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Why are my taxes so high?

Average Amherst homeowners paid a $1,826 property tax bill last month, and the same amount will be due again in January. Their counterparts in Northampton paid $1,267 and the average Hadley homeowner paid only $907. A large part of the reason why Amherst’s taxes are higher than in neighboring communities is that we have restricted housing and commercial development that could have broadened the tax base and eased the financial pressure on homeowners. Amherst has relied on residents for 90 percent of its tax revenue, compared to 80 percent in Northampton and 65 percent in Hadley. Decisions made by Town …

7

Town Meeting: Another committee?

Most people who are familiar with Amherst Town Meeting recognize that it has problems. The debate over our new charter is largely between those who see the problems as technical and fixable, and those who see the problems as structural. A Town Meeting committee has been considering ways to address these problems, and will propose one small reform during the current session: a new committee. I will argue that this proposal has its own flaws, is insufficient to deal with Town Meeting’s problems, and shows how slow the pace of reform is. The committee told Town Meeting a year ago …

2

In Elections, Predictability is Good

To be successful, local government needs to be accessible to everyone. Elections and term lengths have an important role in this. Whether a voter follows local government closely or not, a person should be able to easily answer these questions when asked: when are Amherst’s local elections and what offices will be on the ballot? Knowing these answers increases the likelihood of actually voting. And, currently, I don’t believe most of our 15,000+ voters can answer them correctly. Predictability creates accessibility and helps increase turnout. And, turnout is important. A democracy succeeds when as many voters as possible weigh in …

7

Town Meeting: Do elections matter?

Voters should be able to choose the people who make decisions on their behalf. In Amherst, the sovereignty of voters has been eroding for some time. Town Meeting has come to resemble a club whose members are largely self-selected and have a weak mandate from voters. That’s because when voters go to the polls in the annual town election, more than half of the precincts have provided no choices, or minimal choices, among Town Meeting candidates. And since there has been little discussion of issues beforehand, voters often just pick the candidates whose names they recognize. In the last 11 …

Getting from here to there

If the voters adopt the proposed Charter, how do we get from a Town Meeting / Select Board / Manager government to a Town Council / Manager government? The answer lies in Article 10 of the Charter, but the technical language and all the subparts make it hard to see the big picture. So, here’s your guide to the transition. March 27, 2018: Charter Election. This is the same day the Town will elect its annual slate of officials: 80 Town Meeting members, 1 Moderator, 1 Select Board member, 2 School Committee members, 2 Library Trustees, 1 Oliver Smith Will …

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 …

8

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 …

6

Thirteen is Right for Amherst

Thirteen may seem really small when moving from a Town Meeting membership of 254, but it’s actually on the large size for a council. And, for Amherst, that large council size is a size that fits. A Council should have members that are looking out for the whole town and members that are focused on their own “slice” of the Town. The Charter Commission’s proposal does that. There will be 3 at-large councilors elected by all the Town’s voters—like the School Committee, Library Trustees or current Select Board. Those Councilors will necessarily come to the Council with a view of …

1

Control Your Own Agenda

We have a legislature that doesn’t set its own agenda. Think about that. The law-making body in Amherst does not decide what or when to discuss, consider, or vote on measures. Someone else does. The Town Council, as proposed in the Charter, however, will have that authority. This is an important difference. Town Council will set its own agenda. The Town Council will meet regularly, likely biweekly, but at least monthly, similar to the Select Board. It will set its own meeting times. Town Meeting cannot. The Council will place matters on its own agenda for consideration. It can decide …

3

Charter involves no radical change

The proposal for a new form of government in Amherst is not radical. It is not a coup, not a revolution, but rather a sensible reform that will make decision-makers more responsive to residents. Over the next few weeks, this blog will provide details of the Charter Commission’s proposal, which residents will vote on March 27. Mandi Jo Hanneke and I will familiarize you with how the 13-member council will function, and the reasons for retaining a non-political town manager. We will explain the reasons for changes in elections and the ways that active citizen participation in government will continue. …