Columnist Maura Keene: Town Meeting should be improved, not replaced

  • Denise Vozella, news director at radio station WHMP, holds the microphone for Maura Keene, left, while she asks a question during a debate about the Amherst charter at The Black Sheep on Feb. 27. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Words and slogans can be misleading. In the current debate over changing Amherst’s government, proponents of replacing the current Select Board, Town Meeting and town manager government with a 13-member council and manager have employed several slogans which sound good, but don’t add up to reality.

First, the name Amherst For All implies that the current government is not representative of the town. In fact, all voters are entitled to a vote now as they would be under the proposed change.

It is said that if someone doesn’t like the Town Council, they can be voted out. This also applies to Town Meeting and the Select Board. With electronic voting, individual members’ attendance and voting records are easily found on the town website.

Second, the slogan “A Better Amherst” implies that something is wrong with Amherst. Amherst has an excellent bond rating, exemplary schools, money in reserve and very few vacant businesses downtown. Taxes are high, but that is because of the presence of two colleges and the University of Massachusetts that do not pay taxes.

That will not change with a change of government. This argument reminds me of the language Donald Trump used to gain support among the white working class.

Third, there is the suggestion that Amherst needs a year-round government. Amherst already has a year-round government. Most needs are met by the twice monthly Select Board meetings and the town manager.

Only appropriations, zoning changes and citizen proposals go before Town Meeting. The proposed charter only specifies monthly council meetings at a much higher salary than Select Board members currently receive.

Fourth, the argument that Amherst has outgrown Town Meeting. The representative Town Meeting was established in 1938. Larger towns than Amherst, such as Brookline, function well with this form of government.

The U.S. Constitution has been in place for over 200 years, and no one talks about replacing it because the country is much larger than it was in 1788.

Lastly, Amherst For All says the new charter will be “a better democracy.” Since democracy is rule by the people, it is hard to see how replacing 254 citizens with 13 will be an improvement in democracy.

It is easy to see how a majority of seven with special interests will be able to monopolize a council. Also, the money, effort and time required to run and serve on the council would eliminate many younger and less affluent citizens from participating.

The fact that Town Meeting is easy to run for and requires no outlay of money, means that a broad section of the population serves. In fact 26 percent of Town Meeting members have children in the schools.

It may not be efficient, and all members are not knowledgeable about all topics, but Town Meeting is incorruptible. Of course, not everyone will agree with every decision, but they can be sure that Town Meeting members voted for what they feel is best for the town.

Let’s make Town Meeting better, not replace it with something that falls short in many ways. If the new charter passes, provisions in it make sure we can never go back.

Dr. Maura Keene, of Amherst,
is an obstetrician-gynecologist. She is a Town Meeting candidate in Precinct 7.