Charter jockeying in Amherst in full swing

Staff Writer
Sunday, January 07, 2018

AMHERST — A vote on changing Amherst’s form of government is nearly three months away, but supporters and opponents are wasting little time in establishing ballot question committees.

Four committees — three in opposition to the proposal from the Charter Commission, and one in favor — have been organized, allowing these entities to raise and spend money on their campaigns. Officials say their campaigns will rely on traditional fliers, newspaper advertisements and lawn signs, social media channels, websites and in-person canvassing.

The group that supports the commission’s recommendation, which would eliminate the 240-member Town Meeting and five-member Select Board and replace both with a 13-member council, is Amherst for All 2.0, a successor to the organization that collected signatures to get a charter study on the election ballot in 2016. That measure was approved by 60 percent of voters, 2,039 to 1,340.

Those that oppose the idea of eliminating Town Meeting and changing Amherst’s governance structure go by the names Town Meeting Works, Vote No on the Charter and Not This Charter.

Not This Charter

Not This Charter formed after the commission issued its recommendation in July and includes the three commissioners who voted against the proposal — Julia Rueschemeyer, Meg Gage and Gerry Weiss. Those members also issued a minority report, and have expressed concern that the commission didn’t explore ways to improve Town Meeting, but instead set out to eliminate it.

Rueschemeyer, who serves as the group’s chairwoman, said Amherst is well governed and has a proud tradition of participatory democracy that will be lost should voters approve the change, allowing just two people to represent each of five districts, instead of the 24 who now serve in each of 10 precincts.

“The charter is the product of a heavy-handed action by a small majority that used its power to silence the minority,” Rueschemeyer said. “This is what democracy will look like under the new charter.”

The proposal means a lack of checks and balances, she said, because there is no elected executive, but rather a town manager who is supervised by the council.

Rueschemeyer also worries that the change could reduce influence of women in Amherst government. She said 56 percent of Town Meeting is female, compared to 40 percent of the Select Board. In the other 10 municipalities in Massachusetts that have a town manager/council form of government, only one has a female town manager, and only 26 percent of the councilors are women, she said.

Town Meeting Works

The third group opposed to the charter is Town Meeting Works, which is focusing on what members see as the incentives for developers to have Town Meeting eliminated.

Chairwoman Mary Wentworth attributes the rejection of rezoning to allow intense development on Butterfield Terrace in May 2015 as spurring the formation of the Charter Commission, because Town Meeting members refused to go along with the Select Board and other town officials.

“The reason has always been that Town Meeting has not and still doesn’t do what a relatively small group of people think it should,” Wentworth said.

Michael Burkart, treasurer for the group, said between $30 million and $50 million of the town’s economy is based on student rentals. This means developers are continuing to look at easing ways to create more rental properties, and Town Meeting often stands in the way.

Under a new form of government, Wentworth said the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Amherst Redevelopment Authority would make redevelopment easier.

“The council will have power to change zoning and make sure there’s no resistance to it,” Wentworth said

Vote No on the Charter

Gabor Lukacs, a Precinct 10 Town Meeting member, is part of the Vote No on the Charter group. This group’s primary concern involves merging the executive and legislative functions into one entity, and having the council hire the town manager.

Lukacs said he has a hard time imagining how 13 people involved in Amherst’s government can be more democratic than 240 Town Meeting members, along with the Select Board.

“I think we all believe, that albeit not perfect, Town Meeting works in Amherst, and partially that’s why we are a community people want to live in, with excellent credit rating, when many other college towns, with councils, suffer today, or have gone out of existence,” Lukacs said.

Carol Gray serves as chairwoman of the group.

Amherst for All

Those who endorse the proposal say that Amherst has outgrown its form of legislature that has been in place since 1938, when representative Town Meeting replaced open Town Meeting.

“It is time to update our local government and move away from occasional government, dominated by largely self-appointed super voters, to a government that is more transparent and accountable to the voters in Amherst,” said Johanna Neumann, chairwoman of Amherst for All.

Neumann said many decisions made by Town Meeting go against what residents want, such as the vote against the twin school project.

“It is in the best interest of Amherst to have a government that is more accountable and reflects the will of voters,” Neumann said.

She understands that one of the frequent criticisms is that not having Town Meeting will open Amherst up for more intense development.

“The claim is utterly and completely false,” Neumann said, adding that she has long fought for environmental issues and often against developers.

To reduce this perception, Amherst for All raised $10,000 from 150 individuals, with an average of less than $80, and requested that no one make large donations.

Though there is just a single group in support, she doesn’t see this as a factor in how residents will vote, but rather a reflection that changing government brings with it a lot of issues.

“Updating local governments is a big deal and should be a thoughtful process,” Neumann said. “I’m not surprised there’s a lot of interest of various people from various perspectives.”

Jerry Guidera, a spokesman for the Amherst for All, was more blunt, noting establishment of three groups against the charter is more a sign of desperation and frustration that the commission developed a plan that has widespread support.

“My take on it is they are so dysfunctional they can’t even coordinate an anti effort,” Guidera said.

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