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Amherst residents pan 60-member town council idea

  • Amherst Town Hall



Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2017

AMHERST — With terms such as “grotesque,” “bizarre” and “folly” being used, the concept of a 60-member town council, a compromise proposal between those who want to preserve Town Meeting and those seeking a shift to a mayor-council form of government, was widely criticized at a Charter Commission feedback session this week.

“A 60-member council is just a small Town Meeting,” said Christiane Healey, a Precinct 2 resident, one of about 75 people who filled the Woodbury Room at the Jones Library Tuesday night.

Healey said she was appalled by the proposal that would continue a local government system in which residents don’t know those representing them.

Laura Draucker of Precinct 2 said it would be naive to assume that a 60-member council would be more representative than a 240-member Town Meeting, observing that it will be just as challenging for her and other working parents to know six representatives, as it is the 24 who are currently serving in each precinct.

“I want the opportunity to choose one person to represent my precinct,” Draucker said.

Many of those in attendance said the 60-member council, with a mayor and chief administrative officer, is worse than the Town Meeting, Select Board and town manager form of government Amherst has now, and preferred a smaller, 13-member council the commission had earlier proposed. The 60-member council would be the largest in the state, and possibly the nation.

The lack of accountability of a larger council is a view backed up by studies, said Paul Musgrave of Precinct 7, who teaches political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

While it may seem a paradox that smaller is more representative, Musgrave explained this is the case because residents actually get to know their representatives and can actively lobby them.

There were some appreciation from those at the meeting that a large council strikes a balance between the town’s past and future.

“More people involved in a decision, the better the decision,” said Dick Bentley of Precinct 10.

Maurianne Adams, also of Precinct 10, said a range of opinions is needed and it would be preferable that all views are brought to the table, rather than those of an individual.

“There is not a single point of view in a precinct,” Adams said.

Cynthia Brubaker of Preicnct 2 appreciated that the commission is thinking outside the box and is seeking a compromise.

“This town is very proud of its level of civic engagement,” Brubaker said,

Alice Swift of Precinct 8 said people complaining about the large size of the council are forgetting that a five-member executive council could also be part of the government. Swift said keeping, greater representation will ensure more residents can be citizen lawmakers.

Others saw the “middle ground” proposal, endorsed by a 5-4 vote of the commission April 6, as an intentional attempt to get voters next March to reject change, thus preserving Town Meeting.

Abby Jensen of Precinct 4 said she has this suspicion, and argues many residents won’t vote for a“bizarre” model of government. Since no other community in Massachusetts has such a large council, trouble looms, Jensen said.

“That tells me it’s not a good number, that tells me it’s a very bad number,” Jensen said.

Barry O’Connell of Precinct 2 called the idea “grotesque” and a “cynical proposal” to keep Town Meeting.

Some demanded that the Charter Commission give voters a “binary vote,” as Adam Lussier of Precinct 4 put it, between mayor-small council or the current form of government.

“It just sounds like Town Meeting made smaller,” Lussier said.

He criticized the commission for playing voters for fools, suppressing democracy and not being “pro progress.”

His strong opinions elicited complaints from commission member Meg Gage, who worked on the middle ground proposal with Nick Grabbe and Gerry Weiss. Both Gage and Weiss said they didn’t appreciate the name calling.

For Richard Roznoy, who lives in Precinct 9, a 60-member council isn’t a choice. “Give people a choice,” Roznoy said. “If it doesn’t fly, it doesn’t fly.”

Rick Hood, a Precinct 4, said the problem with Town Meeting is that most debate is done outside the meeting. The same problem would occur in a 60-member council.

“A 60-member council is still much too large for all members to be heard and have their rationale debated, with little to no chance of minds being changed by the debate,” said Hood, a former School Committee member.

His former colleague on the committee, Katherine Appy of Precinct 9, said her own experience shows that 60 members would be too many and meetings would be too infrequent to make informed and educated decisions.

Niels la Cour of Precinct 9 said he doesn’t want any proposal that resembles Town Meeting, which he believes has restricted much needed development and twice killed the project to provide new elementary schools for Amherst.

“A 60-person council is folly,” la Cour said, adding that Amherst needs a government that is accountable and responsible to residents, not supposedly more representative.

The only comparably sized council are in New York and Chicago, where council members are paid more than $100,000, said Ted Parker of Precinct 8.

Though the commission proposal has other facets, the council became the primary focus.

As the spokeswoman for the Yes for Amherst, the proschool project ballot committee, Johanna Neumann of Precinct 6 said she has come to realize that Town Meeting doesn’t reflect the will of the people, which gave majority support to the project.

But Neumann said she is not yet sold on a popularly elected mayor and worried there might be competition between councilors seeing the top position as the prize, possibly creating gridlock in getting things done.

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