responded, we need a place where the various views can come together and talk through the proposals and come to a compromise. And I agree that we need that place. But that place needs to include the people who will be the final decision-makers. In other words, the conversation needs to include the people voting on the legislation.

And right now, it can’t. Why? Because the legislation is already drafted by the time it gets to Town Meeting. Once it’s there, amendments are severely restricted, or if not, potentially too complicated to think through in one night, which is how long Town Meeting members have before the vote is required. There is no mechanism once legislation makes it to Town Meeting for the members to sit down, deliberate on the pros and cons, then work out their differences and amend it before voting.

The boards and committees essentially work outside the 254-member Town Meeting structure, in the dark as to whether a proposal will be the compromise needed on these tough votes because the members voting on the legislation aren’t in the room crafting it.

In the proposed structure, legislation can go back and forth between committees and the Town Council. And, it can go back and forth between Councilors, so that they can work out a plan acceptable to different viewpoints.

If both sides agree that a bylaw isn’t working, a Town Council will be able to fix it by working together, in open meetings, to craft legislation that meets the needs of all sides. The structure of a Town Council allows for it. The structure of Representative Town Meeting doesn’t, and the more than four-year struggle with fixing the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw is proof.

Comments 2

  1. It’s like having a desired product of some craftsmanship, with the customer to be satisfied and the workbench located miles away from each other.

  2. The failed school project is, of course, a blaring example of our current government structure not being able to work cohesively to move projects forward in a collaborative way. Quote from the Gazzette 3/16/18:

    “Town Meeting member Laura Quilter, who was an organizer against the failed school project with the group Save Amherst’s Small Schools, said the School Committee should have seen that the project would fail to gain enough votes.”

    I agree with Laura Quilter that we should have a system of government where the school committee would be able to know, with some amount of certainty, if their plans will get funded. Our current Representative Town Meeting that meets infrequently, with an unwieldy large body, does not provide this ability. How would the school committee have possibly been able to predict the outcome of the Town Meeting Vote? Were they supposed to poll the body? I tried to contact just my 24 town meeting representatives by calling, e-mailing, and even knocking on their doors. I got responses from less than half of them. Such an effort is unrealistic and can’t inform a design process in real time.

    I submit that as a direct result of having a form of government that doesn’t meet the needs of a town as large and as complex as Amherst, we will now be pouring millions of dollars into school buildings that don’t meet the educational requirements of our children, not to improve those environments, but just to keep the rain out and the heat on.

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