A big change: All Amherst voters can choose their representatives

Nick Grabbe

This fall, 100 percent of Amherst voters will be able to choose among multiple candidates as they elect the 13 members of the new Town Council.

This level of voter choice is completely new in Amherst. Over the past 11 years, only 5 percent of voting precincts have had this much choice among candidates for Town Meeting. Voter choice among Select Board and School Committee candidates has been declining.

With our new form of government, Amherst is empowering voters to make decisions between candidates based on their experience, character and positions on issues (and other criteria).

There will be four candidates for two seats on the Town Council in each of the five voting districts on Nov. 6, if no one drops out. There will be six candidates for three  town-wide (“at large”) seats. Click here for a list of the 34 candidates, along with their ages, addresses and experience/affiliations.

From 2008 to 2018, there were only six times when voters in a precinct had twice as many Town Meeting candidates to choose from as seats available. And even then, voters were often flummoxed. For example, Precinct 9 voters in 2017 had to evaluate the qualifications of 24 candidates for eight seats, a near-impossible task.  About half of all Town Meeting members were elected without any choices for voters at all over that 11-year period,because there were the same number of candidates (or fewer) as seats available. Another 20 percent of precincts had minimal choices for voters.

In addition to dramatically expanding voter choice, the new charter will provide a means to measure public opinion on the issues that Amherst faces. In the past, we’ve received that information mainly in referendums. In the upcoming Town Council campaign, candidates will articulate their positions on issues, and voters will respond.

Also, I expect that voter participation in elections will greatly improve. Debates about the issues, lawn signs, conversations among friends and family, neighborhood involvement, and a November election date should draw more people to the polls. That increase in community participation should make for a healthier democracy.

There will be a preliminary election on Sept. 4, but it won’t be as important to the composition of the Town Council as the general election on Nov. 6. In eliminating eight of the 34 candidates, the preliminary election will tell us who doesn’t have voter support. The Sept. 4 preliminary election will be more notable for the choice between two strong candidates for the Democratic nomination for state representative.

In future Town Council elections, ranked-choice voting will make preliminary elections unnecessary (this one will be held the day after Labor Day, just as many people have returned to Amherst).

Here are some other observations about the field of candidates for Town Council:

  • The average age of the candidates is 56.5. That’s five years younger than the average age of Town Meeting members in 2017.
  • Of the 34 candidates, 19 are Town Meeting members. Of those 19, I count 12 who supported the new charter.
  • Thirteen of the candidates are women, including all four in District 1 (Precincts 1 & 3). Three candidates are people of color.
  • Three candidates are UMass students and six are UMass staff members, including two  professors and one lecturer.
  • Only six of the candidates have been elected to town-wide office before (including five of the seven at-large candidates); another five have been appointed to major committees.

Comments 7

  1. Calm, common sense, pragmatism without ideology, a quick study, curiosity about the people, history, and geography of the Town, some experience building structures of accountability from scratch, the willingness to listen, an ability to balance private and public lives, some attention to personal health, the capacity to “stay within oneself” when things get frantic….

    These are the qualities I’m looking for in a Council member. It’s NOT a list of demographic characteristics.

  2. Nick,
    Thanks for your engagement and effort to build support for the government. But we need more than cheer-leading. It would be refreshing if you could move from promotion and what reads like marketing and instead write about some of the challenges and, for example, what we need to our Council to take on, how to give the hundreds of people who want to be involved in city government a way to participate that is meaningful, helpful and creative and not resigned to protesting from the outside, the challenge facing the council of understanding it is a legislature, not an executive and what that means. These things can be accomplished but we all have to move beyond promoting or demeaning what is going to happen. We need some strong leaders who have excellent communication and meeting skills, people who can disagree with civility, as Richard Morse suggests, and people who are honest and generous toward others. We also need our new councilors to have the time and energy to do the job. These things are more important than demographics and voting record.

  3. I’m surprised and disappointed to see that many of the most aggressive anti-Charter voices chose not to run for a seat on the new Amherst Town Council.

    I’m thinking of the people who – like Meg Gage (above) – worked very hard from the start to stop the effort to change our governance in Amherst. They formed groups to oppose the creation of the Charter Commission, then bankrolled three separate organizations bent on a failed effort to reject the new proposal. Some anti-Charter people focused on personally attacking the organizers and supporters of the new Charter, including the Yes members of the Commission. The ugliest of the bunch made up stories about the supporters and fomented anti-Charter sentiment through pure fear mongering.

    But in the end, the voters adopted the new Council-Manager model and opened the opportunity for anyone in town to run for one of the 13 seats. Where are the antis now?

    Given the opportunity to help govern, the loudest antis clearly prefer to sit on the safely on the sidelines offering commentaries and advice to those who have the courage to run for office. I respect people like Bob Greeney and Rob Kusner, even though I don’t think I can point to a single local political issue that we agree on. These candidates were part of the effort to block the new Charter, but now have the courage to run under the new system.

    Kudos all around to the 34 candidates for 13 open seats – no matter what position they took on the Charter. They’ve already got what it finally takes to run for elected office in Amherst: the will to be held accountable.

  4. Post

    I agree that Bob Greeney and Rob Kusner deserve some credit for seeking to be involved in the new system even though they opposed its creation. I would add the names of Town Council candidates Jim Pistrang, Pat DeAngelis, Dorothy Pam, Jacqueline Maidana, Jeffrey Lee and Darcy Dumont. I think it’s time to look beyond candidates’ positions on the charter and have a debate about the choices that Amherst faces, then let voters decide.

  5. Hi Nick:
    Thanks for this.
    Your UMass numbers are off. I count 3 students (Page, Maxfield, and Ruiz-Hau), and at least 6 staff (Usher, Griesemer, LaCour, Kusner, Ross, Schreiber). Of the staff, at least 3 are professors (Kusner, Ross, Schreiber).
    A number of others are indirectly associated with UMass and the colleges.
    I think its notable that almost 10% of the candidates are students.
    Thanks for your reporting!

  6. Post

    Steve, thanks for your information. I wasn’t including students among those with “close ties” but perhaps I should have. I didn’t know that Nicola Usher was on the UMass staff. I didn’t include Evan Ross because he’s a lecturer, not a professor. I have made some edits on that item.

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