Talk of ranked-choice voting at Town Council meeting

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 12/12/2018 12:22:44 AM

AMHERST — Ranked-choice voting, where voters can put candidates in a preferred order rather than voting for a set number of candidates, is expected to be brought to municipal elections.

At its second meeting Monday, the Town Council gave a charge to the Ranked Choice Voting Commission, one of four newly formed committees that will begin work once members are appointed.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said residents will be recruited to serve on the committees, at which time appointments will be made.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, is mandated in the town charter adopted by voters in March and should be ready to use no later than the town elections in 2021, when the next Town Council election takes place. 

Andy Anderson, a District 5 resident who has advocated for this voting method, spoke to Town Council about the importance of creating the committee, observing that ranked-choice voting has been supported by retired State Rep. Ellen Story and current State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, and endorsed by incoming State. Rep Mindy Domb and incoming State Sen. Jo Comerford. In a non-binding vote in November, voters also recommended ranked-choice voting.

“It is a system that in the recent Question 5 on the ballot was supported by 69 percent of the residents of Amherst,” Anderson said.

Town Council also reaffirmed the charge for the Board of License Commissioners, which will handle all applications for alcohol, common victuallers, live entertainment and various other licenses. The defunct Select Board previously handled this role.

Two other committees given charges Monday are the Bylaw Review Committee and the Participatory Budgeting Commission.

Committee considerations

For more than an hour, councilors discussed what standing committees should exist, with Griesemer suggesting there be five such committees, focused on finance, planning and economic development, town services and appointments, communications and outreach and, finally, governance, organization and legislation.

Only the Finance Committee is required by the charter.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said the committee on finance needs to start soon, because capital projects for the town, schools and libraries will be coming before the Joint Capital Planning Committee for review.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, who previously served on the Finance Committee, noted that entity was appointed by the town moderator and advised Town Meeting.

Under the new charter, the town manager will propose a budget in the spring and there will be a much shorter period of time in which it is reviewed and then acted on by the council, Steinberg said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said parts of the old Finance Committee will be replicated, with budget presentations by department heads in a timely fashion.

“I think the Finance Committee will not be dissimilar to the previous Finance Committee," Bockelman said, adding that only the timeline would differ, with no mandate to have a budget presented in mid January.

Council Vice President Mandi Jo Hannake said council committees should help the council get its work done, and she wouldn’t necessarily support creating one focused on planning, economic development and sustainability.

But District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said council committees will be important to vet proposals and prioritize and organize items coming before the council, while District 5 Councilor ShaliniBahl-Milne said these committees would be another avenue to receive comments from the public.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she is concerned about adding layers and umbrellas that aren’t needed, and that Amherst shouldn’t model its government structure after Northampton because it has had many years to tweak its processes, and has a mayor.

“Northampton doesn’t have the answer,” Brewer said.

Other councilors advocated for a limited number of council committees.

“Lean and mean might be the way to start,” said Distirct 4 Councilor Stephen Schreiber.

“We should develop other committees as needed,” agreed District 3 Councilor George Ryan.

Bockelman said the council should have a committee in place to review his appointment recommendations, noting it will be a collaborative process in which he appoints and the council confirms.

Griesemer said this means an appointments committee might need to be put in place at the council’s Dec. 17 meeting.

Bockelman also informed the council of a new community activity form that will replace the citizen activity form in seeking residents to participate in town government. The new form will be less cumbersome and allow residents to express interest in multiple committees without filling out multiple forms.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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