Residents of Amherst, Massachusetts, will soon vote on whether to put an end to their centuries-old Town Meeting and adopt a new form of government.
The debate hasn’t always been friendly in this most liberal of New England towns.
“These are dark times all across the country,” said Art Keene, an organizer for one of the three groups trying to preserve the town’s current form of government. “Democratic institutions, democratic norms are being actively subverted, and we can see this right here in Amherst.”
But Johanna Neumann, head of the group Amherst for All -- which wants to scrap Town Meeting and take up a new 13-member town council -- finds fault with the rhetoric of her opponents.
“The truth of the matter is that we’re seeing proponents of the status quo throw all kinds of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks,” she said. “And some of it evokes fear.”
Amherst Town Meeting consists of 240 elected members, along with a much smaller Select Board and a town manager – similar to a mayor, but not elected.
Twice a year, Town Meeting convenes for a multi-week session to vote on numerous issues in quick succession.
Andy Churchill is a member and a strong critic of Town Meeting. He chaired the nine-member commission that wrote the new charter, which is up for vote March 27. He said Town Meeting might work well for its members, but not for the majority of Amherst residents.
“It’s a black box,” he said. “It’s hard to navigate, and hard to access, and hard to hold accountable.”
Churchill also argues that the intensive schedule excludes residents who can’t make the night-after-night commitment.
Defenders of Town Meeting see its members as a necessary bulwark against the corruptive forces of “big money” and pro-development interests.
“I think Town Meeting, with 240 members from 10 different precincts -- each precinct having 24 members -- has done a good job in representing the town,” said John Fox, a long-time member and supporter of Town Meeting. “I see a 13-member council, which is what is being proposed, as an authoritarian body.”
No checks and balances. This is one of the most common arguments you’ll hear against the new charter: An all-powerful city council, with no pushback from an elected mayor or the current Town Meeting, will force through zoning changes and governmental appointments against the will of the voters.
Ellen Story, who served in the Massachusetts legislature for 25 years until retiring in 2017, disagrees.
“In my opinion, there are no devious forces that are trying to take over the town to do bad things here,” she said.
Story said she’s distressed by the rancor she’s seeing in town.
“I think maybe everybody is in a bad mood because we have Trump as our president,” she said. “I think that has really put a damper on our civic spirits and made people frown more than usual.”
Story wrote an op-ed in favor of the responsiveness and accountability an elected town council would provide. She said the main power Town Meeting has is to say, "No."
“We have these smart professional staff who do serious research, and then bring what they recommend to Town Meeting,” she said. “And what Town Meeting has done in several occasions is say, ‘No, thank you.’”
For many charter supporters, this issue came to a head about a year ago, when Town Meeting voted against a new school proposal, turning down $34 million from the state.
Farah Ameen is part of a coalition of parents of color who went to Town Meeting that night to argue in favor of the school proposal. She said she was blocked from speaking, and she’s lost confidence Town Meeting will ever be representative of her.
“This was making a big difference to our kids and to the way our community works,” Ameen said. “And they just called the vote. It just happened in a split second. Everyone was going around going, ‘What just happened?’”
Town Meeting member Meg Gage voted in favor of the school proposal. In other words, she was on Ameen’s side on that vote. But she sees grave danger in the urge to change the town’s form of government.
“The idea that the voters are going to be more engaged, that they’re going to be more aware, they’re going to elect people who are diverse and representative, in a way that’s different from every other place in this state, is magical thinking,” Gage said. “It’s not credible. And it’s astonishing to me that people aren’t seeing it that way.”
Gage was on the commission that spent 18 months drafting the new charter, but she ultimately voted against its adoption, and she plans to vote “no” again on March 27.
She sees this moment as a point of no return.
“This feels like Amherst’s Brexit,” she said. “People are really angry. They’re using this process to vent their anger, and come up with a reaction that’s going to have consequences people aren’t thinking through.”
The general sense in Amherst is that support for Town Meeting skews older. After a recent public debate on the new charter, I talked with a group of older women, pretty confident they’d oppose the charter.
But like almost everything in this debate, that assumption didn’t hold up.
Rhoda Honigberg, a charter supporter, said she came to Amherst in 1950. She had a much bigger beef to address than eliminating Town Meeting.
“There’s an undercurrent of accusation that public officials are to be bought, and that there’s corruption, and we can’t have eight or whatever councilors -- that they can be bribed, and we’ll have Empire State buildings in downtown Amherst. I was a town assessor for a few years, and I kept waiting for someone to offer me a bribe, and it never happened,” Honigberg said, making her friends laugh.
They'll all be heading to the polls on March 27 to vote on the political future of a town to which they’ve given much of their lives.
It was nice to spend a couple minutes with them. They didn’t seem nearly as worried as everyone else.