THE NECESSITY OF TOWN MEETING
Up til now, my blog posts have fluctuated between praising Town Meeting, pointing out the deficiencies of the proposed charter, and wondering about the organization behind the charter, Amherst For All. As we enter the final days of this exhausting and dispiriting campaign, I want to make a stronger case: Town Meeting is essential to assuring Amherst the future we want.
This was confirmed for me by a recent article that announced a poll by the website niche.com. They rank school systems nationwide on the basis of several metrics as well as other qualitative criteria. In Massachusetts they ranked between 215-218 school districts based on the availability of data. Here are the first fifteen school districts:
Name Population Form of Government
- Wellesley 28,000 Representative Town Meeting
- Lexington 31,000 Representative Town Meeting
- Newton 85,000 Mayor-Council
- Westford 22,000 Open Town Meeting
- Cambridge 105,000 Mayor-Manager-Council
- Belmont 25,000 Representative Town Meeting
- Weston 11,000 Open Town Meeting
- Brookline 59,000 Representative Town Meeting
- Wayland 13,000 Open Town Meeting
- Acton-Boxborough 29,000 Open Town Meeting
- Amherst-Pelham 38,000 Representative Town Meeting
- Needham 29,000 Representative Town Meeting
- Westborough 18,000 Open Town Meeting
- Lenox 5,000 Open Town Meeting
- Harvard 6,500 Open Town Meeting
This list is worth studying and then contemplating as Amherst voters prepare to cast their ballots on March 27th. First, we can be pleased that our own schools rank so highly in Massachusetts. Second, we can be pleased about the company we keep. Third, we should note that 13 of these systems come from towns with either representative or open town meetings. Two are from cities with significantly larger populations than ours.
The overwhelming preponderance on this list of towns with a town meeting form of government is no coincidence. Here are the rankings (out of 215-218) of the cities whose company we would join if the charter passes:
70. East Longmeadow
— Chelsea (insufficient data)
— Winthrop (insufficient data)
The inference is inescapable: communities in which voters have a direct voice in making decisions about budgets support their schools to a greater degree than communities where those decisions are delegated to a small council. Budgets are, in essence, reflections of a community’s priorities. There are always hard choices to be made. Higher taxes, level of state funding, school programs have always been major players in the drama surrounding those choices. And there are many other players too - salary levels, staffing levels, fluctuating utility costs, enrollment projections, just to mention some of those pertaining to schools.
In the annual juggling of taxes and schools, managerial priorities take higher precedence in councils. It is not bad that they do; we should want our executive to be good managers. But we should want just as fervently a body that challenges the managers to be true to the values and priorities of the community they serve. “Throwing the rascals out” every two years seems to be Amherst For All’s preferred way of doing this. But it is a dreadful way.
Town Meeting is necessary, not only to the Town as a whole, but to the Boards and Committees in particular. It reminds the Boards of the Town’s priorities amidst these difficult decisions. When Town Meeting’s priorities priorities differ from the Boards it should be a sign that recalibration and collaboration are in order. Sadly, this hasn’t happened recently.
Amherst For All claims that the 13-person council will exercise “policy leadership” for the town. What that may mean depends at any given moment on who serves on the council. But at any given moment, that’s it. And that’s bad. It is inherently unstable as councillors come and go. Two years is not a great span as policy leadership goes.
Town Meeting is inherently stable. It contains many interests and factions that combine and separate and re-join depending on the issue at hand. It accepts disagreement as the foundation of democracy and accepts voting as the way of deciding priorities. It is too big to be corrupted or to be infiltrated. It has all the defects of its virtues.
At a recent debate sponsored by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Andy Churchill, representing Amherst For All, and I, representing the coalition of groups opposed to the charter, were asked whether our campaigns have anything like a united vision for the future of Amherst. Andy answered yes. And indeed Amherst For All does have a unified vision and asks its members to pledge their support to it.
I answered no. In a democracy, there are and should be competing visions. In Town Meeting there are competing visions. Those who vote together on one issue may be opponents on another. I suggested that we need a sort of meta-vision - a civic society whose members can, together, devise an etiquette of controversy which supports both disagreement and the manner of resolving it. That is what Town Meeting does. That is why it is necessary.