Opinion: A Special Town Meeting For A Periodic Review Of Amherst’s Home Rule Charter


Photo: Ciplartlibrary.com/public domain

Michael Greenebaum

Amherst’s government operates under the provisions of its Home Rule Charter, adopted by the voters in 2017 after being proposed by the most recent Charter Commission.  This Home Rule Charter replaced the Select Board and Town Meeting with the Town Council and made a great many other important changes in how our government works – or does not work.  The Charter may be read in its entirety on the town web site.

Section 9.6 provides for a periodic review of the charter in every year ending in four.  2024 will be the first year in which that review will be conducted.  It calls for a review of the Charter by a special committee of voters who do not hold elective office.  This committee is to prepare a report for the Town Council within a year (unless the Council votes an extension) which includes recommendations on which the Council votes. 

This procedure is governed by the Home Rule Amendment in the Massachusetts General Laws.  Chapter 43B provides two separate sections – one for revising the Charter and the other for amending the Charter.  Any proposal which would fundamentally change the structure of town government either in part or in whole would be considered a revision and would require 15% of the voters to support a ballot question establishing a Charter Commission of the sort we have experienced three times in Amherst in the past quarter century.  Changes which do not affect the structure of town government would be considered amendments and would follow the procedure in Section 9.6.

All of this is sloppy, vague and unhelpful.  So sloppy, in fact, that it is impossible to understand how it passed muster with the Charter Commission that wrote it under the guidance of the Donahue Institute consultants.  It is impossible to understand – unless one suspects that the sloppiness was deliberate to give latitude to the Town Council and the powers that support it to mold the Charter.

As noted, Section 9.6 directs the Town Council to appoint a special committee of voters to conduct the review of the Charter.  This section does not use the terms revise or amend, so it is unclear what the parameters of the review are.  How large a committee?  How is it to be chosen?  Is it subject to the Open Meeting Law?  These are just a few of the questions that the vagueness of the section brings to mind.

More fundamental sloppiness is in Chapter 89 of the General Laws.  How does one decide whether a proposal is a revision or an amendment?  If a committee proposes improvements to Section 9.6 of the Home Rule Charter is it proposing a revision or an amendment?  Can the Town Council, in order to avoid dealing with proposed changes, decide by vote that a proposal is in fact a revision requiring the establishment of a new Charter Commission?  Would the Attorney General’s office make that decision? And so on.

Our Home Rule Charter is full of this kind of sloppiness.  A review of the Charter ought to propose major and fundamental clarifications to many of the sections.  It ought also to recommend fundamental changes to the way in which voter participation in governance is currently restricted, the way in which the Town Council uses its committee structure to usurp powers once held by an independent Planning Board and Finance Committee, and many other issues left ambiguous or unaddressed by statute.

I fear that the Town Council could use this ambiguity and sloppiness to circumvent the proposals from the reviewing committee, especially if that committee is truly independent.  We are now midway in the term of our second Town Council.  It is a much better Council than the first; the nature of its discussions and its votes suggest that its members are more independent than the first council.

Still, my hope is that without waiting for the Town Council to decide how it will conduct the review of the Charter, voters and other residents will start making concrete proposals for changing the charter and will urge their councilors to take the process seriously and conduct it openly.  We won’t get another chance until 2034.

In my next commentary I will offer some specific suggestions about changes to the Charter and I invite others to do so as well.  Actually, my hope is that after specific proposals are discussed and improved in the pages of the Indy, we call a Special Town Meeting, conducted on Zoom, of all interested residents to debate and vote on them.  This Special Town Meeting would, of course, have no statutory authority but it would have a loud voice which the Town Council would do well to listen to as it appoints its own committee next year to conduct its statutory review.

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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7 thoughts on “Opinion: A Special Town Meeting For A Periodic Review Of Amherst’s Home Rule Charter

  1. Shouldn’t we think of ways to get real checks and balances back into the charter?
    The Town Manager, unlike an elected mayor, isn’t an independent executive branch of government because he gets his orders from the legislative branch, the Town Council. I have learned (perhaps in the Indy!) that lack of checks and balances in city governments is unconstitutional in Massachusetts,

    The meeting structure also has to change as meeting every two weeks makes for mentally and physically unhealthy long sessions result in serious decisions impaired by fatigued minds and bodies. Also decisions are months longer due to extended repetitious discussions rehashing information from previous sessions.

    In this way town meeting was much more efficient because members prepped in the days just before a vote.

  2. I agree with both Hilda’s points but would introduce a note of caution. We cannot “revise” the charter without going through a petition drive (to get 15% of registered voters) to put charter revision on the ballot and then elect a Charter Commission to undertake a revision of our government. The Town Council can “amend” the charter in ways that do not fundamentally change the structure of our governance. I think that still leaves plenty of latitude to introduce stronger checks and balances but it has to be done carefully and thoughtfully. The current brouhaha about how specifically the Town Council should assign goals for the Town Manager will be instructive in how to proceed.

  3. It is interesting to note, and perhaps these points below may seem disconnected and off topic from the intricacies of Charter Reform goals and procedures. But they cut to the essential services we seek in local town government which is the entire reason we need locally responsive government. And these are: (1) that Hadley is working on building a new DPW facility. (2) Hadley recently completed construction of a new Senior Center and Library. (3) South Hadley has a municipal utility that is delivering affordable electric and broadband. (4) Northampton is making tangible progress toward municipal broadband. And all local towns in New York State have expansive and multi-faceted recycling programs achieving 60% or higher reclamation rates. And a current proposal to have food waste separation has been on the docket for years and is not in any immediate threat of resolution or execution. Is it too much to expect that Amherst have these same public service offerings? Can a local town council with 13 members which is double that of any town claim they are over capacity? Well, maybe a Charter Commission can propose a 26 member town council so there will be more assistance to advance these important issues. Comcast charges me $3,000 a year. South Hadley residents pay a lot less based on what a town official told me several months ago. Expanding the Council may sound like a smart alleck suggestion but it is offered to make a point. If core fundamental town needs are being logjammed because the Council claims over capacity then let us expand the Council.

  4. Let’s face it, folks: we are not going to get the kind of honest public discussion that embraces the entire range of opinion about the Charter, because it’s simply not safe to engage in one. We simply can’t do it in this environment of silos of opinion which are deeply alienated from each other. We have at least two of these in town, but I think I can credibly spot three. They all enforce their own strains of conformity. If you had told me that we would be suffering from the same polarization we had at the time of the Charter vote now almost five years later, I wouldn’t have believed you, but here we are. Actually the pandemic, and, oddly, the death of Larry Kelley (who gave moderates like me the space to say to him publicly, “yes, but” or “no, but” over and over) have made it worse. We’re living in an utter wasteland of respectful interaction about the town and its future. There are no identifiable mediators, no honest brokers we could agree on who can moderate and direct the discussion, AND no space for it to occur in. We’re sorely lacking nowadays in the journalism we need that can take on big picture issues and do the required analysis. We have stilted election campaign processes in town that look like something out of Student Council, with no unscripted, spontaneous debate or interaction between candidates, just prepared statements that get read at forums. In the intervals between elections, the occasional attempts to create interaction between leaders in the silos have failed, because engagement is seen as a kind of concession to the other side. We’re in a very bad state, but this appears to be how we like it, not different from what’s happening nationally, except here we don’t have holiday dinners to sit down to with each other.

  5. I would like to propose this challenge to Richard Morse: instead of bemoaning that we don’t talk to each other, let’s talk to each other. Rich pays deserved tribute to Larry Kelley, a man of strong opinions who also understood the role of disagreement in a democracy. But he might as well have stressed the relationship between Larry and Ken Mozakowski, whose equally strong opinions were almost always opposed to Larry’s. Ken and Larry always honored and respected each other and worked together in print, on the radio, and in Town Meeting. On the occasion of Ken’s untimely death, Larry wrote a beautiful tribute to him. I have no doubt that had Ken been living at the time of Larry’s untimely death he would have done the same.

    I am sympathetic to Rich’s feelings about what we have allowed to happen in Amherst. Just as Rich takes a dim view of the Indy, so do I take a dim view of Amherst Forward. I suspect that neither of us is particularly persuasive to those who don’t already agree with us. Maybe we should both stop writing about this and turn our attention to the important issues facing the town.

    I have been writing about ways of addressing the concentration of power the Town Charter posits in the Town Council. Rich has, in passing, expressed his concern about the Town Manager having too much power. I am currently preparing a commentary about the relationship between the Town Council and the Town Manager, and the Council itself is in the middle of a discussion about this topic.

    Let’s have a Rich and Mike discussion as a tribute to Larry and Ken and as a contribution to curing the malaise that Rich identifies. Everybody reads the Indy (though not everybody admits it) so this would be a good place to have it. But if Rich wants to have it elsewhere, I’m game. Let’s stop cursing the darkness and start lighting candles.

  6. Fair play to you Michael!
    Once again, you have demonstrated that improvement to a situation is not dependent on the criticism of it, but how we might improve it.
    Thank you for your inherent willingness to respect that there can be value and, even, hope if/when people disagree. After-all, without those like yourself, we might all still be speaking the King’s English.

  7. Three cheers for Rich Morse for admitting publicly that he reads The Indy! I sure miss Larry’s Only in the Republic of Amherst on which I depended daily to learn what other residents are thinking/doing. Like national and international politics Amherst is missing the middle independent contingent. Maybe that is related to our ever decreasing middle income home-owning population.

    2023 is an election year for Town Council. I despair. Who wants to take on the onerous task of governing us? I got lots of “no way” responses in 2021!

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