Opinion: Reflections Of A Soon-To-Be-Former Councilor On How This Town Council Fails To Meet The Promises Of The Charter, Democracy, Transparency, And Public Participation

Photo: pixabay.com. Public domain

Darcy Dumont

I am not running for Town Council in the upcoming election based on reasons related to my health and my ongoing grandparenting duties. I am happy that I was able to help to accomplish a few things—the creation of the Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC), bold ECAC goals, a climate action plan, the authorization of a joint municipal Community Choice Energy entity with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and work toward accomplishing Zero Waste. And I was happy to have helped raise awareness about what is happening with downtown development by co-sponsoring the temporary moratorium on downtown building permitting bylaw, though, as expected, it did not pass. I expect to remain civically involved, and during this campaign would like to contribute some of my understanding about where we are in exercising this town council form of government. 

The Charter Commission made a lot of promises about what our new form of government would deliver for the town, which was the reason why, it would seem, a majority of residents voted for it. This column is the first of four in which I look at those promises, and the utter failure of the current Town Council to come through with a new, democratic, transparent government that effectively represents the people of Amherst. I look at five selling points made by the Charter Commission and listed in its report to the town: empowerment of the voters; checks and balances; thoughtful deliberation and decision-making; resident participation; and better (i.e. not “rushed”) long-term planning. 

Let us begin with empowerment of the voters.

What the Charter Commission promised:

3. [The Charter] empowers the voters. The core function of democratic government is to represent the will of the people. But we repeatedly heard that in our current [Town Meeting] form of government, many town residents don’t feel represented, don’t know who to call with input or concerns, and don’t feel like they can influence public decision-making unless they themselves participate in long, time-consuming meetings. The new Charter strengthens the ability of our government to represent all of us. 

It’s clear who represents you (and they can be voted out if they don’t). In about half the precincts, voters have no choices because there aren’t enough candidates. The new Charter puts a spotlight on the governing process. It gives us a smaller representative body that can be held accountable by all the voters, rather than a largely self-appointed body where members can vote as they choose without facing any real consequences. 

If you have a problem or want to express an opinion, you can call on them to help you navigate the system and resolve the issue.  

“Ranked-choice voting” to be studied for implementation [ensures representatives have majority approval]. 

What Have We Seen With This Council?
Residents not only don’t feel represented. They are not represented.

I see no evidence that this council represents all residents or takes their views under consideration, or that this council makes any effort to represent the “will of the people.”  Constituencies that are not meaningfully represented on this Council include:  students, renters, young families with children, BIPOC people, working class people, and low-income residents. Constituencies that are clearly represented are: the Business Improvement District (BID), large landowners, large real estate developers, and UMass.

The majority of councilors are pledged to vote for the Amherst Forward PAC’s agenda, which includes the four major capital projects, voting “yes” on the library referendum, de-regulating housing development, and favoring zoning proposals that would turn the downtown into a subdivision of UMass dorms. In its survey of candidates for the upcoming election, Amherst Forward includes a request for a blanket pledge “to vote for zoning changes” and answers provided to that question will not be made public. To me, the Amherst Forward PAC appears to be a cynical pairing of unpopular developer proposals sweetened by popular, motherhood-and-apple-pie building proposals like the elementary school and the library project. Councilors get elected by supporting the building proposal and then steamroll the unpopular development agenda.

I will be dealing more fully with the travesty of how the Amherst Forward majority in concert with the Town Manager have governed in later columns, but suffice it to say that they have actively disempowered residents by:
 

1) dismissal and disparagement of constituents, including their failure to address concerns of the downtown neighborhood;

 2) steamrolling of zoning changes without sufficient time to air and for public to study;

3) the lack of transparency in general;

4) covert processes and still-unanswered questions about the library, secret negotiations for the parking garage, secret meetings with UMass, secret weekly meetings with the BID;

5) filling town committees with Amherst Forward and Amherst Forward-adjacent people—limiting the opportunities for other residents to broadly participate, creating less diversity of views on committees, and hence an echo chamber for validating the Amherst Forward agenda;

 6) perhaps the most egregious is the investing of tens of thousands of dollars to illegitimately disqualify residents’ signatures on a petition when they were attempting to exercise a right given in the Charter (as a means of resident empowerment), and hence violating their voting rights; and

7) failure to comply with public records requests.

This government has been openly hostile to voter empowerment. 

Voting and Accountability
The Charter Commission stated in its report FAQ: “…if you don’t like what your [Town Meeting] representatives have done on your behalf, it’s hard to vote them out. Many voters don’t get a real choice of candidates, because there are so many… Councilors will have to say what they stand for and compete for your vote. Voters will be able to evaluate candidates during campaigns and replace councilors after two years if they are dissatisfied.” 

It’s a sad state of affairs when our five district races have so little competition this fall. If you live in Districts 1 or 5, in this election, you will not have any choice of candidates, because, as was sometimes the case with Town Meeting, there aren’t enough candidates. The councilors running for office don’t need to campaign at all. They are guaranteed a seat. It is interesting that only one of the many unsuccessful candidates from the 2018 election gave it another try. And only six  newcomers to Amherst elections have joined the race. Nineteen folks are running for 13 council seats, compared to the 33 folks who ran in the 2018 preliminary. So much for the new form of government giving us meaningful choices.

Councilors by and large do not hear much from constituents on individual issues (like fixing a pothole). Most residents don’t know their councilors. Some councilors had office hours prior to COVID, but those fell off over the last two years. Most councilors opted to provide only the minimum of district meetings (two per year). It’s a fact that councilors do not have the bandwidth to deal with individual constituent issues, though some do try. In order to be able to meaningfully serve constituents, we would need staff, which councilors don’t have. Generally speaking, constituents are just referred to the town manager and departments with regard to town services issues. 

On the other hand, the council as a whole has heard from hundreds of constituents on major issues before the council. Over 1000 people signed the moratorium petition. The Citizens For Better Planning group showed up for all kinds of meetings, even at inconvenient times. People have written to their councilors every week. Councilors hear from residents all the time, but the majority choose not to listen and, even worse, to disparage those who take the time to try to make their views known.The majority has chosen to only “hear” and empower constituents with whom they agree, especially on their development agenda, which serves very parochial interests and potentially hurts a broad swath of downtown residents (I guess they hear the 35 people who signed the opposing petition, including owners, developers and others with a financial interest in downtown building.) This is hardly empowerment.

Failing to institute the promised ranked choice voting for this fall’s election is a major failing of this council, though they claim that the matter was really beyond their control. But they chose to follow an unnecessarily slow route, which resulted in delaying action and revealing their priorities. Ranked Choice voting might have made a difference in this race. Hopefully we’ll have it for the next.

What are the solutions?

  • Vote for candidates that represent voices not currently heard. We don’t need voices representing developers.
  • Call Amherst Forward PAC out on its development agenda. 
  • Replace councilors who show disrespect for constituents who speak up or who raise questions or criticize.
  • Get informed! Find out about what each candidate supports. Examine the issues and what’s at stake. Don’t vote for candidates just because they are the only ones running or because they have a catchy slogan. Figure out where they stand on key issues, including voter empowerment. Don’t believe vague claims of support for climate action. Support candidates who say they will support full implementation of the 2025 climate action plan. Don’t believe incumbents who say they supported inclusionary zoning just because they voted for it. The majority blocked it for two years before being shamed into voting for it. You can always write in a candidate. And remember to vote for at-large candidates.
  • Support creation of support staff for town councilors so that they may more meaningfully provide constituent services.

In my next column I will take up public participation—what the Charter promised and what we have.

Darcy DuMont is a member of the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee, founding member of Local Energy Advocates of Western MA and an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.

Spread the love

4 thoughts on “Opinion: Reflections Of A Soon-To-Be-Former Councilor On How This Town Council Fails To Meet The Promises Of The Charter, Democracy, Transparency, And Public Participation

  1. During the charter campaign, Town Meeting was repeatedly demonized by being painted as overwhelmingly old, white, rich, and detached from the realities of most residents of the town. We were told that we had the power, and that we were unwilling to give it up so that the town could become the wonderful thing that our opponents promised it could be, if only we would step out of the way — or be made to do so. The Town Council should stand in front of the mirror, take off whatever glasses they have on that allow them to see reality in such a rosy light, and then take a long, hard look at themselves.

  2. ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

    — Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

    The author’s frustration with our current form of government, and her sentiments about not seeking election again this fall, are readily understood – and are shared by many of us who’ve been involved with Amherst government in the past. Her effective indictment of the Council’s performance so far, combined with the recent “quiet” activity (described in Terry Johnson’s article in this issue of The Indy) to push a controversial zoning change, reveal what was oft-rumored about Amherst, even during in Town Meeting times: our town has always had it share of oligarchy. Whether benign or not – arguments on both sides have been entertained – our current ‘form of Government’ offers fewer checks-and-balances on the oligarchs. (Perhaps “transparency to the max” ultimately amounts to this revelation – how ironic would that be?!)

    At any rate, it is encouraging to see several new at-large candidates will be joining Bob Greeney in the effort to keep a bit of democracy alive in Amherst. And might carefully targeted write-in campaigns in some of the district elections help rebalance our out-of-kilter Council? (Recall that our present representative in the Massachusetts Senate was first elected with write-in ballots!)

  3. Actually, a majority of residents never voted for the charter change. Only 6,043 people (less than a third of registered voters) even bothered to vote. The 3,502 voters that did show up to vote yes (16% of all registered voters) got rid of Town Meeting, seemingly forever.
    Over time, that 58% victory (vs 2,491 no votes) has become touted as resounding support of Town Council. P.S. Paul Bockelman runs the town.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.