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Charter opponents break down their defeat at polls; effort to heal, move forward underway

  • 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. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 04, 2018

AMHERST — Even though creation of a 13-member Town Council to replace the 240-person Town Meeting was adopted by more than 1,000 votes last week, those who opposed the charter change say that the decisive margin largely came from parts of Amherst unaffected by the encroachment of off-campus student housing.

“Areas that have been heavily impacted by inappropriate development, or threats of such, understood how putting all zoning in the hands of one board with no checks and balances was unwise,” said Carol Gray, a representative of Vote No on the Charter.

Gray, who represents Precinct 7 in Town Meeting, added that as few as seven councilors could decide zoning changes that, until now, have needed to get approval from two-thirds of the 240 members of Town Meeting.

Garnering more than 58 percent support from Amherst voters, the charter change won seven of the town’s 10 precincts, most of them handily, and with better than two-to-one margins in both Precincts 4 and 8, based on unofficial results from the town clerk.

The only precincts where the charter failed were Precinct 1, which includes much of North Amherst that borders the Hadley, Sunderland and Leverett town lines, with 47 percent support, Precinct 9, which features most of town center, with 49 percent support, and Precinct 10, which borders the University of Massachusetts and town center, with just 42 percent support.

“Those are neighborhoods that feel vulnerable and are more affected by off-campus student housing,” said Meg Gage, a Precinct 1 Town Meeting member who served on the Charter Commission and formed the Not This Charter group.

Gage notes that Precinct 1 has 10 student apartment complexes, which she attributes to the low voter turnout. The precinct had just 353 voters participate in the election.

Maurianne Adams, who represents Precinct 10, said she and her neighbors have extensive experience in trying to prevent the value of the owner-occupied homes from declining from the impact of more student rentals and the concepts of “infill” development and densification. These have included the Gateway project that aimed to connect downtown Amherst to the university campus through mixed-use projects, and the attempted rezoning of Butterfield Terrace for new apartment buildings.

“Precinct 10 is squeezed between an expanding UMass campus to the north and the business downtown to the south, while trying to maintain a vibrant mix of owners and tenants,” Adams said.

Demographics

While the yes votes racked up support throughout town, more than 40 percent of the final margin came from voters in Precinct 8, where there was a 429-vote margin, or 68 percent support, from the 1,219 votes cast. That precinct includes portion of Amherst Woods and much of South Amherst.

“Precinct 8 is wealthier, the home values are higher, it’s a mostly white neighborhood,” Gage said.

For Mary Wentworth, a veteran of Amherst campaigns, Precinct 8 has always been a challenge for getting votes for townwide candidates she has supported.

Though Precinct 2 voted in favor of the charter, Adams said many residents who live there have joined forces with Precincts 1, 9 and 10 to create the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, which fought off the Gateway project and Butterfield rezoning, and was instrumental in the prototype rental permit bylaw.

“Town Meeting was a critical forum for all these efforts,” Adams said.

Gray said she believes working class, low income, women and immigrants will not have as critical a role in the power structure of the new government.

“People who had been part of government in the past by getting one signature and paying nothing to run for Town Meeting will now not be part of government because they don’t have the time or money to run for city council though they would have had time for Town Meeting,” Gray said.

Wentworth, who represents Precinct 5, said she believes that the Charter Commission intentionally combined Precincts 7 and 8 into one of the new districts to diminish the power of the more diverse Precinct 7.

Gage said Precinct 1’s power will also be lessened by its being merged with Precinct 3 for a new district.

“People who are low income, people of color, won’t ever be represented in the council,” Gage said.

Andrea Battle, who was elected to Town Meeting in Precinct 7, shares these concerns.

“I believe this will cause much less participation and voice by several groups that barely have a voice,” said Battle, citing people of color, senior citizens who are less active, college students, women and immigrants.

Ineffective campaigns

Wentworth said the campaigns to stop the charter started too late and were unable to put down the necessary groundwork.

“This campaign didn’t put the infrastructure for such an effort in place during the fall,” Wentworth said. “This was a campaign several times larger than we have faced in the past 20 to 30 years.”

The campaigns also failed to follow the maxim of “keep it simple,” she said. Defending Town Meeting became too complicated.

Precinct 8 Town Meeting member Janet McGowan said her own efforts of going door to door in her precinct showed this to be the case.

“I think people had gotten incorrect information for over a year and voted based on that information,” McGowan said.

Aim to heal

With divisions still in place following the lengthy charter debate, Charter Commission members Nick Grabbe, a supporter of the change, and Gerry Weiss, an opponent of the change, are working to heal the community.

Last week, they began this process by agreeing that between 10 and 12 people would join in a group dialogue this spring led by Pat Romney, an organizational psychologist, and Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding.

Romney handled similar conversations in Amherst after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and during the controversy over whether “West Side Story” should be performed at the high school.

“The goals are to bring people together and ensure a democratic and inclusive process as residents start considering running for Town Council,” Grabbe said.

Battle said even though she worries about the new form of government, she is ready to make sure it succeeds.

“I will do whatever possible to support what form was decided by the voters because I think we need to work together as a community for the improvement of all members,” Battle said.

Wentworth said Town Meeting will be ready to take care of business this spring in what will be its final annual sessions, with additional meetings possible in the fall.

“It will be a more sober gathering that any previous times I’ve been a part of Town Meeting,” Wentworth said. “But I’m not look for anything weird to happen.”

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