Opinion: Library Vote Shows Town Council Not Representative


Amherst Town Meeting. Photo: Amherst Media

The vote on the Jones Library borrowing authorization on December 18 demonstrated clearly that the Amherst Town Council is not representative of residents. 

Twelve of 13 Councilors — 92% of the body — voted this week to approve the additional borrowing for the library expansion and renovation. Compare this to the only town wide vote on the project, in November 2021 (before the costs skyrocketed and features were cut) when 65% of those who cast ballots were in favor and 35% opposed. With a turnout of 31%, this translates to 20% of registered voters were in support of the project. 

If the Town Council was representative of the sentiment expressed in the November 2021 referendum, the vote this week would have been eight in favor and five against and the motion, which required a two thirds majortiy of the council for approval, would have failed.

The Town Council’s vote stands in marked contrast with the voting record of the former legislative body, the 240-member Town Meeting. There were two separate occasions, on a similarly-controversial building project (the Wildwood school, 2016-2017), when Town Meeting votes exactly mirrored town-wide results, coming within one percentage point both times. Town Meeting as a body was far more representative of residents.

The unrepresentative Town Council vote this week is reminiscent of the out-of-step votes of “Ex-Officio” members in Town Meeting — a small group of elected and appointed officials who, because of their public office, were granted a vote at Town Meeting. On controversial matters, those members, like the Town Council this week, tended to vote in a block, producing a result that often was not reflective of the votes of the 240 people who were elected to their seats on the representative Town Meeting. 

In fact, one could argue that the Ex-Officios members were responsible for allowing this same library project to proceed six years ago. In May 2017, when Town Meeting voted on the “Jones Library Preliminary Design and Authorization for Grant,” 11 of the 12 Ex-Officio members that were present voted yes (the moderator, Jim Pistrang, abstained). Contrast this with the votes of the Town Meeting members present that night — 94 were in favor and 94 against.

Why is a small group of 13 people, far less representative of public opinion than a group of 240? One explanation could be “Groupthink,” described in Psychology Today as “a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions, spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.” Groupthink may very well have factored into the vote decision of councilors on Monday, even while citing statistics that showed that fewer than 2/3 of voters supported the project two years ago.

As one of the 35% of voters who were not represented by the Town Council, I am missing the wisdom of the crowd.

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6 thoughts on “Opinion: Library Vote Shows Town Council Not Representative

  1. Must we now describe Amherst as a “dictatorship of the majority”
    rather than a democracy? The checks and balances which existed (to
    some extent) in our previous charter were “engineered” away by people
    now serving on the Council.

    The conditions under which we are now governed — “tyranny of the
    majority” — were discussed by Madison in Federalist 10 shortly after
    the founding of the United States as our federal constitution was
    being debated


    and later described by Burke, Mill, de Tocqueville and others.

    There was no “Madison” on the Amherst Charter Commission a decade ago,
    and as a result Amherst’s current system (one whose “engineers” was
    among the “yes” votes last Monday) lacks the necessary — in fact
    required by the Massachusetts Constitution —checks and balances to
    prevent such tyranny.

    Fortunately, this little town — or rather, this tiny city known as
    “The Town of Amherst” — is not a “sovereign state” and decisions of
    the Amherst Council can be appealed to the Massachusetts courts for
    adjudication. And (per my previous post) this decision may be ripe for a
    “10-taxpayer” petition to the Massachusetts courts (inasmuch as it
    appears contrary to a Massachusetts SJC decision from the late-1970s).

  2. It is also important to remember that the intention for the Town Council to vote on the increased borrowing was posted ONE DAY AFTER the local election in November. The Council President and Town Manager clearly anticipated bringing this to the Town Council but specifically chose NOT to do so until after the election of our “representatives” was decided.

    A referendum on the increased borrowing could/SHOULD have been brought back to the townspeople and included on the November ballot at no additional expense to the town. It would have been the honest and democratic thing to do.

    It would have brought the debate over the library project (including its higher cost and lesser value) and all its financial ramifications to the fore. Then-candidates could have been forced to take a stand and defend it to potential voters, rather than have them opine about what a vote two years, $10 million dollars, and a whole of of value engineering ago meant. And, unlike that first vote town wide vote, complete factual information about the impact of the project on the town’s capital and operating capacity should have been provided to the Council and the electorate. Instead, those pesky details had to be painfully (and still incompletely) extracted over the course of the past six weeks.

    But that’s not how this Council and its leaders roll.

  3. We’ll said, Toni. The Amherst populace should reflect on whether our local government over-represents the wealthy and well-connected. This dynamic was much easier to moderate under the Town Meeting form of government.

    I also find much Town Council meeting time consumed by pomp, pageantry and self-congratulations that we can do without.

  4. Councilors made little effort to represent the widely-held grave concerns about fiscal risks to the town in authorizing additional borrowing for the Jones Library project.

    The weak protests from a handful of town councilors, arguing that they have misgivings but no choice but to approve further borrowing – was really a failure of those councilors to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to the town. They have essentially handed the Jones Trustees a blank check, ensuring that each time that they come back to the town with their hands out – and they have already indicated that they will – that councilors will have no choice but to grant them more money.

    Even if the councilors felt that they had no alternative but to cave to the demands of library zealots, they might have acted more forcefully to protect the fiscal interests of the town and its residents. Each councilor has a vote. Withhold five and you can hold up the borrowing process and gain concessions. But even without five votes, speaking up in favor of withholding a vote helps raise awareness about growing risks to the town. Councilors had every opportunity to ameliorate the risks to the town. But councilors who professed to have misgivings about the project pretty much surrendered without a fight.

    Here are sIx demands that councilors who professed misgivings might have made to ameliorate risks to the town that came with additional borrowing
    1. Jones Trustees Should Absorb The Risk: The town entered “negotiations” for a revised MOA with the Jones Trustees, seeking six measures that would protect the town’s fiscal interests. The trustees rejected all six and indeed, insisted on an MOA in which the town took on all of the risk as well as added fiscal responsibilities. It is baffling to this resident why the Jones Trustees call all the shots and why the town’s representatives refuse to act in defense of the town’s interests. Right now, the town assumes all of the fiscal risks for this project. If the Trustees fail to raise the dollars that they have promised or to meet their payment schedule (resulting in added interest costs to the town), that is solely the town’s problem. The new MOA gives the trustees even more wiggle room to (fail to) meet deadlines. Councilors should have insisted on more protections.

    2. Jones Trustees Should Pay Interest for All New Borrowing: Councilor should have insisted that the Jones Trustees pay all of the interest on any new borrowing. This only makes sense after the promise from most councilors that the town’s commitment would be frozen at $15.8M (plus nearly $10M in interest on that amount). No reasonable explanation was given as to why these additional expenses should be the town’s responsibility nor did anyone raise the issue. The excuses proffered by trustees that interest doesn’t count or that interest on the additional borrowing will be minimal are deflections that deserve to be challenged. The burgeoning costs of the library are out of control. The trustees have promised to pay for all cost overage beyond the original town commitment, and that should include interest.

    3. No Items to Be Paid by the Town at a Later Date: The trustees have removed items from the latest cost estimate (e.g. furniture, landscaping, possibly a book sorting machine) in order to make the cost of construction appear to be less expensive than it really is. The library director has already stated that she will come back and ask the town to pay for these items at a future date. The new MOA promises to not make these requests – which, in today’s dollars, looks like they would require over $2M to fulfill, until after library construction is complete – a pretty weak deal for the town. Councilors could have prohibited these requests or insisted that such known expenses be included in the cost estimate and the plans that go out to bid.

    4. How Much is too Much? Put a Cap on Maximum Town Contribution to the Library: It is highly likely, if the other library projects around the Commonwealth (or indeed our current Centennial Water Plant restoration) are any indication, that this library is going to cost A LOT more to build than the $46.1M currently projected by the trustees and that will mean more borrowing and more interest burden on the town. Several trustees and councilors have indicated that the project must proceed forward regardless of the cost. The Town Manager and Finance Committee member Cathy Schoen have said that if the project becomes “too costly”, that the town will have to walk away. But no one has been willing to say what too costly means. Before approving additional borrowing, councilors could have demanded a cap – saying that we will approve no more beyond another $X Million. Personally, I think that investing in a $50M library is ridiculous but councilors should make a commitment and say explicitly where they will draw the line – no more than $60M or $70M, or $80M. Otherwise, we really have granted the trustees a blank check, and at the expense of many other pressing town needs.

    5. What are the Impacts of Burgeoning Jones Costs on Meeting Other Town Needs?: Several residents have been requesting an analysis of the impacts of additional expenses on other capital spending. The Town Manager has indicated that there will indeed be impacts but has declined to provide an updated financial model or spending analysis. Councilors had a responsibility to identify what those impacts are before they committed to further spending on the library.

    6. More Transparency: The trustees seem quite comfortable with spending our tax dollars but not so comfortable with being transparent about their actions. Their meetings are, for the most part, not recorded and recently not broadcast over Zoom. Key documents are excluded from meeting packets or, in the case of the latest cost estimate, withheld from the public until the absolute last minute. Figures provided are of questionable veracity or are difficult of verify, and bookkeeping for the capital campaign, is hidden from public view. Given the dependence of this project on the town’s largesse – the trustees ought to be more transparent and more forthcoming. This is something that councilors could have required in exchange for their votes.

  5. Public/Private Partnerships (PPPs) purport to provide essential public services at a cost to the public lower than if the public entity were to perform these services, but they don’t always to do so.

    The decision makers in purely public projects are in principle public officials accountable to the public (and often members of that same public) with a fiduciary duty to the public to “spend other people’s money” wisely or efficiently.

    By engaging a private partner in forming a PPP, the overall efficiency is supposed to improve: the private partner should also have an interest in efficiency because it’s “spending its own money” to provide the public a service.

    But if the private partner has “captured a market” by having eliminated other potential providers, or if there are incentives to be “spending even more of other people’s money” by receiving a fixed fraction of a project cost as a fee, then there may be conflicts of interest which reduce or eliminate the efficiency.

    There are now several* projects in Amherst — the biggest of which is the The Jones Library demolition/expansion project — that may be considered examples of PPPs with these latter conditions present (and where their sequelae may be serious for both the public and the private partners…).


    *Others projects include construction of “affordable” housing at Ball Lane, town-wide hauling of compostables/recyclables/waste, and the Hickory Ridge solar project….

  6. Alas, given the very low voter turnout for the important votes on the Jones Library, the bond payment for the new school, the most recent Town Council election etc., 59% or more of the public doesn’t care!! Unfortunately, this apathy impacts negatively on the ethos of the community, aesthetics of the town, and the tax bills we all receive.

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