Slim Majority on Amherst Charter Commission Approves Preliminary New Town Government Plan

The nine-member Charter Commission (https://www.amherstma.gov/2248/Charter-Commission) voted last night to approve a preliminary version of a new town charter, which will dramatically alter local government if passed by Amherst voters next winter.

Although commission members are divided about Amherst’s future, with a majority favoring a small, potentially more “efficient” government, and others defending the public participation offered by the existing Town Meeting, all cordially celebrated yesterday’s milestone with cake.

The preliminary draft and a companion report will be submitted to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Housing and Community Development for review, said Vice Chairwoman Mandi Jo Hanneke.  It will also be printed in a local newspaper – the Amherst Bulletin – within a few weeks, as required by law. A final report must be submitted to the state by Sept. 29.  Amherst residents are expected to vote on the charter next March. If it passes, a 13-member Town Council would take office on Dec. 3, 2018.

The draft, which calls for elimination of Town Meeting and the Select Board, expansion of the town manager’s role, and shorter terms for School Committee members, won five votes, including those of Hanneke, Chairman Andy Churchill,  Tom Fricke, Nick Grabbe, and Irvin Rhodes.

Another three members, including Meg Gage, Jerry Weiss and Julia Rueschemeyer, voted against the draft, stating that the government proposed would not allow the level of citizen participation provided by Amherst Town Meeting, which has 240 members.

Member Diana Stein abstained.

The most recent, 46-page draft of the charter is available at  https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/41392.  Minor technical changes were made last night and the online document will be updated shortly, Hanneke said.

The proposed town council would include 10 “ward” councilors and three at-large, all of whom would be elected for two-year terms. Seven councilors would constitute a quorum. Compensation for the town councilors would be set at $5,000 each, except for the council president, who would receive $7,500.

The Town Manager, appointed by the council, would be the “chief executive officer” of Amherst, responsible for the town’s “proper operation.”
The preliminary plan sets the terms of just two years for members of the Amherst School Committee, Jones Library Board of Trustees, and Electors of the Oliver Smith Will.
At a recent School Committee meeting, members were united in stating that a two-year term is too short for individuals to gain the complex knowledge required. The committee, which urged preservation of three-year terms, and staggered terms so institutional knowledge can be passed more readily, met with Rhodes and Churchill. At the time, Churchill said he hoped setting the two-year terms “would not be a deal-breaker” with School Committee members who support the commission’s overall effort.

The Charter Commission met on Monday, Wednesday and last night to review the draft document.  It calls for election rather than appointment of the Housing Authority; and increasing the Zoning Board of Appeals from three to five members. A 20% minimum voter turnout would be required for passage of ballot initiatives and veto of council actions.

Gage, who offered the first detailed comments during the roll-call vote, said the charter proposal is “much better than it might have been,” but she will nonetheless oppose it. The charter’s public participation measures “are vague and top-down,” Gage said, adding that origins of the charter review effort need to be considered.

“The business community was behind the charter commission,” Gage said, adding that a primary motivation seems to be creation of a town government that would allow more high-rise apartment buildings downtown.

Commission member Irvin Rhodes, participating remotely, challenged Gage’s remarks, saying that “the business community is not a monolithic group which marches in lockstep.”  Rhodes spoke additionally of his “distaste for Town Meeting,” which he said is “not good for the Town of Amherst going forward.” The Charter Commission includes several former and current Town Meeting members.

Gage said she agrees that Town Meeting is too large and should meet more frequently, and said she intends to propose reforms when Town Meeting assembles again this fall.  Rueschemeyer said she wished the commission had agreed to study best practices for Town Meeting governments. Town Meetings are a long-established New England tradition, and continue to operate in numerous municipalities.

Churchill praised the commission members for their work. “I do feel that each of us brought quite a bit to the table,” he said, adding that various proposals were explored, and some “dead ends” were reached.

“None of us got all that we wanted,” he said. Churchill was among those who advocated for a mayor, a plan which ultimately failed to win a majority vote.

Churchill said the proposed charter will offer the town “a legislative body that meets regularly year-round.”

Jerry Guidera, a local developer who runs the Amherst For All website and is a lead proponent of the Charter Commission, sent a note to AFA supporters this week. The email noted that AFA members “may not all share the same level of support for the draft plan,” but the commission met “the criteria we set out when we canvassed the town,” to gather signatures and launch a charter review.

“The result is a much more responsive, accountable, and committed group of citizens running our town – this meets our goals,” Guidera stated, adding that although some specifically wanted a mayor, that was not AFA’s agenda. “Let’s be clear about the outcome of this process: the new plan replaces Town Meeting,” his email states.

Guidera wrote that a new AFA leadership team will work to secure approval of 50 percent or more of Amherst voters. Resident Johanna Neumann will serve as the AFA’s new chairwoman, and additional volunteers are being sought. “This next phase is the most important one, as we expect Town Meeting loyalists and those wedded to the status quo to fight the Charter proposal vigorously,” he stated.

Upcoming Charter Commission meetings include:

  • Wednesday, July 26 – 5:30 – 9:30 pm, Police Station Community Room
  • Thursday, August 31 – 7-9 pm – Public Hearing – Town Room, Town Hall

 

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One thought on “Slim Majority on Amherst Charter Commission Approves Preliminary New Town Government Plan

  1. I’d put words like “efficient” in quotes. “Efficient” is code for making things easier for developers to get around appropriate planning and zoning.

    Liked by 1 person

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