Guest columnist Meg Gage and Michael Greenebaum: Town Council and its lack of checks and balances

  • Amherst Town Hall

Published: 6/25/2021 8:37:02 AM

It’s election year in Amherst! On Nov. 9, all Town Council seats will be on the ballot. Important issues face the town and many are controversial: downtown development, school, fire station and DPW facility capital projects, funding the police, relationships among the various racial and ethnic communities that comprise our social fabric, and, in general, a sense of community that seems bruised in Amherst.

How do we make decisions in Amherst? And, perhaps, who is included in the “we” in the above sentence? This will be the first town election in which the success and efficacy of the town council/town manager form of government can be assessed. It will be the first time that individual councilors and their challengers can be compared and contrasted.

It will also be the first time that voters will be able to express their opinions on the structure and operation of Town Council as a whole over the past three years, and while the structure and operation are not on the ballot, the assessment of them by candidates, both incumbents and challengers, will give voters vital information when they cast their ballots.

In this commentary, we raise issues about structures and operations that are within the purview of the council and do not require changes in the town charter. We have serious concerns about the relationship between the Town Council, its committees and the Planning Board. We have equally deep concerns about the process of appointments to boards and committees.

Most important, we have grave concerns about the council’s apparent desire to dampen dissent and to control the decision-making process by avoiding the checks and balances fundamental to democratic governance. Why would we not want legitimate differences of opinion reflected in our committees?

We think candidates for Town Council ought to be questioned about these things. For example, what is the rationale for the council’s interference with the work of the Planning Board? The Planning Board is charged with bringing proposals to the council for vote. It would seem appropriate for a council committee to review such proposals and make recommendations to the whole council.

Indeed, this is what the charge to the Community Resources Committee indicates. But this is not what the CRC does. Instead, it duplicates and diminishes the Planning Board in matters relating to zoning and the master plan. In effect, it determines what proposals will be presented to itself for review. Moreover, the council appoints the members of the Planning Board, so any semblance of independence is obliterated.

The Town Council is responsible for appointments to all appointed boards and committees. In theory, residents offering to serve on a board or committee fill out a form listing qualifications and experience and these forms create a pool of applicants from which candidates for appointment will be drawn.

Originally, the Town Council created a committee to recommend appointments, but this committee grew afoul of the council by recommending independent candidates, so it was abolished. The council wants candidates who agree with it on town issues.

Since the majority of councilors are committed to positions on these issues long before motions come before it, they know what to look for. They can cite the need for experience if their desired candidate is already on the committee; they can cite the need for fresh faces if she is not. Their appointment policy is to minimize disagreement, dissent and independence of judgment.

The Amherst public holds legitimate and reasonable differences of opinion on a variety of controversial issues; don’t we want those important debates held within our legislative bodies rather than between insiders and outsiders? What does it mean for a democracy if dissent is relegated to outsiders who don’t have a seat at the table?

The concentration of power in the Town Council and the lack of checks and balances really means that our form of government leans toward autocracy and away from democracy. We are suggesting that the November election be viewed as a referendum on the concentration of power in a single body. Candidates for council seats should be asked:

■ Do you believe in an independent Planning Board?

■ Do you believe in an appointment process that prizes diversity of opinion?

That would be a start.

Meg Gage and Michael Greenebaum live in Amherst.


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