I live in Amherst, Massachusetts. Our form of government is representative Town Meeting with an elected five person select board and a professional town manager. About thirty-five municipalities in Massachusetts have representative town meeting. Many smaller towns have open Town Meeting where any resident can attend.
Right now there is a nine person elected Charter Commission that is looking at our form of government and how to improve it. I have watched many of their meetings on public access television. Although their charge was to examine our form of government, many of the members have seemed single-mindedly focused on getting rid of Town Meeting.
They have to have a draft of their proposed charter ready by sometime in July and as far as I can tell they haven’t discussed anything except replacing Town Meeting. The most contentious issues in Town Meeting and in Amherst in general are zoning, development, and planning. How the new form of government the Charter Commission wants us to accept will deal with those issues has not really come up yet.
I feel that open Town Meeting is one of the most democratic institutions in our country. Representative Town Meeting is less democratic but still much more accessible to the ordinary citizen than the Mayor and 13 person City Council the Charter Commission is proposing.
To make my position on retaining Town Meeting clear, I sent the following letter to the Charter Commission and to our local paper, the Amherst Bulletin.
Dear Charter Commission:
My name is Amy Mittelman and I am a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5. I have lived in Amherst since 1986.
When my husband and I first moved to Western Massachusetts, we lived in Northampton. A t that time I was a member of a group called Northampton Citizens Action Network (NCAN). We would regularly attend City Council meetings. This degree of citizen involvement was so unusual that the newspaper published stories about us.
Getting an issue before the Mayor and the City Council was a fairly arduous task. Your best bet was to form and foster connections with individual City Councilors who then might( but also might not) advocate for your position.
My experiences in Northampton stand in sharp contrast to those that I have had as a Town Meeting member. Two or three Town Meetings ago, Amherst Town Meeting was able to change the budget to provide funding for para professionals in the school libraries. That kind of real-time citizen intervention into the budget process could never have happened in Northampton.The fact the Town Meeting took such an action made me proud to part of the process.
In Northampton three people participating in government was noteworthy because it was so out of the ordinary. In Amherst, twice a year, 240 people participate in as many as 10 long meetings. Amherst is clearly the more democratic option. I hope as you proceed with your deliberations you will continue to consider maintaining town meeting and improving it. To do anything else would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.