With this guest post, Select Board member Jim Wald makes it unanimous; all five board members are urging a “yes” vote on Amherst’s new charter next Tuesday.
Back in 2010, when I was a Town Meeting member and friends suggested I run for Select Board, I had to ask myself some tough questions: Was I able to put in the necessary time? And did I know enough: possess not only knowledge of Town government, but also the capacity for growth (there would be a lot to learn) and judgment — knowing when to raise critical challenges versus accept the conclusions of those with greater experience and expertise? When I at last answered in the affirmative, it was because I felt my work as Chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC), which produced the draft master plan, had prepared me. These reflections came to mind again as I pondered the question of Town Meeting and the Charter.
The Charter debate is primarily about the best form of government rather than development, but since opponents have chosen to make the latter a focus of their crusade, allow me to suggest how these two issues intersect.
The origins of my civic engagement predated any formal political activity: as a schoolchild, I joined campaigns to ban toxic pesticides and save a historic house from demolition by a fast-food chain (the first was successful, the latter not). When I chaired the Historical Commission and CPC, I saw how those childhood interests in environmentalism and historic preservation — still my passions — fit together under the common ethic of sustainability articulated in the Master Plan: living lightly and humbly on the earth by embracing the inevitability of change but distinguishing carefully between good and bad development in order to preserve both the natural and built environments for future generations.
A Master Plan is a Comprehensive Plan
It therefore came as a great shock to me when, later in 2010, Town Meeting failed to take the first essential step in the implementation of the Master Plan. The Master Planning process affirmed and reflected a decades-old public preference: concentrating growth in village centers in order to preserve open space. However, the anti-sprawl measures embodied in our 1987 Phased Growth Bylaw now appeared to be unconstitutional unless anchored in a Master Plan and new zoning. The new Development Modification Bylaw met this need — and yet Town Meeting rejected it. To be sure, it was long and complex, but the principles should have been clear: in place of solely negative measures (curbs on growth), a point system of both carrots and sticks that penalized bad development (e.g. building on agricultural land) and rewarded good (e.g. affordable housing, historic preservation, energy efficiency).
A chief opposition argument was that it was simply too difficult to understand. This was a deeply disappointing but instructive moment for me, for it indicated an abdication of responsibility: Would not the logical action instead have been to abstain? Town Meeting members were both unable to do the homework necessary to understand the most important measure before them and unwilling to accept the judgment of the Planning Board, Select Board, and Finance Committee, all of which had carefully studied and endorsed it. Time and again since then, Town Meeting has rejected articles entirely consistent with the Master Plan and the most progressive smart-growth principles.
Although Town Meeting has always proven admirably receptive to historic preservation, conservation, and environmental protection articles, it has failed to view the situation comprehensively, treating these measures as oppositional rather than complementary to needed development. The repeated failure to address the needs of economic growth and expansion of housing stock means that our town — 90 percent of whose tax base (vs. 80 percent in Northampton and 65 percent in Hadley) derives from the regressive property tax — risks becoming a place where only the wealthy elite can afford to live: a barrier to the social justice and diversity that all of us on both sides of the Charter debate value so deeply.
A Structural Problem
Much of the debate around Town Meeting involves charges of polarization and incivility, and the problems are real. I would submit, however, that the deeper problem is instead structural, at the core of the system itself. We have a legislature that does not craft its own legislation. Presented with a set of completed warrant articles, members are faced with the unpalatable alternatives of either acting as a rubber stamp or exercising agency in problematic ways: extemporaneous revision of an article on the floor of the meeting (with unforeseen consequences for other items in the budgetary realm) or rejecting it altogether, often as not as a presumed “check” against the “authority” of the boards at the “front of the room.”
One need not even ascribe the hostility and suspicion behind the latter view to malice. Rather, the workings of Amherst government have become too complex for all 240 Town Meeting members to follow in detail. As a result, some see in the apparent unity of Select Board, Planning Board, and Finance Committee evidence of some sinister collusion rather than the reflection of an intensively deliberative year-long process that, by scrutinizing all possible objections and alternatives, finally results in consensus.
Bottom line: the combination of structural problem and ideological conflict, combined with an uncompetitive electoral system, creates a perfect storm of institutional gridlock. It is now virtually impossible to get a two-thirds majority (much less civic consensus) on almost any major or comprehensive initiative, with the result that we are forced to undertake piecemeal or incremental action which, in the case of issues such as zoning, makes for bad policy — the very opposite of “comprehensive” planning.
Town Meeting Has Failed
This diagnosis was confirmed for me last fall when Town Meeting approved creation of an Advisory Committee that would “analyze the benefits and impacts” of proposed legislation. The reason: “Many such articles are complex and detailed. Zoning Bylaw changes and proposals for new municipal buildings are two examples. Town Meeting members don’t always have the time to delve into the details of these articles in the depth warranted by them.”
Sit down, take a deep breath, re-read that statement, and consider the implications: Town Meeting members do not have the time to do the job they took on when they stood for office.
Proponents presented this as an imaginative and heroic reform, unaware that it was in fact an implicit admission of abject failure. If Town Meeting members cannot do their individual jobs, then Town Meeting as an institution cannot do its job. Q.E.D.
Further: the new committee is also needed because “the recommendations of the Select Board and its [?! we own or control no one] Boards and Committees are perceived to have a ‘Town Hall bias.’” Tarring the work of the Select Board and other bodies made up of honest and dedicated fellow volunteers with the brush of bias is not how the average person understands acting as a “check” on the executive branch, as Charter opponents claim to be doing.
The system is broken, but we cannot even attempt to discuss it because its defenders deny there is any serious problem. The body politic is heading for complete system shutdown, while Town Meeting proponents blithely prescribe band-aids: white voting cards, publication of members’ email addresses, and now a committee to do members’ homework for them. As this week’s Amherst Bulletin editorial trenchantly put it, “It’s time to stop tinkering with Town Meeting in an effort to improve a legislative body that was devised for a different era.” Switching to a 13-member council would make the duties of the officeholders readily apparent — and their performance more evident to public scrutiny.
Government for the Twenty-First Century, Not the Seventeenth
I have friends on the other side of the Charter debate. We share many general progressive values and goals for Amherst but differ largely as to how best to achieve them.
Just as I respect the reasons that they are so committed to the current system, I hope they will respect mine as I conclude that it has become inadequate. I don’t expect to change their minds. Instead, I address myself here to the undecided.
As I have often said, I actually enjoy Town Meeting and would honestly miss that experience as well as the loss of a venerable historical tradition, were it to disappear. That said, personal enjoyment and sentimentality are not sound principles on which to choose a system of government.
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that this system, which originated in Massachusetts in 1633, was established here in Amherst in 1735 and then modernized in 1938, is no longer capable of addressing either the challenges or the opportunities of the far more complex world of 2018 and beyond. We need year-round government that is well-informed, efficient, and accountable — to a population of 38,000 rather than 7,000.
In endorsing the Charter, I am of course voting for the common good against my own self-interest — advocating the abolition of an office to which I have been elected, unopposed, for three terms, and which brings me only modest annual financial remuneration. But isn’t that the essence of ethical politics?
Please join me in voting “Yes.”
Jim Wald is a member of the Select Board, and past Town Meeting Member, Chair of the Historical Commission, and Chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee. He is an associate professor of history at Hampshire College.