9

A war of words in a campaign of ideas

The two sides of Amherst’s charter debate don’t just disagree on what the form of government should be. They disagree on the meaning of some key words. Take “representative.” When speaking of “Representative Town Meeting,” charter opponents don’t mean that members represent the citizens in their precincts. They mean that the group is large enough to be representative of all views. Most Town Meeting members don’t treat residents of their precincts as constituents. They rarely solicit views, most aren’t elected based on their positions, and many don’t even want residents to contact them. If you have a pothole or a …

6

Community Participation Officer Explained

Participation in government by the residents of Amherst is extremely important. And that participation can take many forms. The simplest and possibly least involved is voting. It is also one of the most important, as it is the best way to gauge the public’s opinion on the issues raised in campaigns1. But there are many other ways to participate — running for office, writing letters, attending meetings and joining a board or committee.2 But how does a resident know what’s happening and what openings there are? And, how do Town officials make sure that the residents who are interested in …

33

Who approved those tall buildings?

  It’s amazing to me that some Town Meeting supporters are pointing to the size of the two new buildings at the northern end of downtown as reasons for retaining the current political system. The size of these buildings was approved under the current system! That’s right, five stories in this part of town are allowed because of a Town Meeting vote in 2013. There are some questions about that vote, and I’ll get to them. But first, let me speak to those who don’t like the appearance of Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, which is under construction. Whether …

9

Checks and Balances – Let’s Compare

As we have noted previously, opponents have made a number of misleading claims about the new government proposal. The latest exaggeration is that the new system lacks “checks and balances.” This claim is particularly misleading because it implies that our current system has checks and balances that will be lost if the new charter is adopted. However, our current system has practically no checks and balances at all. No matter how you vote in March, Amherst won’t have a government that allows the executive branch to veto the actions of the legislative branch. Arguing that one should vote “no” on …

8

Let’s avoid rancor in charter debate

  Three months from today, Amherst voters will go to the polls to decide the fate of the proposal for a new form of government. Will we spend the next three months tearing each other apart, demonizing those we disagree with, indulging in anger, straining friendships, and giving voice to half-truths? Or will we have a respectful and fact-based debate about the benefits and trade-offs of each alternative? The choice is ours. As members of the Charter Commission’s majority, Mandi Jo Hanneke and I voted for the plan to replace the Select Board and Town Meeting with a 13-person Town …

2

Going from Precincts to Districts

We’ve addressed the reasons behind moving to 5 districts. But, how did the Charter Commission decide which precincts to combine into districts? Well, by looking at the options. Believe it or not, there are only 9 ways to combine our 10 precincts into 5 districts with the requirement that the combined precincts must touch (and not by being “catty-corner”). I was curious, so I actually colored the 9 options.  This visual aid was of tremendous help. It highlighted that some combinations look “gerrymandered” and others look more “natural”. So how did we pick the final combination? By talking about what …

16

Ranked Choice Voting: a new way to vote

  If you’ve followed state, national, or local politics at all during the last year, you may have heard about Ranked Choice Voting and a number of initiatives to implement it. Cambridge, MA uses it. Maine just passed it. Here’s a primer on what it is, why it’s important, and why the Charter Commission put it in the proposed Charter the way it did. What is Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Run-Off Voting and Single-Transferable Voting)? Imagine there are 8 people running for the 3 at-large Councilor seats in the new charter. In our current system, called block …

5

Resident Petitions, Initiatives, and Vetoes

We’re going to take you back for a few posts to the meat of the Charter and continue to explain what’s in it. Today, I’m going to talk about all the legalese in Article 8, Public Participation Mechanisms. The Commission added a right to an Open Meeting of the Residents. Any 200 residents (not just registered voters) can gather together to force the Council, School Committee, or Library Trustees to hold a meeting on a specific topic. The residents must be allowed to speak at the meeting. Basically, it’s a way to force a conversation on a specific topic between …

19

Many charter opponents are Town Meeting members. Why am I not surprised?

As we spent months listening to Amherst residents tell us what they wanted the Charter Commission to do, we noticed an interesting thing:  most of the people who were vocal about keeping Town Meeting were Town Meeting members themselves. When you think about it, it’s not surprising if a majority of Town Meeting insiders favor keeping the status quo. It is, after all, their power base. They are comfortable with a vision of democracy in which 240 people govern the town (actually, an average of only 180 show up), and some will tell you it doesn’t matter how they’re chosen, …

9

Commission Considered Improving Town Meeting

  “The Charter Commission didn’t even consider improvements to Town Meeting”. This is a claim being made by a number of opponents of the charter proposal, including some members of the Commission itself. But, for me, the claim can’t be further from the truth. The Charter Commission did look at improving the current Representative Town Meeting structure. In fact, we held several meetings where we discussed RTM and potential improvements. There was at least one meeting where a smaller RTM structure was discussed. For a specific example of what the Commission did, as a whole, to consider improvements, see the …