Some opponents of Amherst’s new charter are advancing the argument that it’s “safe” to vote “no” on Tuesday because there can be a re-vote in two years. They claim that Town Meeting deserve a chance to reform ktself, and if it doesn’t do a good job, you’ll get another chance to vote “yes.”
I believe this argument is misleading in several ways.
First, if the “no” side wins a majority on Tuesday, there is no automatic trigger that brings it back for a second vote in two years. The only way a second vote happens is if 10 percent of registered voters petition to bring the same charter back (that’s over 2,100 residents). But this was tried in 2005, and charter reform lost by a larger margin than in 2003 (252 votes instead of 14), in part because many voters thought the question was already decided.
Also, a re-vote would cause the divisiveness that we’ve seen over the past few weeks to continue for another two years. Do Amherst residents really want that?
Second, we’ve been waiting for 15 years for Town Meeting to reform itself, and I believe that its time is up. Sure, electronic voting has been an improvement, but the meet-the-candidates events have been poorly attended. A Town Meeting committee met for about 12 months and considered 12 possible improvements, and recommended only one – a new committee.
And that one reform, the Town Meeting Advisory Committee, has many problems. First, its creation is an admission that Town Meeting members have for years been voting on articles that they don’t understand. Second, membership on this committee will involve an enormous time commitment to become familiar with all sides of all non-finance articles, and will duplicate much of the preparatory work already done by the Select and Planning Boards. Third, it isn’t clear how this committee will present Town Meeting members with an unbiased report on articles.
Right now, the majority of Town Meeting members come from precincts where voters have been given no choices, or very few choices. An obvious solution to this problem is to reduce the number of members, thus increasing the likelihood of competition for seats and thus choices for voters. This was one of the 12 possible reforms on that Town Meeting committee’s list, but it was not recommended.
Last September, Meg Gage circulated a petition calling for Town Meeting to cut its size in half. I signed her petition, even though one of my main arguments for the charter would have been undercut if it had passed at fall Town Meeting. She held a party at her house to gather signatures on the petition. But then she abandoned the effort, scuttling the prospect of meaningful reform before the charter vote.
Furthermore, there are basic structural problems with Town Meeting that can’t be solved with minor reforms.
First, Town Meeting cannot, by law, set its own agenda. Instead, it has to wait for the time-consuming “warrant” process to be completed and the Select Board to call a meeting. Town Meeting members don’t participate in shaping the proposals as they are developed, only coming in at the end to vote up or down on proposals crafted by others.
Second, it’s impossible for Town Meeting to have the kind of give-and-take that produces good decisions. The members who speak give speeches, sometimes including misinformation that goes uncorrected, such as the notion that Amherst could reject the $34 million in state money for elementary schools and get the money later with a new plan. With 13 councilors, patient deliberation is possible, and if there isn’t enough information or public comment, decisions can be delayed.
Third, under the current system, the town manager must make a spending proposal in early January for the fiscal year that starts in July. This is long before he knows how much money to anticipate from the state. Under the new charter, the manager would have a lot more time to consider spending decisions in the light of actual information about state aid.
This line about how it is “safe” to reject the charter now because it can be brought back for a re-vote includes the remark, “Watch us over the next two years.” The word “us” is telling. This piece of campaign legerdemain comes from Town Meeting members themselves, and they have a personal stake in what happens to the charter proposal. The vote on Tuesday is not a preliminary. It is the actual vote.
If voters don’t accept the proposal for a new charter on Tuesday, why is there any more reason to believe that Town Meeting will reform itself than there was 15 years ago?