Editorial: Amherst charter deserves robust debate

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The proposed new charter that would significantly change the structure of government in Amherst deserves robust and thoughtful debate during the next 10 weeks.

While political organizations on both sides of the issue have been active since late last year, a forum Thursday night at the Jones Library began what we expect will be a busy schedule of public events to hear from proponents and opponents of the charter change. We hope the discourse remains civil and informative leading up to the March 27 vote on whether to replace the representative Town Meeting and Select Board with a Town Council.

Thursday’s forum was sponsored by the Amherst Democratic Town Committee, whose chairman, Robert Pam, said the potential change in governance structure is the most significant issue the town will address in coming years.

Amherst shifted in 1938 from a Town Meeting open to all voters to one in which elected representatives decide town business. The town’s charter has not been overhauled in more than six decades, when the Legislature in 1954 approved an act calling for Amherst to create the job of town manager. Since then, voters turned down a mayoral form of government in 1996, 2003 and 2005.

In March 2016, 60 percent of voters who cast ballots approved establishing a nine-member Charter Commission, which issued its final report in September.

While the Charter Commission again considered a mayor-council form of government, the five-member majority ultimately recommended keeping a professional town manager, with expanded duties, and creating a 13-member Town Council to replace Town Meeting, with 240 elected representatives and a five-person Select Board.

Commissioners Andrew Churchill, Thomas Fricke, Nick Grabbe, Mandi Jo Hanneke and Irvin Rhodes wrote in their majority report: “We ended up with a compromise, in the best sense of the word — a practical, middle ground between completely changing our town government and making minor tweaks to the status quo.”

At the heart of the debate over the proposed changes is whether a smaller Town Council that meets regularly throughout the year would be more knowledgeable about the issues and accountable to the voters than the larger Town Meeting that normally has scheduled sessions over a few nights in the spring and fall. Charter proponents argue that it would be more effective to have a council that sets its own agenda and participates in shaping town business from the beginning, rather than a Town Meeting that can act only on the warrant presented by the Select Board and citizen petitions.

The three commissioners who oppose the charter proposal — Margaret Gage, Julia Rueschemeyer and Gerald Weiss — wrote in their minority report: “We regret that this Commission was unable to create a consensus document that night have bridged deep divisions in Amherst. The majority refused to consider improving our current Town Meeting and Select Board.”

They contend that Amherst already is a well-managed town with a “rich and feisty political culture (that) is characterized by exceptionally high citizen participation in government through Town Meeting and dozens of Town committees,” and warn that the proposed charter “involves drastic changes with uncertain consequences.”

Four political groups are raising money to spend on campaigns for and against the charter. Supporters formed Amherst for All 2.0, the successor to the organization that collected signatures to get the charter study on the 2016 ballot. The three groups working to defeat the proposed changes are Not This Charter, which includes Gage, Rueschemeyer and Weiss; Vote No on the Charter, which is opposed to merging the town’s legislative and executive functions in one council; and Town Meeting Works, whose members contend that developers are behind the move to eliminate that body.

Meanwhile, the ninth member of the Charter Commission, Diana Stein, a former Select Board member, abstained from voting and issued her own statement explaining why she feels conflicted: “No vote I can remember has caused me more grief than this one. … there are things I like about Town Meeting and things I don’t. There are things I like about the Charter and things I don’t. … I hope people will understand how hard this has been for me and why I decided to abstain and not campaign for either side. The citizens of Amherst have a choice, and their decision is the one that matters.”

Over the next 10 weeks, we encourage those citizens to read, listen and ask questions so they cast an educated vote March 27.