Somewhat to my own surprise, I decided to run for a seat on the Select Board. Although I'm a Town Meeting member, I never thought of seeking one of the higher elected offices. This year, however, as I considered both the great progress that Amherst has made in developing more transparent and efficient government, and the great challenges that we still face, I concluded that I might have something to offer. So, here I am.
Never fear: This remains a blog about history, including its political uses or implications. I'm certainly not going to use it to discuss all aspects of Amherst public affairs (plenty of our local citizens are already doing that online, and with gusto; some would say: with a vengeance). However, some of these issues are related to the historical. First and foremost, many of the decisions that the town makes bear on land use and economic development, which automatically affect the character of the community and the heritage of our natural and built environment. I therefore thought I would share my rationale and goals.
My goal is to help guide Amherst toward a more sustainable future, in particular by facilitating implementation of our new Master Plan. Because I had to ask myself why I was running and how I had gotten to this point, please allow me to tell you why I think I can accomplish this.
As I look back over my increasing involvement in town affairs since we moved here some 20 years ago, I can now see a logical pattern or the completion of a circle. I took the first tentative step when, as a Mark’s Meadow parent, I joined a town-wide world languages task force convened by Martha Ntiforo. My involvement really began, however, when I joined the Historical Commission. I still remember very clearly filling out the Citizen Activity Form: I said that I wanted to preserve the town’s character and historic resources but not live in a museum or time capsule. I see now that, without realizing it, I was trying to articulate what most of us feel about Amherst.
My main interests have always been culture, environmentalism, and social justice. My experience on the Commission (which I continue to chair) deepened my interest in the overarching challenge of keeping what we like while adapting to changing circumstances. This led me to serve as Historical Commission representative to the Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC), which—to my considerable surprise, and that of everyone else, I am sure—I ended up chairing, as well, following in the footsteps of Alisa Brewer and Eric Nakajima, who already had done the real heavy lifting.
Service on the CPC was the most valuable part of my Amherst political education:
• First, it gave me a much broader perspective on how my particular interests fit into the larger picture of sustainability, rational planning, and smart growth.
• Second, it familiarized me with all branches of Amherst government, from Town Hall to Town Meeting and the dozens of citizen boards and committees. In fact, because my chairing of both Historical Commission and CPC necessitated my periodic appearance before Town Meeting, it led me to join that body, as well, as an elected representative of Precinct 1.
• Third, and perhaps most important, chairing the CPC helped to teach me patience, teamwork, and the art of compromise. I learned that a leader does not have to be the smartest or most knowledgeable person in the room (for that I certainly was not), but instead just the person who can get things done. Often that means simply recognizing skill in others, or helping others to recognize common ground that they themselves are unable to see. It was—and I am not given to using sentimental terms—inspiring to see how residents representing so many different constituencies and political views came to find that common ground and work together as a team.
This is the spirit of cooperation that I would bring to town government as Amherst faces painful, potentially divisive choices concerning fiscal policy, economic development, environmental affairs, and provision of essential services.
In summary, I undertook this race with a sense of both confidence and deep humility:
• confidence, because I think that I have a very good sense of who we are, what we want, what challenges we face, and what tools and resources we have at our disposal.
• humility, because I know my own limitations and those of the office of Select Board. We are neither legislators nor individual chief executives, and rather, part of a collective leadership whose chief duty is to facilitate and to exercise good judgment.
In summary, I’ve spent this time speaking of myself. I’d like to close by promising that, if elected, I will spend the next three years listening, as well.
To my great surprise (and relief), this has turned out to be an uncontested race. Incumbent Alisa Brewer is seeking reelection, but no one else stepped forward to run for the seat vacated by two-term Selectman Gerry Weiss. Explanations vary. One popular hypothesis is that the job (like many other commitments to town service, only more so) is seen as too time-consuming. That is quite plausible, although the Select Board in recent years has been functioning in a more collegial, united, and efficient fashion, so the lack of candidates may also represent an implicit vote of confidence in the current direction of Town government.
In any case, the real drama this year (in contrast to the more distant past) has involved the schools: debates over the philosophy, curriculum, and performance of the local and regional school system, a drama only heightened by a controversial budget override ballot question, and now the precipitous departure of the new Superintendent. The five-way race for two School Committee seats is thus the most hotly contested, and the one whose outcome is still impossible to predict.
• Diane Lederman, "Candidates few for town posts," The Republican, 12 Jan.
• "Briefs: Two candidates step up for Select Board," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 14 Jan.
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst ballot lacking drama," The Republican, 31 Jan.
• Diane Lederman, "5 candidates to seek 2 openings on Amherst School Committee in annual town election," The Republican, 2 Feb.
• Diane Lederman, "Candidates beat deadline for filing," The Republican, 3 Feb.
• Scott Merzbach, "O'Connor throws hat in election ring," Amherst Bulletin, 5 Feb.
• Scott Merzbach, "Candidates speak on Amherst Schools," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 12 March
[it's actually a report on the League of Women Voters Candidates' Night as a whole, though focusing on the schools]
[added here 19.III.:]
• Scott Merzbach, "No contest for open Select Board seats," Amherst Bulletin, 19 March