Amherst Town Meeting has voted to create a new, nine-member elected Advisory Committee, which will analyze and report on the bylaws, resolutions and projects proposed to the 240-member body by petitioners and local officials.
The new committee, called TMAC, will study the potential benefits and impacts of proposed measures on public safety in Amherst, and on its populations, neighborhoods, history, culture and environment. The TMAC will then report its findings to Town Meeting, under a bylaw passed on Wednesday night with 99 Yes votes, 81 No votes, and 2 abstentions.
The plan for TMAC to engage in relevant research was welcome to Johnathan DiRusso of Precinct 3, a newer Town Meeting member who said that more information could enhance meeting dialogue. “All the time I’ve been here, there have been really deep, meaningful discussions,” he said.
John Hornik of Precinct 7, a member of the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee’s policy and procedures group, presented the TMAC plan. He said that many legislative bodies, including Brookline Town Meeting, have multiple committees to vet proposed statutes.
“This will provide information that could be quite helpful,” Hornik said, adding that the goal is to create a structure to ensure that Town Meeting “will hear both sides of the story before it proceeds.”
Amherst residents wanting to serve could nominate themselves by filing a statement with the Town Clerk, or be nominated by the Coordinating Committee or moderator. Under the bylaw, members will be elected by ballot at the annual Town Meeting in the spring, and given three, two or one year terms, with the longest terms going to higher vote-getters.
The TMAC plan could be reconsidered after three years, Hornik said, if Town Meeting finds that it isn’t beneficial. “We can only find out if we try,” he said.
Select Board member Alisa Brewer, speaking on the board’s behalf, argued against formation of TMAC, saying that it would need to incorporate recommendations from the Select Board and Finance Committee, which might not be ready in time for meaningful consideration. She said that the committee’s meetings would “probably violate the Open Meeting Law.”
However, Janet McGowan of Precinct 8, an attorney, countered that the Advisory Committee would not be subject to Open Meeting Law requirements, a point later affirmed by the town officials.
TMAC would not study financial impacts of proposals, a function now performed by the Finance Committee.
The new committee’s launch comes as Town Meeting is under fire from the organization Amherst For All (AFA), led by developer Jerry Guidera of Precinct 9. AFA and a slim majority on Charter Commission have called for replacing the 240-member Town Meeting and five-member Select Board with one 13-member Town Council. Amherst residents will vote on the plan in March. If it passes, Town Meeting’s powers will be restricted until a Town Council takes office in December, 2018.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Michael Greenebaum of Precinct 6 argued for TMAC, citing the complexity of the decisions Town Meeting must make. On Monday, Town Meeting voted on bylaws proposed by the Select Board, on recreational marijuana shops and other issues which follow marijuana’s recent legalization in Massachusetts. “We were all sailing in uncharted waters,” Greenebaum said, adding that more prior research would have been helpful. “Everyone was trying, and yet something was missing,” he said.
Katherine Appy of Precinct 9 argued against the advisory committee, saying that Town Meeting members should do their own individual research. “It’s my responsibility to do my homework … and to be responsible to my constituents,” she said.
The Spectator of Amherst appreciates your comments and clarifications, and welcomes submission of well-reasoned opinion columns. Marla Goldberg-Jamate is a Precinct 7 Amherst Town Meeting member, and voted in favor of the Town Meeting Advisory Committee.