The growing discord on the Amherst Charter Commission was clear last night, where a few members expressed their unhappiness with the online communications they received from one another, and from the public.
Commission member Julia Rueschemeyer said she is concerned that a “special interest group of developers” is trying to control the nine-person commission, and has gained power over “at least one member.” (The text of a statement Rueschemeyer read aloud is at this link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1z-ka59BthOdElqiF4sXrgDbMB50-IDELRfMR1JOexLo/edit?usp=sharing)
Rueschemeyer said she has received emails from member Nick Grabbe, telling her the organization Amherst for All is “displeased” with her votes, and that she was only elected to the commission because she is female.
Grabbe did not deny emailing Rueschemeyer. “I’m not exactly sure what she means by developers, or being controlled by Amherst for All,” he said. Grabbe said that Amherst for All “wanted gender balance” on the Charter Commission, and that he “may have even recommended” that the group vote for Rueschemeyer in a 2016 election which created the commission.
Rueschemeyer told Grabbe that she will not welcome additional online communications from him. “I don’t want to be intimidated anymore on Facebook, or on email. It’s disrespectful,” she said.
Grabbe acknowledged he told Rueschemeyer “not to vote” at a particular commission meeting, where he said she didn’t hear the prior discussion.
Meanwhile, member Irvin Rhodes said the feedback he has been receiving on social media was “rather disappointing.” It included comments from people opposed to a 60-member legislative council plan, “who said I was duped, that I was stooge, that I was being used,” he said.
“I didn’t hear any intellectual arguments, I was hearing something else,” Rhodes said.
Several people on the commission are current or former members of Amherst Town Meeting, which Amherst for All and some commission members hope to replace with with a smaller, mayor-led government. They maintain that the historic, 240-member elected Town Meeting, which votes twice a year on measures proposed by town officials and the public, is inefficient. Defenders claim that Town Meeting is highly democratic, allowing many citizens to make their voices heard on public matters. Although several races for Town Meeting in March were competitive this year, amid controversy over a failed elementary school consolidation and building project, getting a seat on Town Meeting has often been easy for those willing or able to devote the time. It typically involves a series of night meetings in both spring and fall, and a resident can nominate themselves for one of the frequent openings.
Although Grabbe participated with member Meg Gage in developing a “middle ground” Amherst government proposal in recent weeks, which would establish a mayoral structure in Amherst and a 60-member legislative council, Grabbe expressed doubts, and ultimately voted against, the proposal he was involved in crafting.
However, the middle-ground plan passed by a 5-4 majority a few weeks ago. Last night, Chairman Andy Churchill voiced his dislike of the proposal frequently, claiming that a 60-person council does not exist anywhere in the state and would be unwieldy.
“I think the feedback was largely negative,” Churchill said, adding he doubts the proposal would pass in an election, and those who want smaller government would be “demoralized.”
“I believe we had a clear alternative with a mayor, and a CEO (chief executive officer) reporting to the mayor, and a 13-member council,” Churchill said.
Although Grabbe was apparently expected to make a motion last night for the commission to revisit a prior 5-4 proposal, for the mayor and 13-member council, he declined to do so at about 9:30 p.m., citing the lateness of the hour.
Grabbe, however, cited a memo or letter “from 12 UMass political science professors,” opposing the 60-member council and maintaining that it would “weaken accountability.”
Gage said she plans to answer that letter, which she said was “stunningly poor,” in content, and signed by just “eight academics.”
People who spoke during last night’s public comment period expressed a wide range of views. Barry O’Connell, a longtime former Town Meeting member, said its votes in recent years “are consistently obstructionist.” O’Connell said he and his wife would “like to go to our death in Amherst with no Town Meeting.”
Resident Kurt Wise said any proposed council should have a sufficient number of representatives so that it “offers a diversity of opinion that is meaningful.”
While O’Connell called the failure of the school building project “tragic,” Wise countered that the School Committee failed to take many concerns about it into consideration, and ignored suggested changes which could have led to broader support for it. Wise credited Town Meeting for pushing back “against power elites who weren’t willing to compromise.”
Wise suggested that any proposed new council should also make use of a 2/3 “super-majority” requirement for passage of critical measures.
As at past meetings, Gage insisted that any plan must include a professional town manager, to oversee budgets and other details of running the town. Gage said she will not vote on any proposal “if we haven’t had some clarity about how the hell we’re going to manage this town.”
At a commission “listening session” last week, Grabbe said, 28 people spoke against the large council plan, where it was described as “grotesque.” Grabbe said that larger legislative bodies don’t necessarily increase public participation, and added that the City of Newton, which has a 24-member council, is considering reduction.
Commission member Gerry Weiss maintained that much of the turnout at the recent listening session was organized by interest groups. The Amherst Spectator reported on Friday that Weiss commented, “Nobody came on their own.” However, in email correspondence today, Weiss said he believes his remark was, “I’m not saying no one came on their own.”
At the meeting, Weiss emphasized that he and others who wanted to preserve Town Meeting have compromised a great deal by backing the 60-person council. “We listened, we moved from that place,” he said. Weiss said he is open to considering a smaller council, “but we haven’t had a good discussion about what’s not working, and why a mayor and 13 (councilors) will work better.,” he said.
Member Mandi Jo Hanneke said people who have served on Town Meeting “think it works great,” but for those who don’t have access, “it doesn’t work for them.” The 60 person-council, she said, evoked “a lot of consternation.”
“It exploded more than I ever thought it would,” she said.
Editor’s Note: The Charter Commission is examining Amherst’s town government structure and developing recommendations for changes. The commission is subject to state regulations, and must submit a preliminary report by July 31 and a final report by Sept. 29. There will be a townwide vote next winter on whether Amherst should adopt a new form of government, but a date is not set. Further information is available here: https://www.amherstma.gov/2253/Frequently-Asked-Questions