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Amherst Town Meeting: In theory and practice

I've watched several of the charter debates now and the thing that strikes me most about the charter opponents is their overly romanticized perspective about Town Meeting. In theory, Town Meeting is wonderful and no-one could oppose it. But, in practice, Town Meeting has serious problems.

Even it's most ardent supporters admit that there are serious problems. When Michael Greenebaum defended Town Meeting in the last debate, he cited a number of those problems: the inability to act on large capital projects (like the school project), the fact that the tall buildings were able to be built within the existing structure, the inability of Town Meeting to adequately value the work of the Town committees, etc.

I have never served in Town Meeting, but I witnessed it one time from gavel to gavel. And in that one three-hour period, I learned why Town Meeting doesn't work: Too many elected Town Meeting representatives don't understand basic facts about Town government, don't understand the articles before them, or see Town Meeting as their personal soap-box.

Some elected Town Meeting members don't understand even basic facts about how Town government is supposed to work. One person said, "I don't know what the Joint Capital Planning Committee even does!" Town Meeting seems to welcome, or encourage, this kind of ignorance to the extent that someone was able to make this kind of comment without being gaveled down or shamed for wasting everyone's time. An effective representative in government should educate themselves before being elected, not through "on the job" training.

Some elected Town Meeting members don't understand the articles that are before the body. People routinely made statements only to be informed that their concerns were not part of the budget or article under discussion. The "transportation funding" article is not where you should advocate for repainting lines on the roads. And these are the people who feel empowered to speak up: who knows how much more ignorance there is among the people who just silently vote.

Some elected Town Meeting members seem to participate solely to revel in being able to compel people to pay attention to them. They grab the microphone and torment everyone with random diatribes about their particular idée fixe. The North Amherst Library needs bathrooms! Town Meeting should happen in a location with bus service! The idea that Town Meeting serves a specific role in the process of Town governance is lost on them. Note: I'm not questioning their excitement or commitment or debating the merits of their ideas. But it's a mistake to maintain a process that misleads people into this kind of pointless waste of time.

It's worth emphasizing that these people were all elected. There were no better candidates for their positions in Town Meeting. This is because in many precincts, the candidates run unopposed.

Although some people may be sad to lose Town Meeting as group therapy, everyone will be better served by more effective Town governance. A clearer process will help channel concerns into action by a smaller group of representatives who, through genuinely competitive elections, are the most serious and well-prepared candidates to lead the Town.

I hope you'll join me in voting for the new charter on March 27th.