WHAT THIS CHARTER WOULD NOT DO
Would NOT create a leadership voice or political vision for the Town.
Would NOT reduce taxes or enhance revenue.
Would NOT increase voter turnout. (Northampton, with a Mayor-Council, has many uncontested seats and LOW voter turnout.)
Would NOT encourage appropriate commercial development or a specific vision for downtown development.
Would NOT be more accountable or responsive than a 240-person elected legislative body.
Would NOT represent our values by creating virtual parties with polarized slates. (Our neighbor, Greenfield's Council just turned down a Safe City designation, despite overwhelming support from the public.)
FACTS ABOUT THE PROPOSED CHARTER
Checks and Balances A healthy democracy relies on independent, elected branches of government acting as “checks” on each other. The Charter eliminates this separation of powers and concentrates all decision-making into the hands of 13 people, unbalanced by the division of authority and responsibilites that we now have in our two elected branches of government. This Council would have unchecked control over virtually all aspects of our Town, including the budget, by-laws, zoning, eminent domain, and even their own compensation. They would appoint, approve or assume the responsibilities of every board and committee, including the currently independent Finance Committee. The Charter would weaken the Town Manager by making all appointments subject to approval by the Council that hires, fires, and evaluates him/her.
Voter Turnout Voter turnout is increased for presidential and state elections. The Charter moves elections to November in ODD-numbered years, which does NOT increase voter turnout. In fact, Manager-Council cities turnout is the same as towns with Select Board-Representative Town Meeting: 19%. Voter turnout actually decreased from 27% to 19% in a city (Randolph) that recently underwent the change proposed in this charter.
Competitive Elections The Charter will NOT provide more contested elections. In fact, 60% of Council races across MA are UNcontested and 91% of incumbents win re-election. (Data available from 306 Council races in 43 elections in 21 MA cities.) Competitiveness for Town Meeting seats (68% uncontested over the past 6 years) is comparable to Council seats, even with the three Precincts in Amherst that have very large numbers of students (70% of voters!). In the past 2 years, 81 Amherst residents who had never been in Town Meeting before were elected and 22 incumbents were unseated.
Knowing your Representatives You can meet and question the candidates for Town Meeting at a public forum prior to the annual town election (March 17 this year). Select Board and Town Meeting members’ names, addresses and phone numbers are available on the town website. Residents can currently send an email that will reach most Town Meeting representatives in any precinct. Votes are almost all recorded electronically (some procedural votes are still voice) and posted on the town website.
Representativeness of Town Meeting Amherst Town Meeting includes people from all walks of life. We have old people and young people and everyone in between. We have people who claim multiple identities across race, gender, sexual preference and ethnicity. We have home owners, renters, landlords, and developers. We have an impressive range of professional expertise including professors, attorneys, writers, teachers, tradespeople, human service workers, business people, firefighters, etc… Amherst Town Meeting has 56% women, compared to only 25% in Councils across MA. The average age of those who actually voted in the last two local elections is 62 years and the average age of our current Town Meeting is 61 years. Students make up more than half of our Town’s population and most do not vote in local elections, but there are student members in Town Meeting (and more running in 2018). In both pairs of school building votes, Town Meeting mirrored the town-wide vote within 1% point.
Accountability Town Meeting votes are recorded electronically and the results, including how individual members voted, are posted on the town website. Meetings are broadcast live on public access television and are archived on Amherst Media’s website. Select Board and Planning Board meetings are also televised and archived. Open Meeting Law (OML) covers meetings of a quorum (more than half the membership). Six of 13 Councilors would be able to legally meet, discuss, and strategize under current OML. If OML were applied to Town Meeting, it would prevent the unlikely scenario of a quorum (more than 120 people) from meeting in a smoke-filled backroom without notice. However, although not technically covered, Amherst’s Town Meeting effectively complies with OML by posting the agenda (the “warrant”) well in advance of Town Meeting, holding Town Meeting publicly, allowing public comment, and making its online “town meeting member” discussion group available for any member of the public to read.
Money in Politics Candidates for City Council in Massachusetts raised an average of $4,500 for their campaign. Candidates who actually had an opponent (only 40% of them) raised over $6,000 for their campaign and almost 20% raised more than $9,000 each. (Data available from 227 Council races in 21 elections in 13 MA cities.) The people who will be able to mount a campaign are those with greater financial resources and influential connections. Our current system has a low barrier to participation, requiring no money to run for Town Meeting and far lower costs to run for Select Board, School Committee, and other town-wide elected positions.
Well-informed Voting As is clear from the state and national level, getting elected does not mean one is more qualified. Most warrant articles arrive at Town Meeting after having already been reviewed as appropriate by other branches of government (the elected Select Board, appointed Finance Committee and Planning Board, and professional town management) and which recommend for or against each warrant article. Town Meeting members spend weeks in advance of Town Meeting reviewing the warrant and attending warrant review meetings. At Town Meeting, votes are taken after inclusive discussions that permit commentary from any Town Meeting member, relevant town official, invited guest, or member of the public. No discussion is closed without a two-thirds approval of all members, affording significant review and discussion time. This extensive review is done in the context of a large democratic organization, which includes the most diverse set of perspectives in any town body, whether considering professional expertise, life experience, or personal identityThe proposed Charter collapses the review of both Town Meeting and Select Board into one Council, eliminating the breadth of experience and knowledge that are brought to bear by the membership of these separate bodies.
Year-Round Government Now The Select Board meets at least bi-weekly (49 meetings last year!) as do the independent Finance Committee, the Planning Board, and numerous other bodies that meet year round. Town Meeting has on average 3-4 sessions per year, spread over 13-14 nights at three hours a night. Further sessions can be called as needed by the Select Board or by citizen petition (200 signatures).
Two Year, Non-Staggered Elections This Charter would eliminate 3-yr staggered terms and instead would have elections of all 28 positions every 2 years: including all 13 Councilors, all 5 School Committee members, all 6 Library Trustees, and 3 Housing Authority seats. There is a real risk of vacant seats or a full turnover of membership, losing vital institutional knowledge and creating instability, particularly difficult for the schools which account for over 60% of the town’s $88M budget. Voters are likely to find it difficult to “get to know” so many candidates for so many positions. Such conditions lead to partisanship, with pooled resources and slates of candidates, exacerbating divides in Amherst.
Planning, Zoning, Development This Charter places all power over planning and zoning in one body, the unitary Council, rather than dividing it across different bodies as is currently the case. The Council would appoint the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, and would have approval power over the Town Manager’s appointment of the Redevelopment Authority (currently an elected post) and town department heads, including the Planning Director. It is a closed loop system, established by and answerable only to one body, the Council. The Council appoints the Planning Board, the Planning Board writes the zoning bylaws, the Council approves the zoning bylaws, and the Council appoints the Zoning Board of Appeals that enforces the zoning bylaws. In the current system, proposed zoning changes are usually brought by the Planning Board (appointed by the Town Manager, approved by the Select Board) to Town Meeting to approve or reject. This allows for a greater diversity of opinion to be expressed before changes are adopted, and gives residents who serve in Town Meeting an opportunity to consider changes that could be detrimental to residential neighborhoods. This Charter removes this key step in the process of managing zoning and development in Amherst.
Efficiency A 13-member council might well be more “efficient” in passing legislation quickly. In the Town of Amherst, we hope, representation and inclusiveness is prioritized over efficiency. The most efficient form of government is an autocracy. It is more efficient to minimize minority voices and dissent, as the charter does, but an inclusive democracy seeks to give more people a seat at the table.
COUNCIL ONLY CHARTERS ARE RARE IN
MASSACHUSETTS FOR GOOD REASON
What is being proposed for Amherst is a "City Charter," inappropriate for a community the size of ours. Furthermore, the "Council Only" approach in the proposed Charter is extremely rare in Massachusetts (used in less than 3% of comunities) and throughout New England, reflecting a widespread concern about such an unbalanced governmental structure.