Plans in motion for Amherst’s new government

  • People cheer as the Amherst charter revision passes Tuesday, Macrh 27, 2018 at The Pub.

Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2018

AMHERST — With the successful adoption of a new charter Tuesday, Amherst’s changeover to a new form of government is underway.

“The Select Board and town manager will start working on the transition immediately,” Mandi Jo Hanneke, vice chairwoman of the Charter Commission, said Wednesday.

Hanneke said town officials should be able to use the transition section of the 37-page charter to take the necessary steps that will lead to the establishment of a 13-member town council, which will replace the Select Board and the 240-member representative Town Meeting.

“The transition article will guide them on the things that need to be done,” Hanneke said.

“That blueprint makes it as clear as possible,” Charter Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said. “We’re hopeful it lays it out, and that’s its intent.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he convened a leadership team meeting Wednesday morning, and anticipates that the election results will be discussed at the Select Board’s next meeting on Monday, including what implications there are for the annual Town Meeting that begins April 30. The board is supposed to sign the warrant for Town Meeting that evening.

The charter’s section on transition will be vital to understand what needs to be done.

“There is a transition statement about how to get from here to there,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman added that there is plenty of time to digest the changes the charter will bring between now and Dec. 3, when the councilors are scheduled to assume office and when Town Meeting, the Select Board and town moderator will all cease to exist.

Hanneke said the first action the Select Board needs to take is putting an article on the Town Meeting warrant calling on the Legislature to allow a special election for the council to be held Nov. 6. This special legislation would also create a preliminary election in September should there be more than double the number of candidates for the three townwide positions, or more than double the candidates for the two positions in each of five districts.

Such preliminary elections wouldn’t be needed in the ordinary biennial election schedule because the charter calls for the town council to form a ranked-choice study commission that aims to implement instant runoff voting to automatically narrow the field of candidates at the town election.

While many in Town Meeting may remain disappointed at the charter outcome, Hanneke said she is confident that it will act on the wishes of voters and not hold up the filing for special legislation.

“I would hope elected Town Meeting members would act in a manner consistent with that,” Hanneke said.

Churchill said he is confident that Town Meeting can’t stand in the way of change, pointing to language in the charter that “the Select Board, town manager and Town Meeting shall limit their respective actions during this transition period to those matters essential and necessary to the current operations of the town, such as the annual budget, taking no actions contrary to, or that frustrate the purpose of, this charter.”

If the Legislature is unable to set the Amherst election for November, it could be pushed back to January 2019, with the councilors taking their seats in February.

Bylaw committee

The second immediate action for the Select Board, Hanneke said, is to a create a committee, within 30 days, to look at existing bylaws and make recommendations to ensure these are in compliance with the charter. Hanneke said this work will likely need to continue once a council is in place.

That committee, according to the charter, will “begin a review of the town bylaws for the purpose of preparing such revisions and amendments as may be necessary to bring them into conformity with the provisions of this charter and to fully implement the provisions of this charter.”

The committee must submit its report, with recommendations, to the town council-elect following the election.”

The transition section also states that special Town Meetings, typically held in fall, shall be held only to address matters that can’t be delayed, and that the Select Board shall be the sole judge of what those matters are.

The charter places restrictions on the Select Board’s appointment power in the coming months, with appointments to be made only in cases when a committee needs a member for a quorum.

Bockelman said he anticipates looking at other communities that have gone through similar adjustments to their governments to draw lessons for Amherst’s approach.

“That’s a key part of it,” he said.

There are also other officials across the state from whom he expects to draw expertise.

Churchill said the Collins Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which provided consulting expertise to the commission, could be available if town officials wanted to have a contract with its staff.

But Hanneke said a lot in the transition section is straightforward, and she believes most changes can be done in-house and with minimal consultation with KP Law, the town’s attorney.

While commissioners can also provide input, Churchill notes the commission won’t be in place for much longer.

“We technically exist until a month after the vote, just in case mop-up needs to be done,” Churchill said.

Though not directly related, Bockelman said passage of the charter vote also gives clarity in how he will fill the vacant collector position and the anticipated retirements that will lead to openings for town clerk and assistant to the town manager.

Any potential candidates who may have been concerned about the charter now will have certainty about Amherst’s government, he said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.