Columnist Jim Pistrang: Underappreciated aspects of Town Meeting 

  • Town Moderator Jim Pistrang of the Not This Charter committee was among the opponents of the proposed Amherst charter who met with the Daily Hampshire Gazette editorial board on Feb. 13. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

As Amherst town moderator for the past five years and a Town Meeting member for 19 years prior to that, I have a unique perspective on the new town charter decision facing voters March 27. There are several notable aspects of Amherst Town Meeting that have been underappreciated in the debate.

Volunteerism and inclusion: Participation in Town Meeting is an “entry point” for volunteers, often a first step to involvement in other committees and higher elected office. Town Meeting gives members direct responsibility in governance.

Addressing the town’s problems and challenges brings a sense of “we the community” need to provide a solution, rather than “they the government” are creating a problem.

Polarization: Town Meeting, with its lack of political parties and permanent factions, encourages members to support issues based on their merits. I have observed many instances of shifting allegiances where members diametrically opposed on one issue find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder in support of another.

This style of merit-based politics becomes more difficult and less likely with a city council government, where election rhetoric becomes more focused on the candidates and less focused on issues.

Civility: Town Meeting has a set of rules of decorum monitored by the moderator that include confining remarks to the merit of the question, not characterizing motives or impugning the character of others, not electioneering or making political statements, and refraining from profanity. These rules, and the ability to enforce them, are unique to Town Meeting.

The art of listening: In Town Meeting, debate and discussion continue until there are no more comments to be made or until two-thirds of the meeting vote to end debate. Two-thirds is a high threshold, allowing many people to speak on each issue.

As a Town Meeting member, I was sometimes frustrated when listening to comments that I did not agree with. But I have learned that there is tremendous value in listening to the “other side.”

Presenting the issues: Town Meeting requires work from all participants, but above all on the part of the presenters of articles. A poorly constructed and poorly presented article is far more likely to fail at Town Meeting. To be successful, presenters must understand and be able to clearly communicate the details, reasons and implications of their proposals.

With a city council, a presenter will only need to convince a small number of people and often the positions of the council members will be known beforehand, making the presenter’s job easier. The value of Town Meeting is that it is not easy.

Confusing the results with the process: It seems that some charter supporters want to change the structure of our government because they are unhappy with the results of some votes. No form of government can guarantee that everyone will approve of all decisions.

The Charter Commission would have been wise to give serious consideration to improving Town Meeting instead of abandoning it for something new and untested. The recent adaptation of electronic voting at Amherst Town Meeting has already made it more efficient and accountable. Research about how the 30-plus other Massachusetts towns with representative Town Meetings operate could lead to other improvements.

I’m inspired by a speech made in 2001 by Harrison Gregg, who was my predecessor as Amherst town moderator. Here is a portion:

“I love Town Meeting. I love the ideal of participatory democracy, the right to speak one’s mind, the right to petition one’s government for redress of grievances or simply to bring forward a good idea that might benefit the community as a whole. I love the reality of everyone in town — or at least those who care to do so — coming together to talk things out and share responsibility for the actions that will be taken in their name. I love the way that every issue has at least two sides and sometime five or six, the way the undecided members of Town Meeting agonize over difficult decisions, swayed one way by one speaker, the other way by the next. I love the fact that those who come with their minds made up at least have to listen to the other side, and listen politely. I love the fact that these folks who have spent a few hours together facing the difficult choices of budgets and bylaws and zoning will never again be able — at least not honestly — to pretend that governing a town is an easy thing to do.”

Please join me in voting “no” on March 27.

Jim Pistrang, of Amherst, is the town moderator and was a Town Meeting member for 19 years.