Town Meeting: representing all voices?

The teachers in elementary school told us not to lay on the carpet because we could get sick. We used to wait in line for the two bathroom stalls that actually had locks. The water we drank everyday after recess contained lead. And now, studies show that open classrooms are a detriment to a child’s learning capability, not reformative.

Yet many members of Town Meeting argued that I wouldn’t have liked smaller classrooms with natural light, that a longer bus ride to a newer school would have made me unhappy, and that the environment would’ve been changed.

I rarely heard these arguments from my parents, my teachers, my administrators, or former classmates. And yet those voicing them in Town Meeting had enough power to influence their peers to vote against the majority of Amherst voters’ wishes, ultimately making it impossible for the town to secure a 34 million dollar state grant for a new elementary school.

Rather than stewing over a loss I was upset about, I decided to investigate the Town Meeting body and find out who they are, as individuals and a whole group, and what they do.

The purpose of Town Meeting is to provide legislation that is representative of the town. However, my early investigation led me to learn that many members of the Amherst community feel that Town Meeting is the opposite of representative.

Nick Grabbe, a former editor of The Amherst Bulletin (for 19 years), has written about and observed Town Meeting for 37 years. For the past 13 months, he has been a member of the Charter Commission.

“In 2015, the UMass political science department did a study and found that while the average age of voters was 39, the average age of Town Meeting members was 59,” he said. “While voters were 79 percent white, 93 percent of Town Meeting was, and voters were 49 percent homeowners, compared to 80 percent of Town Meeting members.”

Last month, another study was done. He said it showed the median age of voters is currently 34.5 and the median age of Town Meeting members 61.2. In one precinct, the median age of voters was 25 and the average age of Town Meeting members was 69; in another precinct, it was 21 and 61.

Noah Kuhn is a web developer, father of young children, husband of ARHS English teacher Kate Kuhn, and an Amherst resident. He was recently elected to Town Meeting and speculates that this disproportionate representation is due to the time commitment that Town Meeting requires. “Being away from my family from 6:45-10:15 p.m., two nights a week, for roughly seven to eight  weeks a year is a pretty big downside to being a Town Meeting member,” he said.

Liz Larson, parent of Cat Larson, and a Town Meeting member for one year feels that attendance dates greatly restrict parents of young children from joining.  “For those of us who are parents of school age children, Annual Town Meeting conflicts with many end of the year school activities, making us choose between family and civic responsibility,” she said.

In comparison to Town Meeting’s difficult time commitments the road to getting nominated and then elected is fairly easy.

The election process for Town Meeting is surprisingly simple. In order to register as a candidate, all one has to do is enter Town Hall, sign a piece of paper to nominate yourself, and obtain one signature, your own. Kuhn described the process that follows.  

“At that point when the town-wide election happens in the spring, your friends and neighbors living in your precinct—of which there are 10 in town—vote for up to eight people on the ballot,” he said.

Kuhn explained how some precincts have competitive races and some have no competition at all depending on how many candidates there are per precinct.

Each year, eight spots are available in each precinct. There are a total of 24 representatives in each precinct, for a total of 240 elected members and each term runs for three years.

Although this simple election process may seem beneficial to those who don’t have time to fund a campaign Grabbe said there are some problems with this system.

“It doesn’t give voters much of a choice, and there’s been little discussion of real town issues during the uncompetitive campaigns,” he said.

However, in the most recent election there was a large spike of nominated candidates.

Larson contributes this interest to examining the system of Town Meeting and the potential change to the governing body.

In addition, Grabbe attributes the rise in candidates to Town Meeting’s recent rejection of $34 million in state money to help finance the construction of two new elementary schools.

No matter which controversial issue triggered greater participation, a new discussion to replace Town Meeting with a different governing body has emerged.

A new proposal by the Charter Commission would opt for a town mayor and 13 member council with a professional town administrator.

As a current member of the Charter Commission, Grabbe shared his opinion about the new proposal.

“I think this system will be more accountable and responsive to voters, and will increase voter participation,” he said. “An independently elected mayor will provide the leadership and accountability we need,”

Yet Grabbe also acknowledges it could be more financially burdensome.  

“I worry about the cost of having both a mayor and a manager, and about potential for conflict between them, and conflict between the mayor and the council,” he said.

Liz Larson is also supportive of the Charter Commission’s plan.

“It will allow the town to respond to the ever-changing needs of the town in a timely, more informed, and efficient manner while holding those who are elected far more accountable than we can at the moment,” she said.

An overarching theme, along with underrepresentation, that seems to be motivating Amherst residents to favor the new proposal is the seemingly slow progress Town Meeting makes.

Kuhn explains the process as “slow” and “unproductive.”

“There are members who seem to speak just to speak, without offering any meaningful commentary,” he said.

He explained that the group was on its fourth night, recently, of discussing one set of issues.

“By the end of tonight, we’ll have spent 12 hours in Town Meeting. I believe we’re only about half way done [with the topics on our agenda],” he said.

The primary purpose of Town Meeting is to make decisions based on the best interest of the town and everyone that resides in it.

When we look at our current “representative” governing body that discusses money, taxes, budgets, and many other technical applications, the statistics lead us to ask: can we, as a town, confidently say that Town Meeting accurately represents the Amherst community and its varied interests, across all demographic groups?

How do parents whose children attend elementary school, teachers who dedicate their lives to education, and administrators who work to better our school systems feel about the fact that the town lost a 34 million dollar state grant?

Would replacing Town Meeting provide a better solution to the needs and wants of Amherst residents?