Letter: Absence Of Checks And Balances In Town Government Undermines Democracy

Photo: Blue Diamond Gallery

This letter appeared previously in the Amherst Bulletin.

Recently Raymond La Raja wrote a rejoinder (Amherst Bulletin, July 9) to a commentary that we wrote about our concerns with certain actions and structures of the Town Council. We welcome his column. Real engagement between different viewpoints is at the core of democracy and has been lacking recently in Amherst.

We will pass over his strange comment that we are anti-government; our more than five decades of participation in town government speaks sufficiently to that. And Mr. La Raja has spoken at a national money-and-politics fund that Meg created 18 years ago.

However, we are concerned with the concentration of power in the Town Council and the lack of checks and balances built in to the Charter. Mr. La Raja believes that there are “powerful” checks on the Town Council under the current Charter. We don’t agree, and James Madison wouldn’t agree either.

The purpose of checks and balances in a democratic structure is to ensure that the different parts of government (legislative, executive and judicial) are so constructed that power cannot be concentrated in any single part. (And, of course, checks and balances go deeper in a bicameral legislature.) Our current form of government lacks this feature, by design.

The Charter gives unfettered power to the Town Council, and since its inception the Council has taken further steps to centralize power. The Community Resources Committee (CRC) is the most blatant example of this; its innocuous name disguises — again by design — its purposes.

We agree with Mr. La Raja that it is perfectly appropriate for a committee of Town Council to review the recommendations of the Planning Board, but it is not appropriate for it to interfere in the designing of those recommendations, as the CRC does. We write in dissent from the role of the CRC. We don’t think that Mr. La Raja wants to say that dissent is “making an end run” around town government; at least we hope that’s not what he wants to say.

Dissent is often messy; in fact, checks and balances are often messy. Indeed, democracy is often messy. However, messiness is rarely the consequence of dissent. More often it is the result of stifling dissent, and that is our experience with the current Town Council.

Meg Gage
Michael Greenebaum

Meg Gage is the now-retired founding director of the Peace Development Fund and the Proteus Fund, national organizations based in Amherst that organize within philanthropy to advance campaigns related to peace, human rights and democracy. She is a graduate of ARHS and taught at the high school. She served on the recent Charter Commission and is currently the Chair of the Participatory Budgeting Commission and on the Planning Team of the District One Neighborhood Association (DONA).

Michael Greenebaum was Principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education.  He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993, and served on several town committees including the Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.

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