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.