The Amherst Town Council will be electing its president and vice-president for its second year next Monday, and here is what we know: Nothing. The question arises, what should we know? After all, it has been a custom in Amherst for a long time for boards and committees to elect their own leadership, and it is customary for the leader to have extensive power: to set the agenda, to appoint subcommittees, to run the meetings, and to consult with their appointed executive, in this case the Town Manager. If these powers were not given to the Council president, meetings which are already much too long would become longer and, in time, subject to jockeying for power and influence that we have seen in other political bodies.
The President of the Amherst Town Council has tremendous powers, but she was not elected to her position by the voters. District 2 elected Lynn Griesemer to the Council but not to the presidency and its powers. But what she has accomplished this past year and what she will do if re-elected for a second term, should be of great interest to voters. If another councilor is planning to run for the Presidency, that would be of interest as well These things are usually settled out of the public eye and the election, at the meeting, becomes pro forma, This should be alarming.
So how can the public interest in the selection of the President and the attendant powers of the position be made known to councilors? How can councilors who have an interest in holding the position let this be made known to both voters and fellow councilors? One answer is for candidates for the position to make a public declaration of interest in time for voters to be in touch with their councilors and for councilors who wish to nominate a fellow councilor to explore their interest in being nominated. Another idea is to fill the position by lot from those councilors willing to assume it. Still another possibility is term limits to prevent any individual from becoming invested in the power of the presidency. And I’m sure there are other ideas.
These options leave the President’s powers intact, but acknowledge the potential for abuse. They may also alert all councilors that presidential powers are a matter of public interest and that the exercise of these powers should be subject to council oversight. Councillors must be alert to any abuse – or appearance of abuse – of presidential power. The councilors must acknowledge that the President has executive as well as legislative authority, and it is the exercise of the executive part of their job that should be subject to the scrutiny of the Council.
The new Charter pretty much obliterates both the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances which are the foundations of democratic government. This issue of presidential power in Amherst gains some urgency because the power is unchecked, because the presidency is designed to be removed from the voting power of residents, and because the Council is in its first year and in addition to making law it is setting precedents.
The President must be sensitive to the fact that their power does not emanate from the voters and must make every effort to be as public as possible in the exercise of their presidential authority.
One of the pleasant surprises of this first year has been the absence of unanimous votes Encouraging diversity should be one of the primary responsibilities of the Council President, but the Charter is silent about that.
At some point, the Charter itself will be up for review, and I suspect that councilors will have a lot to say about it, as will the public. To correct its many deficiencies would require another cathartic Charter Commission, and I doubt that the public is ready for that yet. But to put checks on presidential power may be done in ways which are consistent with the Charter with Council approval. This is an important matter for the Council to take up as it continues to set precedents for future town governments.