Columnist Nicola Mare Usher: Good decision, but bad decision-making process

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

I will enthusiastically vote “yes” on March 27 to adopt the new charter in Amherst, replacing the antiquated, inefficient, and elitist Town Meeting with a 13-member council that will convene year-round and be accessible and accountable to constituents.

My frustrations with Town Meeting and reasons I’m excited about a sweeping change in governance here in Amherst are too many to detail in this space, so I will focus on one example of a Town Meeting vote that some laud as demonstrative of checks and balances and a reflection of community values but one that I see as a subjectively positive outcome accomplished via a poor and uninformed process.

I was elected to Town Meeting Precinct 1 in the spring of 2016. It was my first or second session when I introduced a motion to put $30,000 back into the school budget to retain full-time library paraprofessional staff at the elementary schools. To be clear, the positions were not being eliminated. Town Meeting did not vote to restore eliminated positions, they voted to fund full-time positions that had been reduced to part-time.

I gave a good speech. The vote passed overwhelmingly. I was praised by strangers. For a few hours I felt heroic and a bit nervous that the anonymity I had grown so accustomed to as a New Yorker was lost forever as an “elected” official in this small town.

I was terribly uninformed on the school budgeting process and deliberations that led to the reduction in staffing hours. I stand behind that vote and everything I said when introducing the motion about the importance of the library as a “great equalizer” and the need to maintain those positions as full-time. The Wildwood library and staff are one of the best things about that school and I would vote again and again to provide funding to this important resource. I am glad it worked out, but I now see it as an example of a good decision reached via a bad decision-making process.

I had attended a 30-minute orientation prior to introducing a motion that would determine what our town did with $30,000 from a budget already vetted by the elected school and finance committees. I didn’t fully understand how motions worked and certainly did not have a depth of understanding of our town’s budget.

What I have learned in retrospect that was surprisingly not addressed by the 240 (with under 200 actually attending and participating in a given session) members that evening is that it was ultimately up to the administration to allocate those funds back to the library staff.

It was not even a Town Meeting decision. We voted to put the money back in the budget but the schools very easily could have opted to use the money other ways. So, what actually happened with that vote is that an uninformed citizen introduced a motion to use $30,000 to restore part-time positions to full-time for one year. That was approved even though it went against the recommendations of school principals and the School Committee. Ultimately, the schools were under no obligation to use those funds for library staff since Town Meeting doesn’t actually get to decide specific line items that way.

I can be happy with the outcome and support our schools’ library staff while still being dismayed at having played a role in a flawed process that has now been miscategorized by several supporters of Town Meeting.

Part of what compelled me to support that motion was feedback from constituents including neighbors and school library staff. This was what I would say was a rare instance of a Town Meeting member making a decision based on the interests of her constituents versus “voting her conscience” — unlike the decision to walk away from $34 million to improve our schools that had overwhelming support from the community and educators. It also was unlike the decision to fund $50,000 for a design to improve the North Amherst library that was brought by a handful of citizens, did not include library staff, was not supported by the library trustees and was decided with no opportunity for input from the broader public.

Town Meeting is arguably participatory, but it is far from democratic. If you’d like to continue the conversation you can contact me via the the Precinct 1 Town Meeting email available on the town website — I am one of the members who actually opted in.

Oh yeah, we can choose not to be reachable by voters. How’s that for accountability?

Nicola Mare Usher, of Amherst, is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 1.