A year later, how is new charter working?

Nick Grabbe

A year ago, Amherst residents voted to approve a new charter, with a Town Council replacing Town Meeting and the Select Board. So how are we doing with our new form of government?

As a member of the Charter Commission, I was one of nine people who met for 18 months to hammer out the structure and details of the new system. So I have been watching closely to see whether it has promoted democracy and citizen participation in the ways that we intended.

I have concluded that in many ways, the new system is working very well, although I have some concerns. The things that charter opponents warned us about have not happened, while other issues have arisen.

The most important improvement is greater voter empowerment. In the November election, every voter could choose among twice as many candidates for Town Council as there were seats available. Before, about half of Town Meeting members were elected without having to do much more than sign their own names.

So the 13 members of the Council can claim a mandate from voters that Town Meeting couldn’t. That’s a huge step toward greater democracy. The voters have chosen the people who will make decisions on their behalf.

And we have 13 capable people on the Council, a mix of old hands who know the ropes and new faces who are diligently learning them. Councilors who were on both sides of the charter issue are working hard and making contributions.

Another big improvement has been in voter participation. The turnout in the November election was 43 percent, which was much higher than it used to be. In 2013, only 6.6 percent of those eligible townwide voted in the local election.

It was not surprising that turnout increased, because voters had more choices and the stakes were higher. Voters had an opportunity to listen to and evaluate all the candidates. Also, the local election coincided with the state election.

But what about citizen participation in government? Town Meeting gave regular citizens who wanted to get involved an opportunity to become acquainted with the issues and perhaps run for townwide office. Is that level of participation continuing?

Some good signs are the large number of people who ran for Town Council, and the town manager’s decision to designate three existing employees as community participation officers. Another is a big increase in residents filling out forms so they can be considered for volunteer boards and committees. Twenty-three people applied for seven seats on the Town Council’s new Energy and Climate Resilience Committee.

Another good sign is the number of residents attending district meetings. I have attended meetings in three of the five districts, and the average attendance is over 40. Local concerns were discussed, such as the North Amherst Library in District 1, late-night student rowdiness in District 3, and a crosswalk on Rte. 116 near Potwine Lane in District 5.

Some charter opponents warned that the Town Council would be dominated by men, because that was true in other towns in Massachusetts. So how did that work out? Nine of the 13 Councilors are women. Amherst has a long history of electing women, and that distinction is even more true now. (We also elected a female state representative and female state senator the same day.)

Charter opponents also predicted that it would take so much money to run for Town Council that candidates would be beholden to wealthy donors. That didn’t happen, either.

So what am I concerned about with the new system of government?

I was disappointed that only 16 people came to the informative townwide forum on next year’s budget, and only six of them had comments. I had hoped that these three-times-a-year forums, which are required under the charter, would fulfill some of the functions of Town Meeting. Better notification could help in the future.

Although I supported the Charter Commission’s switch from recommending a mayor to sticking with a manager, I recognized the benefits of having a single elected official negotiating with state and UMass officials. Who is exercising this executive authority in the new form of government? There are limits to the ability of the town manager or the Town Council president to do this.

I’m also concerned that several members of the Town Council have told me they are surprised by the sheer amount of time they have to devote to the job. Between four-hour meetings, subcommittee commitments, listening to constituents, and studying up on the issues, we’re asking a lot of our Councilors for $5,000 a year.

It’s not enough to say “You knew the job was risky when you took it.” Councilors should want to be reelected, not run screaming from Town Hall when their terms are up.

I was gratified that 58 percent of voters a year ago approved of the new system of government, emphatically ending a decades-long argument over Town Meeting. It’s not surprising that there are still some things to work out, but on the whole I think it’s working out well.

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