A plan to replace Amherst Town Meeting, which has 240 elected members, and the five-person Select Board with one 13-member elected Town Council received mixed reviews at last night’s public hearing.
About 40 people attended the 7 p.m. hearing at Town Hall, and 17 testified. All were limited to three minutes each. Some praised the nine-member Charter Commission, (https://www.amherstma.gov/2248/Charter-Commission) and its proposal to be put before voters in March. Opponents said the plan would consolidate power in the hands of too few, and wrongly combines legislative and executive functions. Others urged reducing the proposed Town Council from 13 to nine members.
The Charter Commission’s preliminary report is here: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/41439 Here also is a link to the preliminary charter document: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/41438
Charter Commission members are divided as to Amherst’s future, with five supporting the proposal, and four joining in a preliminary “minority report” opposing it. That report emphasizes that radical government restructuring is unnecessary, because Amherst “is already a well-governed and managed town” with stable finances, an AA+ bond rating, an “exceptionally high citizen participation rate,” and well-rated public schools. Here is a link to the minority report: preliminaryminorityreport
Resident Amy Mittelman echoed some of the minority report’s points. “The thing I’ve wondered all along is, ‘What is the problem you’re trying to fix?'” she asked.
Andrew Churchill, the commission’s chairman, said the existing proposal represents a compromise between those who want to preserve Town Meeting, and those who hoped for a town council and mayor. Ultimately, the mayoral position did not win a majority vote, and the plan now calls for a town council and town manager.
“None of us got all that we wanted,” Churchill said. In an apparent effort to ward off criticism that the proposal would reduce citizen involvement, Churchill said that Town Meeting “is a way for 240 people to participate,” but “there are 18,000 who participate through voting and other means.”
A final report must be submitted to the state by Sept. 29. Amherst residents are expected to vote on the charter in March. If it passes, a Town Council would take office on Dec. 3, 2018.
Resident Maurianne Adams, a retired education professor, was sharply critical of the Charter Commission’s plan to vest so much control in a Town Council. “I am appalled to see the separation and balance of executive and legislative powers collapsed,” Adams said, adding that public participation would be “a charade,” under the proposal.
Adams and others said Town Meeting has improved and become more accessible in recent years, largely through use of the Internet, which has enabled residents to easily communicate with Town Meeting members.
Alyssa Brewer, who chairs the Select Board, said she was not representing the board last night. Her remarks were generally critical of the existing system. “The Select Board has all of the accountability, and none of the power,” Brewer said. She was among several people, including Bernard Kubiak of the Joint Capital Planning Committee, who called for a smaller, nine-member Town Council.
A “feedback session” is planned for Sept. 5 at 10 a.m. at the Jones Library.
Features of the Charter Commission proposal include:
- Reducing Amherst’s 10 voting precincts by pairing up and combining them, resulting in 5 “wards”
- Shortening the terms of elected officials, including the School Committee and Jones Library Board of Trustees, from three to two years
- Eliminating “staggered” terms on elected boards
- Creating a “Community Participation Officer” position
- Absorption of the Finance Committee into the Town Council as a subcommittee
- Holding of all town elections in November
- Appointment of planning and zoning boards by the Town Council
Johanna Neumann, a member of Amherst for All, which has lobbied for replacement of Town Meeting, said it was frustrating to try and contact all 24 representatives from her precinct about an important issue. “The majority of people I never heard back from,” she said.
Neumann was a lead proponent of the “Yes for Amherst” campaign, which sought passage of a $67 million elementary school consolidation and building project last fall and winter. It would have combined Amherst children in grades 2-6 from the K-6 Wildwood, Fort River and Crocker Farm schools, into a new building on the Wildwood site. The plan failed to win the two-thirds majority required for passage at two Town Meeting sessions, and in a townwide referendum. About half the up-front capital cost would have been borne by the state, but Amherst taxpayers would have shouldered the rest, along with long-term loan interest, Fort River demolition and other costs.
In the spring, Town Meeting approved borrowing $500,000 to replace the boiler system at Wildwood, and $25,000 to study air quality there. Town Meeting also approved a $250,000 study of the Fort River site and building, to determine its suitability for renovation or new construction. Another $70,000 was approved for air quality and roof condition studies at Fort River.
Nancy Eddy, a past Select Board member and former president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the Charter Commission has done a great job with its proposal. However, she questioned the two-year terms for the School Committee and lack of staggered terms, saying that serving on such a committee can be “a difficult learning experience.” Resident Toni Brennan Cunningham warned that those changes could lead to “an entirely different school committee, with no institutional knowledge,” every two years.
Local historian Ed Wilfert, who has opposed expansion of the Jones Library, said the Charter Commission has been biased toward elimination of Town Meeting, and could have explored improvement of it. Wilfert, among others, raised concerns about development pressure in Amherst, and what the town will become without existing checks and balances. “I don’t want to see Amherst gradually turning into ‘Umass City'” he said.
Resident John Fox called for maintaining Town Meeting, saying that it has kept the town “in good health,” and warned that adoption of the Charter Commission proposal would result in downtown rezoning and more development.
Winifred Manning said she has been a resident of Amherst for 45 years, and is “disturbed and offended” by the “demeaning tone” used to describe members of Town Meeting in letters to the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Members from her precinct are approachable, thoughtful people who study issues carefully, she said.
The Charter Commission plan would condense Amherst’s voting precincts into five wards. The proposed Town Council of 13 people would include two people from each ward, and three “at large.” The council would meet monthly, setting its own agenda and writing and passing bylaws. It would hire and evaluate a town manager, and vote on a budget prepared by the manager.
Currently, the Select Board includes five members elected at-large, to 3-year staggered terms.
Town Meeting has 24 members from each of 10 precincts, and 14 ex-officio members. It meets for multiple nights in spring and fall of each year to vote on warrant articles.
On the Charter Commission, Andy Churchill, Tom Fricke, Nicke Grabbe, Mandi Jo Hanneke and Irvin Rhodes support the Town Council plan, while Meg Gage, Diana Stein, Julia Rueschemeyer, and Gerald Weiss signed the minority opposition report, although Stein abstained from voting on the proposal.