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We supported the charter, and will work hard to move Amherst Forward

This guest post was written by Katherine Appy and Ginny Hamilton, co-chairs of Amherst Forward

Last spring, with 58 percent of the popular vote in favor of a new town charter, voters made clear that the time for change in Amherst had arrived. Today our town is facing a critical moment in the transition to our new Town Council. We are in the process of choosing 13 fellow residents – three at-large councilors, and 10 district councilors – who will represent us on this inaugural council.

Will our new Town Council succeed or flounder? The answer depends in part on how we as residents engage with our councilors to support constructive, measured, and creative change. That’s why many of us who advocated for the new charter and the co-located elementary schools have chosen to organize as a political action committee  called Amherst Forward.

We worked hard to convince our friends, neighbors, and family members that the move to a Town Council was the right step for the future of the town we love. Now we feel a responsibility to help make the Council the responsive, informed, progressive decision-making body our town expects and deserves. Doing so will require helping voters stay engaged about the important issues that will come before this new governing body.

Over the next few weeks, we will share candidates’ public positions on issues we believe are of special importance to the town, based on all the conversations we had with our fellow residents as we called them and knocked on their doors this past winter. Those issues are:

 Thoughtful, environmentally responsible development;
 A broader tax base to curb our well-documented over-reliance on property taxes;
 The best possible schools and town services;
 Protected open spaces and more clean energy;
 Affordable housing for all;
 A long-term, strategic plan for the town’s future, including how to pay for new school buildings by 2025, library renovation and modernization, a new fire station, and a new home for the Department of Public Works.

That’s an ambitious agenda for any governing body, especially one that is brand-new. That’s why we support candidates who represent a diverse mix of new energy and veteran insights into the functioning of our town government. Whether or not Amherst’s Town Council succeeds in addressing these issues also depends in part on the people we elect to become our first town councilors.

We will not conduct fundraising activities on behalf of individual candidates, nor will we contribute financially to their campaigns.

Some may try to manufacture controversy over the mere fact that our group exists, drawing from the same predictable line of accusations,  misinformation, fear, and innuendo deployed throughout the debate on whether or not to support the new charter. So be it. We are proud to  support a progressive, positive, smart future for the town we love, which Amherst residents were hoping for when they voted to support the charter – and we will organize accordingly. In fact, we view it as our civic duty.

We are thrilled to see such a strong, motivated field of competitors vying to join the Town Council, and look forward to engaging with them regarding our core principles. All Town Council elections will be significant, but this one has special importance. Thank you for being engaged and excited by this next phase of our town’s representative democracy.

Katherine Appy  was chair of the Amherst School Committee for five years and served on Town Meeting for seven years. Three of her children went through the Amherst Regional Public Schools. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and Katherine and her family moved to Amherst in 2006.

Ginny Hamilton spent more than 20 years in campaign organizing and policy advocacy, primarily regarding housing, homelessness, and civil rights. She and her family moved to Amherst in 2012 because of our excellent public schools and engaged community. Her son attends Crocker Farm School.

 

Comments 6

  1. Years ago I attended a meeting in the back office of Zanna, with several supporters of a parking garage (that resulted in the inadequate Boltwood parking lot- absolutely not our concept). One late arriver sat down, and he and others realized there were too many select board members attending, constituting a violation of open meeting law, so someone left. I wasn’t aware of that rule, and respected the protection against decisions made in smoke filled rooms (though nobody was smoking, in this case). My fear is that this new political action committee gets very close to that kind of violation, at least in spirit. This new PAC has the aroma of an illegal meeting, but it starts off our new town council with a norm of the same kind of groupspeak you see in politicians on the federal level (more often on the right). No matter that you or I agree with some or all of the PAC’s positions, the ends do not justify the means. The purpose of this town council is to have a thorough exploration of ideas, not to have voting blocks enter the room with pre-digested conclusions. Any candidate that colludes in this way loses points, in my book. Already, the results of a survey, sent to all candidates, were only published for the PAC’s approved candidates, instead of being an education of all positions of all candidates. I think even the decision to form this PAC is already proof of groupthink. Was there any debate that included “this whole idea is antithetical to what we are trying to create”? What happens when an approved councilor disagrees with the PAC? Will they be declared suddenly not kosher?

    1. Ira – What would you suggest as an alternative to forming a PAC?

      One possibility that could be considered is the creation of formal Civic Associations, but that concept has not been discussed as far as I can tell.

      Folks who disparage the motivations and intent of the residents who are working diligently for Amherst Forward seem quick to condemn, but slow to provide alternatives. From what I have seen, Amherst Forward has done a remarkable job of engaging new voices in an ongoing dialogue about where the Town should go.

      We are certainly entering a new era in Amherst with respect to politics and governance, and it is certainly a good thing to challenge change agents. However, I think it is terrific that Amherst Forward has articulated a clear and specific set of priorities that it wants the public and our new Council to support. That stands in stark contrast to what Town Meeting devolved into. As a progressive voter, I am delighted to participate in a group that is seeking to encourage thoughtful debate on issues of education, sustainability, social justice and responsible development, and to support candidates that will represent us by providing tangible solutions to those issues.

      1. hi Matt- my alternative is no PAC – have candidates as free agents, not packaged together into a voting bloc. All the positions that they each hold individually can be explored in the operation of Town Council. The Town Council, “aided” by a PAC can go from the inefficiency that everyone didn’t like about Town Meeting to the expedience of bypassing public, robust discussion. I think the PAC threatens the optimal benefit of the council. I am afraid of democracy on steroids.

    2. You seem to be using the idea of candidate and councilor interchangeably, and thereby present the idea that Amherst Forward meetings are using quasi-illegal methods for creating ‘voting blocks’ of colluding candidates that will then turn into councilors with ‘pre-digested’ conclusions. This is erroneous and inflammatory.

      Amherst Forward is simply a group of people who have identified candidates whose vision of the future of Amherst is one that we want to support, mostly by talking to our friends and neighbors about those candidates. The legal way to do this — if Amherst Forward raises any money at all — is to form a PAC. Thoughtfully, and with much discussion and deliberation, Amherst Forward decided to form a PAC, with all the baggage that title entails. Not because we want to secretly manipulate the decisions of the councilors, but just the opposite. We want to be honest and forthright, and engage in open discussions. Our fundraising is entirely dedicated to funding voter education and engagement, with zero fund for any candidate or campaign.

      The new charter is sound. It provides for accountability to voters every two years on Election Day (three years for this first Council). It provides for public forums and district meetings. It provides for a Community Participation Officer. It provides for resident petitions and vetoes. The Council *is* subject to Open Meeting Law. We are having a competitive election, with known candidates whose positions on issues are written out — on websites, in Letters to the Editor, on pamphlets. These candidates are engaging in dialog with residents one-on-one, and in gatherings. They have videos posted on Amherst Media and are speaking in public forums sponsored by AEF and the League of Women Voters.

      Many of us worked very hard to promote the adoption of this new form of Town Government. We have no intention of trying to subvert it, and every expectation that this cannot be done even if someone tried. It’s going to be amazing, and we are excited that so many amazing candidates have come forward!

  2. Hi Ira, and thanks for this thoughtful response. I get it – nobody wants decisions being made in smoke-filled rooms in Amherst, and nobody wants to be forced to choose from among a bunch of candidates who were acting as the puppets of some all-powerful organization. I think we’re all feeling burned after years of seeing Koch-type manipulation of our democracy – or at least I know I am.

    That’s not what’s happening here. We’re not selecting and running candidates as a political party would – we’re surveying the candidates who have raised their hand to participate in this process, deciding which of them are best prepared to achieve the goals we identified above, and simply telling people which candidates we support, and why. We have no sway over the decisions they make for themselves in their campaigns, or during their service as town councilors, should they be elected. We’re not funding them, either.

    On your concern that we’re only going to publish survey results for candidates we support, you’ll see that once we receive responses to a forthcoming survey, we’ll publish ALL responses in full, unedited. We are 100% committed to keeping people informed and educated here, recognizing how difficult it can be in this environment – and we want to continue doing that well after this election.

    That’s all. I look forward to your keeping us honest as we go.

  3. If we fail to provide multiple forums for district candidates to engage politely with each other in public DIRECTLY (and not through the mediation of designated questioners), then we have not gone the whole way to the direct democracy that Amherst needs. This election looms as a sadly low-information one, which is an improvement, but an insufficient one, over the elections we’ve had in the past with the head-scratching Town Meeting precinct ballots. We have an electorate that’s frankly out of shape as full participants, that has not been required in the past to link issues with candidates. We blindly delegated governmental powers to our neighbors, and then essentially washed our hands of the vigilance required, and most of us went back to sleep. This is an ongoing project in democracy we’re in the middle of, with the objective being getting candidates to define their differences, to agree to disagree, in public, in front of voters. I’m not sure we’re going to get that this year, and the ensuing three years after voting without sufficient information may be long ones.

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