Monday, May 21, 2012

Town Meeting: Time to Express the Love-Hate

As noted, I haven't written about specific warrant articles in advance of Town Meeting this year, preferring to deal with them on the Town Meeting listserve (a fascinating and revealing window into our deliberations) and at Select Board or on the floor of the assembly itself.

It's been a fairly long Town Meeting, though not nearly as long as some others in the worst days of the economic and budget crisis; things are actually looking pretty good this year. We should be able to wrap up tomorrow (Monday) night.

As I anticipated, the petition article endorsing a constitutional amendment to reverse the "Citizens United" decision allowing essentially unregulated corporate expenditures in political campaigns, a measure that in another locale might have proven contoversial (or at least provoked some debate), sailed through here on a unanimous vote. (In this case, at least, "the 'h' was silent.")

As I also expected, Articles 24 and 25 on Village Center rezoning of Atkins Corner and North Amherst, faced uphill fights. They lost, very narrowly failing to acquire the steep two-thirds majority required for zoning articles. The Town—including Planning Board, Select Board, and Town Manager—had strongly backed these articles as crucial smart-growth and sustainability measures implementing the principles of the Master Plan. Opponents, first and foremost, a vocal residents' group in North Amherst, considered them too intrusive and broad in scope, a dire threat to neighborhood character.

Some on each side in effect extended their complaints about the articles and vote to the political system as a whole.

For some opponents, this was a fortunate but narrow victory for the will of the public over the high-handed tactics of Town staff and government insufficiently attuned to residents' wishes. They are now complaining about the way that boards and committee positions are filled (see the handy diagram of the flow of Amherst power). A frequent charge is that the Town staff and —appointed rather than elected—Planning Board are automatically "pro-development" and too closely aligned with commercial rather than popular interests.

For some proponents, by contrast, the two-thirds supermajority required by state law for zoning and similar articles has become an obstacle to good government, allowing a minority of what they called "NIMBY's" and other naysayers to block not just "progress" but all serious action on planning and zoning, resulting in gridlock. To their mind, complex legislation, crafted by dedicated citizen-politicians in the course of an extended and deliberate process, nowadays has two options: either to go down to defeat or to pass only at the price of being mangled by last-minute, ill-conceived amendment on the floor.

Some feel that we should significantly reduce the size of Town Meeting (currently 240 members from 10 precincts) in order at least to ensure competitive races and real commitment on the part of members. Others prescribe stronger medicine. We have therefore started to hear the old, familiar calls for "Charter reform," which in plain English means: revising the Town Government Act so as to replace Select Board and Town Meeting with a mayor and city council. (Amherst blogger Larry Kelley makes this case again.) I was going to say: "not surprisingly," but then, I was not sure this was accurate. Although I could have predicted even more than the usual amount of grousing over the vote, I was somewhat surprised that the Charter meme surfaced so soon. I was likewise struck by the fact that some new Town Meeting members so quickly expressed a sense of demoralization and began to ask: "What's the point? Why do I bother doing this?"

Pessimism sometimes sets in too fast. Town Meeting is certainly not the worst thing in the world; it just feels that way on bad days.

In this context, and in hopes of lightening things up a bit, I refer my reader to an older post about the joys of New England town meeting. It just goes to show you: it could always be worse (in fact, I've decided to add a new rubric of that title).

And for the sake of simplicity and amusement I'll also re-embed a clip that I included there from the classic "Newhart" sitcom about life in small-town Vermont. In episode 3 (full video here) newly arrived innkeeper Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) complains about a dangerous intersection in front of his establishment, and wants the town to install a stop sign.  Local political honchos persuade Dick that, as a man of civic spirit who does not only complain but also proposes solutions, he should run for Town Council. In the excerpt, newbie Dick attends his first town meeting, confused by the procedures and embarrassed at having worn a yellow sweater to the assembly.

So, enjoy. Or as all the faddish retro merchandise says:  Keep calm and carry on.

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