Columnist Andy Churchill: Bottom line, it’s all about Town Meeting

  • Andy Churchill and Johanna Neumann, supporters of the Amherst charter, debate the issues at The Black Sheep during an event sponsored by radio station WHMP on Feb. 27. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Opponents of the charter proposal are throwing all kinds of spaghetti at the wall, to see if some wiggly argument will stick and create enough uncertainty for voters to say maybe it’s safer to stay with what we’ve got.

The rhetoric has gotten pretty hot. One opponent compared charter supporters to the communists in Hungary. Another said we were like paranoid anti-communist Joseph McCarthy. Wait, what? They can’t both be right!

So, maybe we should pause, take a deep breath, and review what the new proposal actually does, and why.

1. It keeps what works now. The proposed charter retains our town manager, for professional expertise in day-to-day municipal management. It keeps our almost 50 boards and committees, where residents help develop town policies and procedures.

It maintains citizen oversight (“checks and balances”) over professional staff — and even increases it, since all town manager appointments will be confirmed by the people’s representatives. And it keeps our grassroots citizen initiatives and our established budget and finance committee roles.

2. It replaces our 240-person Town Meeting and our five-person Select Board with a 13-member Town Council. You can think of it as a slightly larger and more representative Select Board, but with the power to approve budgets, bylaws and other proposals.

Like the Select Board, the Town Council is small enough to have in-depth discussions on complicated issues. It controls its own agenda, so deliberations can be as long as needed for full understanding, and as timely as needed to meet grant deadlines and other time-sensitive opportunities.

Like Town Meeting, the Town Council has representatives from all parts of town. Ten of the 13 would be district councilors, elected from five districts, two councilors per district, with each district made up of two of our current voting precincts. The other three at-large councilors would be elected townwide.

3. It adds some new features to encourage broader participation and better planning. These include: election day in November instead of in the spring; town forums annually on the budget, the master plan, and the schools; and district meetings for two-way communication between residents and town councilors, at least twice a year.

Also, the elected town councilors would be required to publicly discuss and adopt a comprehensive plan for Amherst. This would provide public engagement in Amherst’s future direction and build a foundation for planning and spending decisions.

(For more info on the proposal, see the excellent, bite-sized blog abetteramherst.org.)

4. It has future charter review built in. The Charter Commission worked for 18 months, with extensive public input and support from the most experienced local governance consultants in the state. But to make sure the charter keeps serving the needs of Amherst, a commission to review it and propose improvements is required in 2024, and every 10 years after that.

This council-manager form of government isn’t some risky experiment. It’s a time-tested way of combining elected citizen leadership and effective day-to-day management. It’s used all across the country, serving one-third of the total U.S. population and more than half of communities with populations over 10,000.

In Massachusetts, it’s working in big cities like Cambridge, in little towns like East Longmeadow, and in Amherst-sized places like Barnstable, Bridgewater (home to a state university campus) and Watertown.

So why all the hand-wringing and spaghetti-flinging over this modest, pragmatic proposal? After all, Amherst will still have a town manager handling the day-to-day operation of the town, whether residents vote “yes” or “no” on March 27.

Bottom line, it’s all about Town Meeting. Amherst jettisoned the Norman Rockwell-style, open Town Meeting back in 1938, in favor of our 240-person “representative” Town Meeting. But how representative is it, really?

Do you know who your 24 precinct representatives are? Do you know how they voted on key issues? If you didn’t like how they voted, could you vote them out? For too many Amherst residents, the answer to all of these questions is “no.”

Meanwhile, we’re facing big challenges. Tax rates, family vs. student housing, commercial development, open space, multiple expensive town building projects coming due at once — these are interconnected issues, requiring thoughtful, systematic deliberation to ensure a bright future for Amherst.

Leaving these decisions up to a group of 240 people making snap decisions twice a year in a middle school auditorium seems unlikely to produce an optimal result.

Our representative Town Meeting is the biggest problem we face in terms of how our government works. We can fix this by voting “yes” on March 27.

In the meantime, be on the lookout for flying spaghetti.

Andy Churchill, of Amherst, is chairman of the Charter Commission, a former School Committee chairman and a Town Meeting member since 2002.