Issues & Analyses: Fundamental Issues That Need To Be Addressed In A Review Of The Town Charter


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Michael Greenebaum

This is my second commentary on the town Charter review which is mandated in a vague way by the Charter itself to take place in every calendar year ending in a “4” – in other words every ten years.  This first review, to be conducted and voted in 2024, is especially important since it will serve as a template for future reviews, which will be conducted by people who, mostly, are not currently serving in town government.

In my first commentary I noted the vagueness of both the charter provision for review as well as the Massachusetts General Law 43B, which governs the process.  In this piece, I wish to identify the areas in which I consider our charter deficient.  In future commentaries I will offer specific recommendations for amendments that will make our town government more accountable, more effective, more efficient, and more consistent with the values we hope serve as the foundation of civic life in Amherst.

I would like to have company in this effort.  I invite residents to join in a re-examination of the charter, and I would like this to start as soon as possible.  At some point the Town Council will appoint its review committee.  I have no idea how many members it will have or how diverse their opinions will be.  My fear is that the Council will minimize this review or will conduct it in accordance with the wishes of other forces less open to significant amendment than I hope this will be.  Eventually I propose to come up with a series of proposals to present to an online Amherst Town Meeting for debate and vote.  Of course such a meeting would have no statutory authority and the Town Council is not obligated to pay any attention to its recommendations.  But they will be out there in the public arena, and ignoring them would be difficult and would have consequences.

Among the areas that a charter review should study are the following:

Concentration Of Power In The Town Council
 Both explicitly and implicitly the charter gives the council almost total control over town government.  In our former government, the Planning Board was appointed by the Town Manager and the Finance Committee by the Town Moderator.  This charter explicitly gives those powers to the Town Council.  But that has not been sufficient for our first two Councils.  They have appointed committees of the council that oversee and duplicate the work of these no longer independent committees.

It is clear that the council has had ideological tests for candidates.  There are committed volunteers who will never be appointed because the council does not like their opinions about town matters.  The Charter should say something explicit about this.

Powers Of Appointment 
This area has been an embarrassment ever since the first Council took office.  Originally a committee of the Council – a subset of councilors – was responsible for recommending appointments to boards and comities.  But some of those recommendations fell afoul of the council majority and the committee was abolished.  (The charter says that the council may establish committees to aid it in its work – and that’s all it says.). The discussions around appointments have been devastating.  Resident A should not be reappointed because they have served too long.  Resident B should not be appointed because they lack experience. It is clear that the council has had ideological tests for candidates.  There are committed volunteers who will never be appointed because the council does not like their opinions about town matters.  The Charter should say something explicit about this.

Voter Participation In Governance 
This charter narrows the ability of voters to bring matters to the council by petition or otherwise.  It makes it easy for the Council to dismiss matters that manage to get through the obstacles the Charter erects.  The majority of the Charter Commission wished to do this, as did the Amherst Forward PAC that silently but financially supported that majority.  We have a new council now and they should have an opportunity to enlarge the opportunities for voters – and other residents – to bring matters to them and engage in discussion with them.

Council Meetings 
This almost manic desire to concentrate power that is embedded in the charter means that the Town Council and its committees have meetings of impossible length and complexity.  It means also that councillors have neither the will nor the energy to engage with residents who attend their meetings in order to address them or, even more important, discuss issues with them.  The charter calls for two district meetings for this purpose.  I am told by my district representatives that these meetings have been held, but I have not been notified of them.  Indeed, I get notices from District 1 and District 5 but never a peep from District 2, where I live.  Clearly the charter needs to give more directive to councilors about these meetings, their importance, and the follow-ups that occur in response to them.  And the charter needs to help councilors.  Their meetings are impossibly long – much too long for good government.  Councilors are exhausted, sometimes quarrelsome (although not nearly as bad as other city councils) and prevented from their private and family lives.

There are surely other concerns as well.  Please use the comments section to indicate your concerns.  Please write your own commentary – all opinions welcome and needed.  Let’s make this charter review a big deal.  Let’s look at it as an opportunity to help the Town Council.  Let’s give them some ideas to consider, change, reject, accept.  Let’s get started.

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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6 thoughts on “Issues & Analyses: Fundamental Issues That Need To Be Addressed In A Review Of The Town Charter

  1. Mr. Greenebaum mentions “an online Amherst Town Meeting”. I’m left to my imagination to wonder how that would happen, who would participate, who would be allowed to participate, and what that would mean. Would this feature the same level of openness to dissent and debate featured in the current Amherst Indy? Mr. Greenebaum has a record of intelligent participation in town that extends long before the current entrenched tribalism in town, so I am assuming nothing about his intent here. My long-term concern is that, for those of us who were supporters of the Charter but who have reforms in mind, the current polarized “us versus them” mentality in town, exemplified by this website, will prevent anyone from a conceivable middle body of opinion from entering the discussion. The “you’re either with us or against us” atmosphere in town, on a number of topics, serves as a powerful deterrent. Do I think that the current length of meetings is an appealing feature of the Council? Of course not. Do I think that this Council is weak in relation to the power of the Manager? I definitely do. Do I want to scrap the Council or even risk entering into a debate aimed at doing so? I absolutely do not.

  2. We have had enough experience now with online meetings to imagine how an online town meeting might be run. My own preference would be to allow any Amherst resident to participate. A moderator would insure that speakers on every side of an issue (in this case an amendment to the charter) is heard. As in the former town meeting, speakers would not debate one another but merely state their position. There would be no voting because such a forum would have no legal status.

    I don’t agree with Mr. Morse’s characterization of the Indy. He has appeared here before, as have others who were supporters of the charter. I wish more would. I am not afraid of dissent or disagreement. It need not lead to the kind of tribalism that all of us have allowed to happen in Amherst. We can work our way out of that if we talk to each other more often and more openly.

    I do agree with his view of the atmosphere in town, although we might have different explanations about why it happened. How do we regain trust in one another? I would be glad to offer my thoughts about that and hear Mr. Morse’s thoughts. I am quite sure that the Indy would be willing to print a discussion between us or others as well. But perhaps the question should be framed differently: How can we as individuals, how can our organizations both official and unofficial, act in a way that is trustworthy? And how can we make our disagreement a token of our trust?

  3. It is interesting that the Indy is held up as an exemplar of an “us vs. them” mentality. “Us” is first person plural, “them” third person. Throughout the charter process, as a longtime Town Meeting member and supporter, I felt very much like a third person: Someone who was talked about, characterized in particular ways that were hardly flattering, and someone whose voice was not welcomed within the public sphere. I did not at all feel like a first person, the “I” who initiates, controls, dominates what is said. And despite the plurality of “we” and “us,” the juxtaposition with “them” excludes, rather than includes, thus perpetuating the tribalism that is inherent in such an aligning, no matter if you consider yourself an “us” or a “them.” Both pronouns keep the focus on the self and the other, ultimately leading to distrust and division. What’s missing is the second person, the “you” both singular and plural, the “you” that will turn the focus outward from both “us” and “them,” so that the usual accusatory monologues can fade to silence, and other perspectives may dare to make themselves known.

  4. During my stint on the Select Board 15± years ago, Mr. Morse and I used to chat from time to time by phone about various things, including the “judicial temperament” that he hoped to see among its members.

    Such a temperament would be even better suited to the Moderator of Town Meeting — even an on-line or unofficial one.

    Perhaps he’d be nominated for the role were he to attend?

  5. thanks for the offer Mr Greenebaum.

    Mine would be to really champion what seemed to be the single counter offer to winning a new charter write. A substantial “No” on its 1st try and a respectful wait for re-submission. A second fail & quick re-jamb fora win. The latter 2 w/unprecedented higher canvasing for our (then) town.

    So back to the crumb offered to take the bite out – Community Engagement Officer (might be the correct name, what I call it anyway – “ceo”). It really has not been enacted. I would see it a lill like any engagement effort (HRD offices in work sites, used in insurance companies w/policy holders, some what of my function is w/elders and a community college/vise versa).
    Democracy (citizen policy / admin execution, a partnership) is a lill more difficult than it was at one time. Families w/2 party incomes, cellie/computer taken home from work, bifurcation of national politics replicated at home (in city governance/administration), lack of neighborhood function, same w/extended family (some would claim the nuclear family too) creates difficulty in one of the major components of strong democracy (good information/time to digest it). Unbiased providers (one would hope the “ceo” would B such a source) of information on the pertinent topics, ability to go get it when asked in the assigned neighborhood (one per 10 Precincts). Not just educator but bit of facilitator/community organizer who takes the pulse (so 2way dialogue) & brings back to the central administration. Not sure how detailed the job description but that’s a lill of what it could be (3, 4 tasks I outlined) if just enacted (executed) w/some energy. Currently seems handed off w/o much of that to folks overburdened w/other jobs~

    Another, liaison between the 50 – 80 committees, commissions, boards and “authorities’. (Or may B document shared of occurrences on the affiliate board). They dont speak to one another, no info shared. At least it seems to me. Is more a formal process late in the game @ a time there’s a shortage of that very same time. Asa CoA Member I speak to the transportation Cmmttee & DAAC a lill…

    Some expectation of time commitment TC provide for their self selected commitment to the 50 – 80 city boards. How often to visit, telephone or e-mail parties on that/those boards?

    Lastly, better processes for the two mentioned above: 1) application, selection and movement from citizen participation from that ‘request form’ to actual committee work. Real on-boarding process, continuity (over different members) on the boards (to instill institutionalized memory), and 2) citizen direct ‘petition’ to TC (formal/informal).

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