At its first meeting Monday night, Amherst’s new Town Council had difficulty getting beyond the tribalism that characterized its creation.
Several councilors, in their opening statements, promoted a “spirit of unity” (Andy Steinberg) and “reaching across the aisle” (Dorothy Pam). That spirit prevailed in the selection of a president, but when it came time to choose a vice president, the old familiar divisions resurfaced.
Shortly after being chosen as the first Town Council president, Lynn Griesemer called the group “13 very independent people all committed to moving Amherst forward.” This was an intentional yoking in one sentence of two buzzwords from the campaign, implying that the Town Council should not be riven by factions.
In the public comment, Jeff Blaustein cited Chief Justice John Roberts’ rebuke to President Trump, in which he said there are no “Obama justices” and “Bush justices.” But Andra Rose said that a good way to show a determination to work together and not in factions would be to choose a vice president who, unlike Griesemer, was not endorsed by Amherst Forward.
And so there were two candidates for vice president: Mandi Jo Hanneke, who had been endorsed by Amherst Forward, and Sarah Swartz, who was not. Alisa Brewer was the only councilor who broke ranks, voting for Swartz and creating a 6-6 tie, with Griesemer abstaining.
After much discussion and more inconclusive votes, Griesemer broke the tie by voting for Hanneke.
Under the charter, the vice president of the Town Council has little power beyond filling in for the president when she is unable to attend meetings. If ability to perform this function were the only consideration, I think the council made the right decision in choosing Hanneke. This is not meant to imply that Swartz would be unable to do the job. I worked closely with Hanneke during the two years she was first the vice chair of the Charter Commission and then my partner on this blog, and I can vouch for her exceptional competence and collegiality.
But that’s not the only consideration, is it? The councilors who supported Swartz were not arguing that she is better suited for the job than Hanneke; they were saying that selecting a vice president from among the “independent” council candidates would be an appropriate gesture of bipartisanship. Councilor Darcy DuMont said that many residents who voted against the new charter are “distrustful” of the council, and electing a vice president who was not endorsed by Amherst Forward would “instill trust and confidence.”
I confess that I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. I want to see the Town Council move beyond factions and develop new coalitions specific to particular issues, rather than have two rival parties fight each other on every point, like Republicans and Democrats in Congress. I see no reason why there should be separate pro-charter and anti-charter positions on issues like downtown parking and public spending.
If the role of vice president of the council had substantive power, such as working with the president on agendas or appointments to subcommittees, I would say that Hanneke was the right choice. But it doesn’t have any real power. And so I think that giving the role to Swartz would have served as a potent symbol of unity among the councilors, and among residents who differed on the charter. Hanneke’s contribution to the council’s effective functioning would have been undiminished.
Griesemer said just after she was elected president that “the temptation to go tribal can be strong.” But she urged the councilors not to constrain themselves in a “narrow box,” but to “get out of it as fast as you can.” I hope that at future meetings, the Town Council will follow her advice.
Here are some highlights from the councilors’ opening statements:
- Brewer got a laugh when she cited some councilors’ prior experience in town government and then added, “I expect you to listen to me.”
- DuMont and Evan Ross highlighted their commitment to addressing the climate change crisis at the local level.
- Pam said that Amherst is “not just another town” and cited Emily Dickinson’s “idiosyncratic” poetry.
- George Ryan urged residents to “give us time and room” before judging members or “attaching labels” to them.
- Steinberg acknowledged that there were “mischaracterizations” and “hurt feelings” in the campaign, adding that although councilors may disagree in a debate, they should respect each other afterwards.