Our 2006 Annual Town Meeting has mercifully come to an end. Even stalwart Town Meeting supporters must agree that after 12 nights/two months of often cantankerous debate, we’re tired!
This year’s Town Meeting seemed particularly rancorous. Opposing views were presented with sharper tongues, and there seemed to be less respect from members for each other, as evidenced by the hooting and snide remarks made loudly during a number of articles. It got so bad that Moderator Harrison Gregg was driven to ask members, ‘What is the matter with this town?’ While we know Harrison would agree that there is much that is right with this town, we felt his frustration.
If Town Meeting is going to work, members must feel safe in speaking and listening and not be bullied by a few who are aggressively out of order. Whether in Town Meeting or on Main Street, we need to listen to each other with respect, including those who hold different views than our own. We’re all neighbors; let’s treat each other as such.
One reason for the rancorous debates at Town Meeting was that we were making no-win decisions. Our current fiscal crisis – now hitting its full stride – is forcing us to make extremely unpleasant choices: police vs. teachers vs. human services vs. youth sports vs. elderly services vs. bus routes. Next year will be even worse because we will not have any cash reserves to rely upon.
If we really want to eliminate the rancor in our debates, we have to provide Amherst with a sound fiscal footing. This should have been done years ago. Yet we failed again to make some small, common-sense zoning changes in our few outlying business zones that could’ve encouraged sensible economic development to diversify and increase our tax base. We’re still scratching our heads about that.
There was some good news, though. Town Meeting changed downtown zoning to allow for mixed-use development. This article supports exactly the type of environmentally sound, high-density development we should encourage in our downtown. Town Meeting also asked the Select Board to develop a five-year plan identifying revenue strategies that can support the level of services Amherst provides – a key step toward fiscal solvency. And Town Meeting strongly reaffirmed the practice of conferring ‘Special Municipal Employee Status’ – a critically important way to make sure the full variety of citizens can serve on our town committees.
As this last item indicates, our town depends heavily on volunteers to make its government work. Town Meeting members, appointed committee members, School Committee members and library trustees all do their work for free, in their ‘spare time.’ (Select Board members get a whopping $300; the moderator $100.) Yet this volunteer work is taking more and more volunteer time, which presents barriers to involvement for many people with families, jobs, and valuable perspectives to offer.
We took 12 nights to discuss 41 articles, while in Lexington they deliberated on 44 articles in just six nights! And our current Select Board also runs extremely long meetings that require an extraordinary time commitment from Board and audience alike. While we applaud Board members’ stamina, the length of their meetings (sometimes until midnight) has the effect of keeping people out of touch with the work they do. Even a League of Women Voters volunteer tasked with documenting Select Board meetings found she could no longer do it because the time commitment was too great!
We need to make better use of our volunteers’ time. For Town Meeting, we ask the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee to find ways to streamline things. For example:
* Have meetings run from 7 to 10:30 p.m., rather than the current 7:30 to 10, adding an extra hour to each session – we’ve already made the trip, we might as well keep working.
* Schedule one ‘foreign policy night,’ for all articles not directly pertaining to the business of the town – ones that ask our state or federal representatives to do something, etc. It would be an interesting, fun night, and it would help us focus.
* Figure out a better way of looking at, and across, the budget, rather than putting each section to bed independently. Debating and voting separately on 16 different categories, each of which affects what happens to the others, seems wacky to us.
In general, perhaps we’ve been trying to do too much with volunteers lately. We’re all looking forward to having both a town manager and a finance director, starting in July. It will be good to have these professional staff on the job. Here’s hoping we’ll let them help us, without micromanaging, so that Amherst can use its volunteers more effectively, regain its civil balance, and move forward to solve the challenges we face.