The voters have spoken. Did Town Meeting hear them?

This guest post was written by Johanna Neumann, chair of Amherst for All.

This coming Monday, in a special session of Town Meeting, members will vote on what should be a formality in the wake of last month’s resounding charter approval. The vote will be on  asking the state for permission to conduct Town Council elections this year (and only this year) at the same time as the state primary and general elections.

This should be a non-controversial aspect of the charter. It is required under our new home rule charter, and is one of many details reviewed and approved by the state attorney general’s office at the request of the Charter Commission.

Scheduling our first Council elections to coincide with state elections is sensible and pragmatic. It will help ensure higher turnout and eliminate the unnecessary effort and expense of a separate election. In subsequent town elections, ranked choice voting will make primary elections unnecessary, and voters will go to the polls on Election Day in November of odd years.

Despite the overwhelming approval by voters last month, the sense of this schedule and the approval of the state attorney general’s office, there are concerning signs that charter opponents are using this Special Town Meeting vote as a pretext to create a legal controversy. Their claim is that the new charter disenfranchises student voters, because nomination papers for Town Council will become available June 1 and will have to be returned by Aug. 1 – times when most students are not in town.

Let’s be very clear about what this really means.  Students who wish to run for district councilor seats on this first Town Council would have from June 1 to Aug. 1 to gather the 25 signatures required to run for office. Having two months to collect 25 signatures is not an insurmountable burden for a candidate aspiring to represent a district comprised of two voting precincts in a legislative body that will operate year-round.

Are student candidates disenfranchised by the requirement that they gather and submit 25 signatures over the course of two summer months, in one specially timed election? When you hear claims about the charter “violating constitutional rights,” and opponents raise the specter of lawsuits, remember that it all comes down to that one simple question.

In Cambridge, another municipality that boasts a large student population, Council “candidate kits” are available at the beginning of July, and are usually due back at the end of July. In Newton, home to Lasell College, Mt. Ida, and Boston College Law School, nomination papers become available May 1 and are due back on Aug. 8. The proposed schedule for our first Town Council election in Amherst is right in line with those of other localities that have large student populations.

If Town Meeting fails to request approval from the state to hold council elections this fall, the charter then dictates that the first Town Council primary would fall on Dec. 11 and the general vote would be pushed to Jan. 24, 2019. Under this scenario, student voters could be affected even more. Classes at Amherst College don’t even start until Jan. 28. Plus, student candidates and voters would be on winter vacation for the entirety of the actual campaign season between the primary and the general election leading up to this important vote.  Anyone concerned about disenfranchising student voters should carefully consider this alternative.

If the end-game strategy is a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the charter, despite the fact that the Charter Commission checked all the boxes in terms of making sure the charter met state guidelines, then Amherst’s government could be in legal limbo for the foreseeable future. And thousands of Amherst voters who supported the charter would be correct in believing that a small minority of Town Meeting members and a handful of other opponents thwarted the clearly expressed will of the majority.

We should all be concerned about the real, practical impact of kicking the can down the road by delaying the inevitable formation of the Town Council, jeopardizing a strongly supported update to our town’s government. The voters of Amherst know that we will have a packed agenda of pressing town issues awaiting our newly elected Town Councilors. They don’t want to delay the implementation of our new form of government.

Our town’s voters have spoken – with authority. Town Meeting members should follow the directive of the electorate and put in place the election schedule called for in the charter by voting Yes Monday night. Amherst can’t afford to engage in a never-ending campaign waged on the merits of a charter vote that already passed by an overwhelming margin.  Instead, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.


Comments 14

  1. There are two types of college student voters:
    A) those who register at their permanent addresses, and
    B) those who register at their college addresses (if different from A)

    While it is true that many of the B group will away from Amherst in summer, it is also true that most of the A group (which amounts to hundreds of voters) will be in Amherst in the summer. Why would we change our election schedule for the convenience of local college students who have permanent addresses elsewhere, when we are inconveniencing Amherst natives who go to college out of the area? Alex Morse and Solomon Goldstein-Rose both began their campaigns while attending college out of state, then continued their campaigns during the summer in their native Holyoke and Amherst, respectively. Summer campaigns, fall elections is the norm for almost every elected office at every level. If this particular summer doesn’t work for some students, faculty, and others , then there are lots of other ways to get involved!

  2. My question: did Mr. Bonifaz, one of the prime movers of this “student rights movement”, or any associate of his, ever appear in front of the Charter Commission to voice these alleged concerns?

    1. If my recollection is correct, Mr. Bonifaz never submitted any public comment to the Charter Commission, either in written or oral form.

  3. The basic issue here is that people having voted for the charter change want things to happen as fast as possible, and others disagreeing with it want to not happen at all – a lot of politically active people in town hasn’t been helped to buy in. See the previous post on this blog about a moderation which was in the planning but somehow was put aside (Nick, how is that process going?).

    I think this basic disagreement will dog the new charter and will result in a lot of animosity until it is dealt with. Which takes time and effort mostly from the people who currently have their way.

    1. Post

      Gabor, the planning for a conversation between Yes and No voters, with the goal of bringing the community together, has not been put aside. In fact, there’s a planning meeting tonight, involving 14 people (six on each side, plus two neutral) and two very experienced facilitators. The tentative plan is to have the actual public event after Town Meeting is over, probably May 30.
      I don’t think having an election more than seven months after the charter vote is “as fast as possible.”

    2. Gabor–
      “As fast as possible” is what East Longmeadow did: nomination papers available April 13, 2016, the day after the charter was adopted by the voters on April 12, 2016; nomination papers due back on May 9, 2016, and the Election on June 7, 2016 (with 32 candidates on the ballot for 7 seats, because they skipped holding a preliminary to narrow to 14 candidates). As Nick said, holding a preliminary election 5+ months after adoption and the general election 2 months after that is not “as fast as possible”. In fact, I would argue it’s pragmatic and sensible–it gives enough time for residents to consider whether they want to run, time to gather signatures (2 months, instead of 1), and time to campaign / learn about the candidates and the issues, including an election in the November “sweet spot”. In addition, it puts the Council in place with enough time to adequately and ably consider the budget under the timeline set forth in the Charter. And, it’s doesn’t unduly delay the transition to the new form of government, as later dates of Council elections would have, including the possibility of needed to hold another Annual Town Meeting in 2019 because the Council wouldn’t be elected and seated in time to adequately consider the budget for the next fiscal year. There were many moving parts to consider when setting a transition timeline.

    3. You are right, I could have said “sooner rather than later”. Or maybe I could have even said “as fast as the charter language makes it legally possible” – you two know better: would that language allowed it faster or not? But these are only semantics. What is true is that there is tension in town, and if there is effort to ameliorate it, people don’t know about it — until the planners let us know. And after the pre-election frenzy of posting , there has been not one post on this blog about how the planning for that mediation meeting was going – so would you agree that in that light it is reasonable to think that nothing was happening?

      Anyway, just like you two, I do want things to go well for town, and that probably means converging towards peace is necessary. I think you putting the information out about a planning process for a meeting to open conversation between the two sides is important, ASAP.

      1. “Converging toward peace” is not going to happen until it’s clear that those who supported the losing side accept the election’s result. Instead, we see what appears to be an effort to extend the dominion of Town Meeting well into 2019. As Town Manager Paul Bockleman pointed out Monday to those assembled for Select Board, the Charter is in effect NOW. That’s simply a fact. But many of the long-time members of the deposed aristocracy wish to continue to rule the Town. And, as always, they are utterly unaccountable to the voters.

        1. Thank you, Richard, you are right, the election results were decisive. But I think converging towards peace will not happen until both sides stop calling names, stop blaming the other side and look towards peace, and not only on the deposed aristocracy accepting the election results.

          I am happy to say though, that your answer really gives me the energy to sabotage the process of the new government, and vote no for the November timing:-)

      2. Thanks for the feedback Gabor. Since Nick is the one working on the community conversation, he’ll need to take your suggestion into consideration.

        There really haven’t been postings from the blog since the election because we never truly planned on continuing it past the election. Nick and I will have to re-evaluate and discuss whether to continue with it in the near future. You’ll notice that this post was a guest post–not written by Nick or me. The other reason for lack of posts is that we (or at least me, but I think Nick would agree) needed a break from all the work that maintaining and publishing content requires.

  4. Out of 7000 residents who list their occupation as “student”, about 300 voted. Seven of them live on campus. Not 37% but 1.41%. The new charter is the best thing that ever happened to student voting rights in the Commonwealth. Now their vote will actually mean something. For the first time in his life, John Bonifaz is going to be laughed out of court. Period.

  5. So here’s my question, and it’s directed primarily to Gabor, since he has the courage to come on here: if the NOs got the election calendar they wanted on Monday night, would that be the end of it? Would they be satisfied, that is, not interested in any litigation about the result of the March 27 vote? If we had some assurances that this is not going to drag well into 2019, that might work. But my sense is that Monday’s vote is simply Step One of a litigation strategy by Bonifaz et al, that this is a slippery slope into impasse for a year or more.

    1. In my original post I meant to imply, that this particular issue you mention is not the problem. The problem is the town is very divided. I think reaching out is the responsibility of whomever holds the steering wheel. This entity used to be the select board/town meeting combo (one can argue it still is for the moment, but at this point they/we are clearly voted out by the voters of Amherst), and thus there were attempts to involve people who felt not heard, and it was decided that this reach-out (email list and venue for the town meeting members to be reached by precinct) was inadequate.
      And now we have a situation, where Amherst For All put up a powerful campaign, and won decisively, but there are no incumbents yet. So who is responsible to reach out?
      Nick wisely foresaw this need, as the campaigns were pretty harsh in general, and started to work on initiating this reach-out dialogue. I thought it needed to happen ASAP, before Town Meeting, so as many people are brought in as possible, so this sabotaging don’t happen. As it is, myself and many town meeting supporters are stuck with a large amount of bullying that happened towards us, and have no trust towards the people, who proposed the new government. The bigger problem is, this may be only 40% of the voters, but I suspect quite a bit more than 40% of the politically active people, which can mean a formidable opposition.
      Would a dialogue fix all these problems? Not even close. But it would be a token at least, that would help the attending members of each side see that people on the other side are not evil or mean, but people just like us.

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