Saturday, August 29, 2015

And so it begins: Charter proponents seek change in the form of Town government

On Thursday afternoon, members of a new group, whose existence had long been predicted, rumored, or mentioned in hushed conversation, came out into the open. "Amherst for All" officially announced its presence by filing papers for a ballot initiative that would create a Charter Commission to review and (presumably) change our form of town government.

Charter supporters gather before visiting the Town Clerk (blogger Larry Kelley at right)
Front row: Yuri Friman, Michael Alpert, Andrew Churchill, Niels la Cour (and son: behind, left), Adam Lussier (with clipboard), John Kuhn, Richard Morse
Rear row: Jerry Guidera, Jackie Churchill, Peter Vickery
at the Town Clerk's office
Town Clerk Sandra Burgess explains the signature-gathering process

Poll positions

Town Clerk Sandra Burgess took the time to explain in great detail to the group (joined by Town Meeting member Clare Bertrand, who arrived later) what constitutes a legal and verifiable resident signature. 3,215 such signatures would be required to get this measure on the ballot next year. As Larry Kelley notes: last time, that took nearly two years, whereas this time, the organizers are shooting for the spring election, which is but seven or eight months away. But as he also notes, we now live in the age when internet access is taken for grant and new social media amplify and speed up the conversation.

A side-issue is the date of the spring election: traditionally, it takes place between the last days of March and the opening days of April, but this year, another option is to make it coincide with the presidential primary, whose date of March 1 is mandated by State law. There are arguments on both sides. Some think it would make sense to combine them, for the sake of efficiency and better turnout. Clerk Burgess expressed strong support for keeping the two elections separate, arguing that combining them would (because of the technical requirements of local and state ballots) in fact not result in any monetary savings and, rather, simply overstress Town staff. (The last time such elections coincided was in November 2008, when, however, the presidential contest caused more residents to volunteer at polling places.) The issue will soon come before the Select Board, which has the authority to set the date.

Scrap Town Meeting or throw all the bastards out?

Everyone "knows" that this pro-Charter movement is primarily an anti-Town Meeting movement, and that it would replace our current system of government with a mayor and city council, right? The first is clear. The latter, not so much. 

The desiderata, according to the website, are:
Accountability, Representation, and Year-Round Decision-Making.
The last of these looms largest in the explanation, but the former two are the proverbial elephant in the room. Clearly, Town Meeting is the main target of all three:
Our government structure isn’t built to keep up with these challenges and maintain our great quality of life. We have a Town Meeting that meets twice a year.  We have a five-member Select Board and a Town Manager.  Too many issues have to wait until the next Town Meeting to be addressed – and if a proposed solution needs some tweaking, maybe the next Town Meeting after that. 
Another passage at least implicitly references former Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe's editorial on the problem of executive authority and accountability:
with leadership diffused across the Select Board and Town Manager, it’s hard to know who’s in charge.  Who represents us with the state, the colleges, businesses, and citizens?  Who can we hold accountable for meeting the many challenges of maintaining our quality of life?
On the other hand, the organizers claim to be agnostic about the precise nature of the alternative arrangement:
We don’t know what the right government structure is for Amherst.  That’s why we support electing a representative study group to take a look at it.  Whatever the final proposal looks like, we think it should meet a few clear standards – it should be year-round, representative, and accountable.
I think we can take them at their word. We should after all remind ourselves that the last (unsuccessful) Charter proposal indeed proposed replacing Town Meeting and the Select Board with a mayor and council--but also retained the institution of a professional, appointed Town Manager, which Amherst has had since 1954.

What are the issues?

I wouldn't presume to analyze this in depth here: just a snapshot and some guesses.

We've been through this before, in 2003 and 2005, when Charter initiatives came within a hairsbreadth of winning. Many of the underlying issues are the same, though the dynamics as well as the players are, I suspect, somewhat different.

Last time, it seemed, Town Meeting was the focus of much of the dissatisfaction. Critics charged, for example that it was inefficient, consumed with process and deliberation rather than action (and too eager to take on issues beyond the local realm). The Select Board was unpopular in many quarters, as well. Critics accused it of the double sin of inefficiency and intrusiveness: it was seen as meddling and micromanaging.

This time, I think, the active hostility is directed principally at Town Meeting. There is the perennial complaint that it spends too much time talking and is too slow to reach decisions, but I think it is more about the substance. In the last three to five years, Town Meeting has become increasingly polarized around a set of issues that could be broadly grouped under the rubric of "development": from zoning changes to the permitting of major new downtown construction projects (and of course, the ill-conceived and stillborn "Retreat" proposal for commercial student housing). Only the zoning changes strictly fall within the remit of Town Meeting, but ill will over the other issues clearly shapes the course and character of our debates.

At the risk of oversimplifying for the sake of clarity:

One faction sees large new downtown construction projects and measures promoting greater density in village centers as jeopardizing Amherst's comfortable "rural" or "small-town" feel. It accuses Town Hall (especially the Planning Department, and to some extent the Town Manager) of turning a deaf to ear to residents' fears over loss of neighborhood character and instead catering to the interests of developers. The role of the University and the problem of off-campus student housing is a closely related concern. Among some, the distrust extends to all at the "front of the table"--i.e. the appointed Planning Board and Finance Committee and elected Select Board--accused of thinking and voting in lockstep. As a result, this faction sees Town Meeting as a watchdog that should view major planning and economic development proposals with great skepticism, and in many cases, block them.

The other faction sees economic development and increased density in village centers as a form of smart growth: the only way to begin to shift more of our tax base from residential (currently: 90%) to commercial property and to address the housing shortage that is pricing many would-be residents--including young families--out of town. It sees the other faction as creating a toxic atmosphere characterized by incivility and lack of trust between residents and government. As a result, it despairs over the possibility of change, believing it has become nearly "impossible to get anything done," meaning, for example: pass comprehensive as opposed to incremental legislation in crucial areas such as planning and zoning.

As a result, following last spring's Annual Town Meeting, one heard increasing concerns that our system of government was caught in a sort of gridlock with no solution in sight.

Obviously, Town Meeting encompasses a wide variety of individuals and people, including many who belong to no "faction," and even those associated with one of the aforementioned groupings do not necessarily vote together on all issues. Still, these seem to be the dynamics driving much of the renewed interest in a Charter vote.

Then again, I am not part of this Charter movement, so you'd have to ask them. I'm sure we'll soon find out.

I don't intend to provide detailed coverage of the issue in these pages (hyperlocal blogger Larry Kelley seems to be taking care of that). Rather, I just want to note it, because I've been talking about Town government, and this could radically affect what all of us do in the civic realm (including my own post as an elected official).

For the record: no one on the five-member Select Board has publicly discussed or taken a position on this initiative. We have been elected to carry out the duties of our office, we have a great deal of work to do, and it is on that work that we are focused.

*  *  *

Fun facts to know and tell:

Contrary to concerns raised in a recent op-ed piece by veteran Finance Committee member Marylou Theilman, the Town would not be obligated to pay present Town Manager John Musante half a million dollars (or whatever fearsome sum some have in mind) in the event that a Charter change occurs. Town Counsel confirmed to the Select Board, and we stated in our press release on his contract renewal and salary, that our original interpretation of the original 2010 contract holds: 9 months' severance pay if the contract is terminated.

So, at least you can cross that issue off your list as you ponder the change in form of government. Debate away, in the confidence that the determining factor will be the effectiveness of government rather than the bottom line.

Footnote (can't help myself):

Props to the Amherst for All website designer (whoever he or she may be) for a clean aesthetic and good navigation (you can't always take those essentials for granted, even nowadays)--and some interesting image choices.

Start with the organization's logo:

Smart choice: not just the iconic 1889 Town Hall (as both landmark and seat of government, with the word, "Amherst," mostly but not entirely below it), but also individual houses: underscores the "for all" and "for everyone" message. And, given that much debate in and around Town meeting has focused on both affordable housing and the threats posed to existing neighborhoods by predatory rental conversions, it reminds us of the substantive issues under debate.

Finally, although the length of the image series is dictated by the need to match that of the text below, there is just something about the two-tiered horizontality of the icons that to me subtly underscores the message, "for all" and "everyone."

(Of course, one might instead choose to read the Town Hall and houses as the Town Manager and five Select Board members, since that's one theoretical outcome of a Charter Commission, as well. Okay, clearly time to stop this.)

Another example: the top of the page borrows from the Town's promotional slogans: a great place to live, study, work, play.

But for "a great place to study," the image used is that of the beloved Jones Library, thus referencing a Town civic institution rather than having to choose between the University of Massachusetts and the private Amherst and Hampshire Colleges. Smart move.

On the other hand, inclusion of that atrocious hippie-flavored student mural near Rao's and the Bangs Center (admittedly, I think I know some people who took part in creating it) toward the bottom of the page? Not so much. Or maybe that is a very subtle way of indicating the need for a break from the ways of the past?

{corrected; apologies: a trackpad error caused the post to go up before it was complete}

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