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Bringing the Legislature out into the open

Transparency, openness, and accountability are three hallmarks of representative democracy. The proposed Council-Manager structure does better on these three matters than our current Representative Town Meeting. One of the League of Women Voters’ Principles of Good Government is that “adherence to open meeting law must be strictly maintained.” The proposed charter observes this principle. Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting does not. The Town Council will be subject to open meeting laws and conflict of interest laws, requiring councilors to deliberate and discuss the issues out in the open and to disclose conflicts when they arise. This means that Councilors will not …

Charter Questions Answered Part II

I have seen some changes to our downtown that I don’t like. Under the new Charter, would we have more of this kind of change? The Charter seeks to promote democracy, not development. Under the new Charter, the voters will choose Council members, who will bring their understanding of what the voters want to decisions on the master plan, zoning changes, and Planning Board membership. If voters don’t like what Councilors decide, they have an opportunity every two years to throw them out. So the rules for future development in Amherst will better reflect the public will. Remember, recent changes …

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Charter Questions Answered Part I

What exactly is a “charter”? In Massachusetts, a charter is what we call the document that defines the structure of local government for a particular community and distributes powers, duties, and procedures to be followed. It is like a constitution for a town, providing a general, overarching framework for how its government should be organized. Amherst is already well-managed – why change things? On a day-to-day basis, we do pretty well – and the new Charter keeps our professional manager, to maintain that competent day-to-day management. But the Charter Commission’s discussions with residents revealed that many are concerned about Amherst’s …

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Top Ten Things To Like About Charter

Last week I wrote about 10 questionable arguments of charter opponents. This week I’m keeping it positive. Here are 10 positive things that Amherst residents will notice if they approve the new charter on March 27. 10. Residents can call meetings. Whenever you have a specific concern about town government, the schools or the library system, and can get 200 residents to write in support, the appropriate elected board is required to hold an open meeting to discuss your concern (provided it’s something the board can act on). 9. November elections. Most people are accustomed to going to the polls …

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Empowering voters, inspiring participation

The core function of democratic government is to represent the will of the people. But the Charter Commission repeatedly heard that in our current form of government, many town residents don’t feel represented, don’t know who to call with input or concerns, and don’t feel like they can influence public decision-making unless they themselves participate in long, time-consuming meetings. The new Charter strengthens the ability of our government to represent all of us. Representing residents overall (not just those with time to go to meetings). In our current form of government, the 240 residents with time to participate in Town …

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Thoughtful Decision Making, Better Planning & Deliberation

Amherst’s new charter combines the thoughtful deliberation and oversight of our Select Board and the neighborhood representation of Town Meeting into a Town Council with benefits of both. It’s been said that the Select Board can deliberate but can’t act, and Town Meeting can act, but can’t deliberate. Most towns our size have combined the roles of Select Board and Town Meeting into a representative Town Council, and that’s what our proposal does as well. A Town Council will have both the power to act and the size and meeting frequency to really discuss important budget and zoning decisions in …

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Charter keeps what works well now – From the Majority Report

Amherst’s proposed Charter does not change our entire government. It keeps a number of key features that have worked well for us. For example, most residents who the Charter Commission talked to said that the day-to-day management of Town functions is good. We have skilled administrators, financial stability, and a wide range of services. We have checks and balances between professional staff and citizen representatives. And we have a variety of citizen boards and committees. The proposed Charter preserves all of these elements. Professional management for a complex environment. With an $86 million Town budget, three institutions of higher learning, …

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The Charter Connects the Planning Dots

Planning and zoning are some of the most divisive concepts in town. What do we want our town to look like? Where do we want development? What types of business or residential uses should that development include? These are areas fraught with tension and emotions, especially in Amherst. Right now, as was pointed out by John Hornick, at a recent forum on housing in town, Amherst has at least 5 separate volunteer entities that have responsibility for these issues: (1) Town Meeting; (2) the Select Board; (3) the Planning Board; (4) the Zoning Board of Appeals; and (5) the Conservation …

The town manager: If it ain’t broke…

  In the rough-and-tumble of town politics, it’s helpful to have someone in the middle of the action who is not pushing an agenda but is charged with the smooth operation of government. In Amherst, that person is the town manager. We’ve had one since 1953, and for the most part we have had capable people in the job. The Charter Commission, after thoroughly probing the benefits and trade-offs of having an elected mayor instead, is recommending that we retain this position. Seven commission members voted for keeping the manager position on May 6, the closest we came to a …

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Council Duties

  What’s a Town Council do? It’s a fair question to ask, especially since many people can’t describe the current split of duties in our current government. So, here’s a quick guide. Money The Town Council will be responsible for approving the annual budget for Amherst, the Library and the elementary Schools. It will also be responsible for allocating money for the Middle and High Schools. (Votes on the budgets for the schools are based upon the recommended budgets approved by the School Committtees) These duties are currently the responsibility of Town Meeting. Bylaws The Town Council will pass or …