Deciding among Town Council candidates

Nick Grabbe

How should voters decide which five candidates for Town Council to support on Sept. 4? Should the key factor be whether or not they favored the new form of government? Whether they backed the proposal for new elementary schools?

On Tuesday night, lots of voters showed up to listen to the candidates for district council. I attended three of the five simultaneous district meetings, and there were about 150 people in attendance, an impressive turnout for an August night. An excellent format devised by the League of Women Voters provided for both debate and informal contact with voters, and lots of discussion of issues.

Voters can check out the seven candidates for at-large councilor next Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Regional Middle School auditorium.

The Town Council will be a powerful new force in Amherst politics, and it’s important for voters to consider the candidates carefully. In doing so, I hope they will give weight not only their positions on local issues but also six personal criteria that I outline below. And I think they should resist the temptation to judge candidates based on how well they speak; a smooth delivery doesn’t necessarily make for an effective policymaker.

Here are some factors that I hope will influence your vote.

Does a candidate have knowledge of town government or the ability to quick-study it? About half the candidates have experience in Town Meeting, and that’s a plus. But I think we want fresh, new faces on the Town Council as well as familiar ones.

Does a candidate work well with others? Collegiality is crucial. While district councilors should speak up on neighborhood issues, the ability to compromise and function well with the other councilors will be a valuable skill. Watch out for dogmatic ideologues.

Does a candidate have the time to put into the work? Being on the council will be like a part-time job, and those who don’t do their homework will be easy to identify. Candidates with full-time jobs may need a support system to do the job well.

Can a candidate keep lots of details in his or her head? Decisions on the Town Council should be made on the basis of facts, and councilors will be bombarded with them. Candidates should have the patience and brainpower to sift through and retain many policy details.

Is a candidate open-minded and able to articulate nuanced opinions? Beware a candidate who thinks that development is all good or all bad. Look for candidates who are open to persuasion and willing to adjust their opinions when they receive new information.

Is a candidate committed to public participation and diversity? District councilors should be willing to spend time listening to their constituents, and all of them should be able to respect the views of residents with whom they disagree.

Do you have other qualities you’re looking for in a Town Council member? Please write them in the comments below.

After the bruising battle over the charter last fall and winter, it’s only natural that many voters will gravitate toward those candidates who had the same positions on the new government. And Town Council elections should serve as a way to measure public opinion on the issues we confront. But I hope that Amherst will be able to tone down the partisanship.

You can help that along by considering a vote for at least one candidate who you admire intellectually or personally but who disagreed with you on the charter. As we move away from that conflict and seek to resolve future conflicts with a new system of government, it would be beneficial if we think of Amherst as one town and not a bifurcated place with warring camps.


Comments 4

  1. A record of voting. Is there are record of the candidate’s position on important issues? The record can be on Town Meeting, on boards and committees, neighborhoods associations, faculty senates, etc. If there isn’t a record–why not?

    A record of civic engagement. College admissions officials are wary of applicants who suddenly become interested in community service during the senior year of high school. Amherst voters should be similarly be cautious.

    Ability to connect the dots. The town government is a subdivision of the state. Amherst’s goals are retrained and encouraged by a complicated network regional, state, and federal laws. The goal of becoming a zero-energy community is best accomplished with cooperation of organizations larger than us.

  2. I would like if at least several on the council have the ability to explore good questions, such as:
    Have we correctly identified the problem we’re hoping to solve?
    Is this really the best solution to the problem?
    Are there unintended consequences to what we’re going to do or not do?
    Have we heard from all concerned, including those not likely to make themselves heard?
    What is the cost of doing nothing?
    What is the true cost? (ie: polluting manufacturers don’t pay the true cost of cleaning up their mess)
    Is Amherst comparable to where this has worked before?
    What off label solution might be worth exploring? (the hair loss drug minoxidil was formulated to lower blood pressure)
    Instead of only putting out today’s fires, how to make tomorrow more fireproof?

    Also, it would be good if all the Town Council considered the ideas of Larry Susskind, author of “Breaking Robert’s Rules:The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus, and Get Results” or even bring him here from Boston to do a training in having a more effective discussion and decision making process.

  3. I have spotted a distinguishing characteristic that I did not expect: are you running a campaign, going to voters, putting yourself out there OR are you waiting for voters to notice you? I am going to give some preference to those who put some energy into it, because I think that it gives some indication about how that candidate will do the job (because that’s what it is, a job) once elected.

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