Amherst Town Meeting. Photo: Amherst Media

Michael Greenebaum.

I have been writing about the background and underlying principles of a Community Advisory Council for the town of Amherst. (Look here and here for previous installments).  In this commentary, I speculate about what a Community Advisory Council (CAC)—one that has truly diverse membership and is independent of town government—might look like. What I am proposing is quite different from the committee that was proposed to the town council last month, although I hope it is true to their vision. The two principles of diversity and disagreement underlie it, but there are surely many ways of actualizing those principles, and the following is only one such.

The term “community” indicates that it would draw its membership from those who live in town, whether citizens or not. Like many college towns, Amherst has residents who are not United States citizens. They are welcome to participate in the CAC. This welcome extends to high school students, who are fully capable of contributing to town governance.

  1. The CAC would have a yearly open enrollment period and any who enroll during that period would be members for the following year. Online enrollment would be encouraged for all who live in Amherst. Limited-English speakers would receive translation services to allow their full participation. Those without online access might gain assistance through the public library.
  2. Much of the work of the CAC would also be online to allow more residents to fully participate. There would be one or two CAC forums a year for in-person discussion of proposals being considered by the town.
  3. The CAC would be, essentially, an online community whose messages could be seen by anyone, although only CAC members would be able to write messages. Anonymous messages or pseudonyms would not be permitted.
  4. At the end of each enrollment period, those enrolled in that year’s CAC would elect an executive committee of several members who would 1) attend to the organizational needs of the CAC; 2) identify the major proposals in front of town bodies for the CAC to analyse for benefits and impacts; 3) organize observers to attend meetings of the town boards and committees deliberating on these proposals; and 4) prepare the public summary report explained in (6) below.
  5. Members of the CAC would volunteer for observation duties at meetings of various town boards and committees that are considering the major proposals. Observers would share their observations online.
  6. Prior to the town council’s discussion and action on these proposals, the executive committee would provide a summary of the benefits and impacts, which would represent the position of the CAC. The summary would be based on the online discussion as well as observer comments. It would be shared with the town council and the press. Ordinarily the summary would not contain recommendations other than those implied in the statements of benefits and impacts.

The benefits of such an CAC include the following:

  1. It maximizes the ability of residents from very different backgrounds and interests to participate in town government.
  2. Because it is not subject to the open meeting law, it can operate as an online community and members can meet and talk together as they wish.
  3. Because it is not actually making decisions for the town, the likelihood of factionalism might be  reduced and online discussions could more easily maintain an etiquette of controversy.
  4. The summary of benefits and impacts prepared by the executive committee can make sure that many voices are heard and included. This will be especially useful when town boards and committees forward unanimous or near-unanimous recommendations.
  5. The town council and town hall will have access to a broader view of resident viewpoints than either periodic forums or public comments can provide.
  6. The CAC can be part of a process of reconciliation among town factions that have in recent years been driven apart by town politics.
  7. The CAC can acknowledge the value to democracy of adversarial discussion and decisions while providing a framework for all participants to feel that they have been heard and their positions considered.
  8. Because membership in the CAC is open to all and there is no screening process so many who feel that they have been shut out of town committees in the past can participate.

Some Concerns to be addressed:

  1. Because it is not a part of town government, a CAC would receive no fiscal support from town hall. It would have expenses, although these might be mitigated by its essentially online nature. The CAC would have to arrange for its own funding. It would have to find a way to encourage contributions from members (while not requiring them) (and keeping contributions confidential). Perhaps the lawyers in the group could help attain non-profit status that would allow CAC to receive funding as a non-profit NGO.
  2. As an online entity that CAC would not be immune to problems of hacking and trolling and protocols would need to be developed to protect the integrity of the online community.
  3. The executive committee would have a complicated and time-consuming job. Elected by the membership of CAC, it would meet regularly to oversee the work of the advisory council, make sure that benefit and impact statements online are preserved and collated for future summaries, and attend to the organizational needs of the CAC, especially the needs for translation and provision of electronic devices and training for those without online experience.

So what I am proposing is, in essence, a virtual CAC, one that not only desires a diverse membership but also makes it possible. Without requiring  support of town hall staff and a line in the town budget, the organizational challenges to such an advisory council would be daunting but not impossible.

The executive committee would be central to the success of the CAC. Encouraging membership among residents who might never consider such a thing would require sensitivity and outreach effort. Creating and maintaining an online community would require consistency and alertness. Luckily we have useful models in the list-serves that were developed during the charter campaign.

The CAC should start slowly by focusing on a few high-profile proposals that the town council will be facing in the coming year. Surely the question of how to have the best possible elementary school facilities will be one, and perhaps the proposal to enlarge the library will be another. Developers have been clear about their ambition to transform downtown into an urban gateway, and the CAC should be attentive to proposals to modify the zoning bylaws to accommodate this.

This proposal has both benefits and impacts. I imagine it also has defects, and perhaps the formula of “benefits and impacts” should generally be expanded to “benefits, impacts, and defects.” Why not subject this proposal to such an analysis to see how well it works?

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