Nearly all the chairs were filled last night at the start of an Amherst Charter Commission meeting, where two members, Meg Gage and Nick Grabbe, offered a “middle ground” proposal to replace the historic 254-member Amherst Town Meeting with a “legislative council” of sixty people.
There was frequent reference to the failed elementary school building and consolidation project, which did not win a two-thirds majority in a townwide referendum on March 28, or at Town Meetings this past January and last November. Gage, who supported the school project, said she feared that a Charter Commission plan for an elected 13-member council and mayor would be similarly divisive, and she hoped to prevent another rancorous conflict.
The Commission began its meeting at 6 p.m., and was still in discussion when a reporter left at about 9 p.m. A public outreach session will be held next Tuesday, April 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Jones Library’s Woodbury Room.
Last night’s meeting was moved to Town Hall in anticipation of a crowd, and 30 to 40 people attended. They included residents who want to see Amherst led by a swift-acting small government; and loyalists of Town Meeting, who said the larger body’s presence assures that critical decisions are not made by a select few.
The Commission, which has a total of 9 members, has thus far voted 5 to 4 in favor of a 13-member town council and a mayor. The “middle ground” plan, Gage said, could have a mayor, but should also have a professional town manager.
The commission discussed executive councils of “5 to 7” members, with and without larger legislative councils; the pros and cons of having a mayor, town manager, or both; and structures with “strong” versus “weak” mayors. There were frequent references to the city government models in Cambridge and Newton.
Commission Consultant Michael Ward said the “middle-ground” plan is unusual, combining elements of town and city governments. Although Gage and Grabbe’s plan suggested that a small executive council could have veto power over a larger legislative group, Ward said that might run afoul of state laws. “It’s a gray area – you’d be in uncharted waters,” said Ward, of the Center for Public Management at UMass-Boston.
Andy Churchill, who chairs the commission, said he appreciated Gage and Grabbe’s attempt to find a compromise proposal, but said a 60-person council would be unwieldy, and yield a hybrid government which doesn’t exist elsewhere in Massachusetts. “It’s hard to explain, and something we don’t see in action anywhere else,” Churchill said. “We need something that’s clear, that’s clean, that we can describe in two sentences.”
Gage argued that the 60-person council “is not Town Meeting,” would be about 1/4 its size, and wouldn’t be governed by state laws on Town Meetings. “By making it a council, we have a lot more nimbleness – it could be a lot more responsible than Town Meeting,” Gage said.
The 13-member council plan “eliminates meaningful resident participation,” Gage said, emphasizing that a small executive council could co-exist with the larger legislative body, and provide critical focus.
At least four other Commission members, Julia Rauschmeyer, Irvin Rhodes, Diana Stein and Gerry Weiss, were willing to grant the “middle ground” proposal consideration, and Rauschmeyer moved last night for formal discussion, seconded by Rhodes. Meanwhile, Churchill, Mandi Joe Hanneke and Tom Fricke were vocal in opposition. “We won’t have rancor when everyone agrees, and I don’t think everyone is going to agree,” Fricke said.
Rauschmeyer said a 60-person council could bring diverse viewpoints and backgrounds to decision-making.
Grabbe said had “mixed feelings” about the plan he and Gage developed, and got mixed reviews from several people he shared it with. “There are people who are supporting a mayor, and people who are supporting Town Meeting, who are probably not going to like this,” Grabbe said.
Churchill, although saying he favored the 13-member council, noted he would support a plan to expand the executive council to 23 people. “It gives us more representation,” he said.
Rhodes said he doesn’t want a large Town Meeting like Amherst has now. “That is who we have been for years, and I do value the deliberative body that is elected,” he said.
Weiss said the critical issue is citizen power, and to reduce the council to 13 people “would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” However, Weiss said that Town Meeting as it is now has “gotten kind of insular.”
“The water needs to be changed … this would be a major change,” he said.
Several attendees wished to speak, and Jerry Guidera, a local developer, was the first called upon by Churchill. He expressed frustration that 13-member council plan might be “dead in the water.”
“I think at this point, this effort to build consensus is kind of irrelevant and useless,” Guidera said. “It’s just time to move on.”
The next speaker, Michael Greenbaum, offered the opposite view. “The proposal that Meg and Nick crafted is ingenious, and strong,” he said.
Some expressed the concern that 13-member council, with a mayor, wouldn’t offer sufficient checks and balances or opportunities for public input, but resident Michael Hanke urged the commission to coalesce behind the small government plan. “We’re not getting better … there is no one leading this town,” he said, adding he didn’t believe a mayor and small council would be corrupted by their powers. “I don’t think there is subterfuge going on,” he said.
Grabbe said that the having a larger council could help Amherst “to avoid the influence of money in politics.”
Some of those attending agreed. “I like this approach … even if there was a mayor, it wouldn’t give the mayor total top-down power,” said resident Shavahn Best.
Resident Janet Keller said that while it may be difficult to assure diversity in town government, “there is one way to make sure that not everyone has a seat at the table, and that is to keep the number (of elected representatives) real low.”
Meanwhie, resident Melissa Giraud expressed doubt that broader public involvement would benefit the town. “There are a lot of young families that just don’t feel represented,” she said.
The Commission will meet again on Thursday, April 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the Police Station Community Room. The Commission’s main website with links to documents is here: https://www.amherstma.gov/2248/Charter-Commission
Disclosure/Note: The author is a member of Amherst Town Meeting, on which several Charter Commission members, including Churchill, Weiss, Hanneke, Rhodes and Gage also serve, as do several people who spoke last night.