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.