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Amherst voters approve charter change in historic election

  • Jay Boice of Amherst, accompanied by his 4-month-old daughter, Zadie, votes in Precinct 8 at the Munson Memorial Library in South Amherst on Tuesday morning, March 27, 2018. Boice said Zadie would get a second look around when she was to return with his wife in about an hour. gazette staff/kevin gutting

  • People cheer as the Amherst charter revision passes Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People cheer as results favoring the Amherst charter revision are received Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Charter supporters cheer at The Pub as the Amherst charter revision passes Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People cheer as the Amherst charter revision passes Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Johanna Neumann, chairwoman of Amherst for All, hugs Andy Churchill, the chairman of the Charter Commission, Tuesday, at The Pub after the charter revision passed. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Johanna Neumann, top right, chairwoman of Amherst for All, speaks Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at The Pub after the charter revision passed. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Andy Churchill, top, who is the chair of the Charter Commission, speaks Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at The Pub after the charter revision passed. Beside him is Johanna Neumann, the chair of Amherst for All. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 28, 2018

AMHERST — A 13-member town council will replace representative Town Meeting and the five-member Select Board after Amherst voters approved an historic change to the town charter Tuesday.

With all 10 precincts reporting, the town clerk reported that 3,476, or 58 percent, of voters favored the charter change, with 2,468 voting against. Turnout was 29 percent, with 5,993 of 21,040 voters casting ballots.

The vote means that the Town Meeting sessions this spring and fall will be the final ones in Amherst, which adopted its first charter in 1938.

“Our system is about to get a big upgrade, and a lot more people will plug in,” said Clare Bertrand, a Town Meeting member who in late summer 2015 helped launch the signature campaign that led to the formation of the Charter Commission the following spring. “We were convinced that this town would be ready to dig deep and look in the mirror and look at ourselves.”

The Charter Commission recommended the change in government by a 5-3 vote, with one abstention, after 16 months and 65 meetings. An election is expected to be held this fall for the 13 councilors, three of whom will be elected townwide and two in each of five districts. Elections will then be held every other November.

Bertrand was among the pro-charter Amherst for All group and its supporters who packed into The Pub restaurant in downtown Amherst to celebrate the vote. As results were being put on a whiteboard and it became evident that the new government would take shape, campaign chairwoman Johanna Neumann was met with applause and people chanting her name over and over.

Neumann said she was proud of the vigorous campaign. “So many of us set aside our differences and we worked together to bring this update to Amherst,” Neumann said.

But she said there are problems Amherst will have to confront.

“We are going to be in a better position to resolve those challenges together,” Neumann said.

Neumann said she understands charter opponents are grieving, but that they will see there will be myriad opportunities to engage in the new government. “We are more united than we are divided,” Neumann said.

‘Huge challenge’

Just down the street, opponents of the charter proposal filed into Bistro 63 just as the results began to appear on the televisions behind the bar.

“They got everything,” one onlooker said as the somber crowd — many of whom hadn’t even taken off their jackets yet — watched the yes vote’s lead growing, and along with it the leads of candidates aligned with the yes vote.

“Holy mackerel,” Town Meeting member Bob Biagi said when the 10th and final precinct’s tally flashed across the TV. “I’m very disheartened and ready to start a new campaign.”

Some stared at the results in seeming disbelief, while others shook their heads and congratulated one another on a good effort and hard-fought campaign.

“I feel there’s a huge challenge now facing all of us to try to make the best out of this we can,” said Meg Gage, a member of the Charter Commission who helped form the Not This Charter group. “We have to find new ways for the people of Amherst to have their voices heard.”

Julia Rueschemeyer, another charter commissioner who voted against the proposal, was more bluntly pessimistic in her assessment.

“I think Amherst residents have had their voices heard today,” she said. “I think it’s the last time they’re going to have that kind of voice in a long time.”

But Gage said charter opponents, including the Vote No on the Charter and Town Meeting Works, will work with those who endorsed the change.

“The new government will be assembling itself over the next nine months, and we pledge our cooperation in that effort,” Gage said. “We are immensely proud of the campaign we ran and immensely grateful to the members of all three groups for the incredible work and creativity they contributed to an amazing effort.”

Gage said she invites everyone to repair the damage to the town’s civic fabric so Amherst can be a model for the restoration of civility and the affirmation of democratic governance.

“We hope that this can increasingly become a model for the values of our town, and we will actively support candidates who share that vision,” Gage said.

“I am disappointed with the loss of a more inclusive form of democracy,” said Laura Quilter, a Town Meeting member and charter opponent. With a smile and laugh, she said she looked forward to the new town government fixing potholes and dealing with taxes.

‘Elections matter’

Charter Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said the new government will empower voters and give everyone a voice, which was the mission of those who supported the charter.

“That’s what this group means by Amherst for All,” Churchill said.

Charter proponents sought change in part because, they said, elections for Town Meeting members were rarely contested, and Town Meeting often overrode elected boards’ proposals, diluting the importance of elections.

“Finally elections matter again in Amherst,” Churchill said. “Thank you to all for giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to democracy.”

Retired U.S. Congressman John Olver celebrated the change.

“I am very pleased,” said Olver, who anticipates residents will appreciate the new council. “If done well, it will be a great boon for Amherst.”

Zanna owner Adam Lussier was the first chairman of the Amherst for All campaign. He said Amherst will have an accessible council that represents the people and real elections.

“Grassroots and broad-based activism and support has led to this outcome,” Lussier said.

Bertrand is confident Amherst will be better off with Town Meeting no longer part of town government.

“The town is ready, and the 1,000-vote spread confirmed that,” Bertrand said. “I think they saw we were stuck having the same old conversations, we were stuck in a loop, we weren’t hearing new voices, and people were pissed.”

Retired Amherst Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Coull said though he was happy about the change, Amherst has continued issues that won’t be immediately overcome.

“Tomorrow morning we’ll wake up and Amherst will still have high taxes and we’ll still be argumentative, but we’ll have a path forward,” Coull said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.