Editorial: An historic new start for Amherst

  • Judge James Collins swears in 13 councilors at Sunday’s Town Council inauguration. STAFF PHOTO/SCOTT MERZBACH

Published: 12/5/2018 8:50:49 AM

A new wave of elected town officials took the oath of office Sunday as part of the long-awaited and much-anticipated change in government in Amherst.

The inauguration ceremony at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School was marked by the pomp and circumstance typical of such occasions, but also by a renewed sense of purpose among residents and the 13 people chosen to represent them on the newly created Town Council.

The ceremony came less than a week after the town’s five-member Select Board held its final meetings, and after the last representative Town Meeting was held in May. The Select Board is a tradition that dated back to the 18th century, while representative Town Meeting was adopted in 1938. The position of professional town manager remains.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a new charter on March 27, paving the way for the institutional changes. Under the new government, voters elected three at-large councilors and two from each of five districts. Two Select Board members — Andrew Steinberg and Alisa Brewer — opted to seek election to the Town Council and won seats. Many of the other 11 new councilors have been involved in town government and Town Meeting.

“Let us look at today as a new beginning and a celebration of what is next,” Nancy Eddy, the emcee at Sunday’s event, told the crowd of hundreds. The Rev. Vicki Kamper, minister at First Congregational Church, described the inauguration as a “transformational moment,” while Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the town was “building a government from scratch.”

The messages were fitting and hopeful, and there is much for residents who supported the historic change in government to celebrate. Now it’s time for the newly elected Town Council members to get to work.

Amherst is a complex town that faces incessant challenges. Among the most pressing today are financing repairs to its elementary schools and determining their futures after a divisive vote last year, in which Town Meeting opted not to support financing and building a consolidated elementary school. Other front-burner issues include ongoing development in downtown and various capital building projects related to the Jones Library, Department of Public Works and fire station.

The new Town Council is expected to better represent Amherst’s diversity, bring more robust deliberation of issues, greater accountability and more transparency. Proponents of forming the council say it will give Amherst full-time, year-round government, which it didn’t have when Town Meeting was only called into session twice a year.

Surely there will be some bumps in the road as this new legislative body gets rolling, but it is critical early on for its members to find common ground to ensure there is a smooth transition to the new government. It is also essential for town residents to put their differences aside and support the new Town Council so that it can be productive and have a chance to succeed. The council held its first meeting Monday night when it elected a new president, vice president and clerk to the board.

We like the fact that a new Town Council gavel is being fashioned from one of two historic maple trees cut down from the Mount Pollux Conservation Area in March. That gavel should serve as a symbol of unity, and a constant reminder to all 13 councilors of that 13-letter Latin phrase, e pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one.”

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