The Amherst Charter Commission, which is working on proposal for a new form of town government, voted last night (Monday April 24) by a slim majority to drop a “middle ground” proposal for a 60-person town council.
The plan came under fire at a recent Charter Commission listening session, and Chairman Andy Churchill and others who did not support it argued that such a large council would be unwieldy and unappealing to voters.
“We need something that has a chance of passing in town,” Churchill said. “I didn’t hear a lot of people standing up for 60.”
Commission member Irvin Rhodes, who previously voted for the 60-person council, moved for reconsideration of it. He said that in light of a mayor and town manager structure the commission came up with last night, he believes the 13-member council “is a better alternative.” Rhodes said he made his motion “in light of feedback from many sources.”
The Charter Commission’s recommendations must be approved by voters to take effect, and although its website sets no date for a vote, the Select Board has set the next annual town election for March 27, 2018. The commission must submit a preliminary report by July 31 and a final report by Sept. 29.
Prior attempts to change Amherst’s charter were defeated by voters in 2003 and 2005.
Rhodes’ motion for reconsideration of the 60-person council passed 5 to 4. Rhodes, Tom Fricke, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Churchill and Nick Grabbe voted in favor of it, while Meg Gage, Diana Stein, Julia Rueschemeyer and Gerry Weiss voted against it, with the commission splitting along familiar lines. A later motion by Rhodes, to approve a mayor/town manager structure, with a 13-member council also passed 5 to 4.
Jerry Guidera, an Amherst developer who has attended many commission meetings, spoke at the public comment period after the vote. Guidera said the 60-person council was ” a rushed number,” and that he and others “didn’t hear why it would be best for the Town of Amherst.” “Tonight, we had a really good discussion,” Guidera said.
Amherst has had a Town Meeting structure since 1748, a model that is common in New England, and still exists in about 300 of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, and 243 of 252 municipalities in Vermont, according to Participedia, a participatory government organization. Amherst’s town meetings were originally “open” to any voter who wanted to attend, but in 1936, the town adopted a special act to switching to a representative town meeting form, the state Department of Revenue’s website states. http://www.mass.gov/dor/local-officials/dls-newsroom/ct/charting-a-route-for-charter-change.html
The commission’s meeting last night was generally much more congenial than last Thursday, when Rueschemeyer told the group that Grabbe had been contacting her via email to criticize her stances and votes on commission matters, and to tell her that the organization Amherst For All was displeased with her. At that meeting, Rhodes also spoke of criticism he received on social media after voting for the 60-person council, and said he was labeled a “stooge.”
Last night, although there appeared to be fewer confrontations, disagreements over the town’s fate were still clear, and members offered a wide array of beliefs as to what would work best for Amherst.
Grabbe said the ideal size for a town council is nine people, but he would “acquiesce,” to 13. Gage spoke of Amherst’s 10 precincts and said that each one needs at least three representatives, and suggested a council of 33 as a compromise, including three people elected at-large. Rueschemeyer and Stein both stood in defense of the 60-person council. A larger council is less likely to buckle under the pressure of special interests, Rueschemeyer said. “A smaller committee, just like ours (the nine-member Charter Commission) is pretty easy to influence,” she said.
Last night’s vote put in a place a town manager/administrator, who would be appointed by an elected mayor. However, the manager/administrator was, after a straw vote on three possible models, given the authority to supervise, hire and fire department heads. Under the model selected, the town council would approve budgets and by-laws.
Churchill, Fricke and Grabbe had argued for the mayor having broader powers, and Churchill said an “insulated” town manager “won’t have as a good a sense of what the people want.”
Rueschemeyer said that a mayor and town manager have “two different skill sets,” and that a mayor can act as a “charismatic leader” while a manager oversees finances.
Gage has insisted at recent meetings that she would not vote for any proposal lacking a professional town manager to oversee day-to-day operations of town government, and Rhodes said the mayor should not be responsible for supervising the police and fire departments.
The large council plan was presented by Gage and Grabbe a few weeks ago as a possible means of building consensus on the commission, which is divided between those who want to preserve Town Meeting, and those who want it replaced by a more compact form of government. Grabbe, however, immediately expressed doubts about the middle ground proposal, and then voted against it.
There was some strong loyalty expressed last night to Town Meeting, with Weiss and Rueschemeyer stating they still wish to keep it, because of the broad level of public participation it allows. “The ability to have people with a wide variety of experience and values can’t be replaced – that’s why I love Town Meeting,” Weiss said.
Amherst Charter Commission website: https://www.amherstma.gov/2248/Charter-Commission
Amherst Charter Commission F.A.Q. page: https://www.amherstma.gov/2253/Frequently-Asked-Questions
A Citizen’s Guide to Town Meetings, from Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin’s office: https://www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm