The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council on March 14, 2023.
Moves to restrict public participation in town government are progressively more alarming. The “pro-development” faction on town council has sought to exclude people with opposing views from positions on town boards, effectively gaming the applications of Robert’s Rules of Order to their own ends in this regard in order to limit debate. It has co-opted members interested in issues of equity by amalgamating vague nods toward progressiveness with very concrete steps that favor the interests of real estate developers. It put forth a complex, lengthy set of changes to zoning policy while allowing just 3 minutes each for members of the public to question and/or rebut the various provisions of the lengthy proposal. It has pushed public comments to the tail end of lengthy meetings, discouraging public participation. And now, this clique seeks to shrink the total time allotted for public comment to 30 minutes.
The president of town council seems to have ceded leadership to a councilor at large. It is past due that leadership insures a more even-handed approach to the workings of the council. It is certainly true that some comments in town council zoom meetings could be reigned in, but a more productive approach would be to cut off comments that are off-topic and to allow for or encourage the public to submit comments in written form to be read into the record, thereby allowing for comments that are more concise, delivered without the pressure of ‘live performance’ in a very limited time.
I was a district representative in Amherst town meeting for six years. I saw firsthand the dysfunction involved as town meeting grappled with issues unrelated directly to running the town and dealing with the egos of some town meeting members and public commenters. The change to a town manager/ town council format was supposed to streamline town governance and make it more manageable. However, on its current trajectory, Amherst is moving away from manageable democracy toward an oligarchy dominated by a pro-development clique. This must stop.
John Varner is a resident of Amherst