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North Amherst Library: Needed Improvements Supersede Public Process

The North Amherst Library needs improvements. I don’t think anyone in town would disagree. But should those improvements be a top priority? Are they so dire that they need to jump to the head of the long list of capital projects? Are the improvements so critical that it’s necessary to skip the public input and planning process? Town Meeting apparently thinks so, because that’s exactly what they approved last Monday.  A group of residents who call themselves “Friends of the North Amherst Library” and headed by former Library Trustee Pat Holland brought a petition article to Town Meeting seeking $50,000 …

1

Charter Enables Better Participation

Participation is the key to democracy. We’ve all heard people say it, but what does it actually mean? And, how does the new Charter enable better participation of Amherst’s residents? Ideally, meaningful participation brings the public into the process, beginning at issue framing and ending at decision making.  Authentic, meaningful participation involves residents in decision-making instead of just judging. So, what prevents someone from participating? Time and knowledge are two of the main ones. A person’s time is limited, so whether it’s standing in line to vote or attending meetings, the more time one activity takes, the less time a …

2

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 …

11

Zero energy: Great goal, hasty action

  Town Meeting voted to rush through an important new policy last Wednesday despite a Select Board warning of a “potential for deep consequences,” a plea for caution echoed by three other boards. My support for bold action on climate change, and my own low-energy lifestyle, make me no less concerned about how this issue was decided. I think it illustrates a fundamental flaw of the Town Meeting system. The proposal was to require that all new town buildings generate as much energy as they use. This zero-energy mandate will affect not only big projects like a new fire station …

18

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 …

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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 …