Sunday, May 13, 2012

Better part of Valour

North Amherst, um, Village Center
Yesterday at the grand opening of the "Little White Houses" exhibit at the Dickinson Homestead, town manager John Musante tweeted an obvious reference to the upcoming session of town meeting, Emily Dickinson Poetry Walk: "Hope" is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul.

Yes, and the Light Brigade was full of "hope" as they charged into the Valley of Death.

As currently written Article #25--form based rezoning for North Amherst Village Center--will never survive the gauntlet of a nay saying town meeting tomorrow night, after its less controversial twin, article #24, was already eviscerated last Wednesday by 130 yes-78 naysayers.

Zoning articles require a two-thirds supermajority vote.   Rather than getting cut to pieces over two or more painful hours the article should be watered down even more by a friendly town meeting member, and if that doesn't work "referred back to the Planning Board," a temporary safe haven for sure. 

And either of those motions only requires a simple majority vote.

Besides, back to back defeats of form based zoning will also cast a pall over article #27, a historic district designation for the Emily Dickinson homestead and properties along that historic corridor, also requiring that difficult to achieve two thirds majority vote.

And if town officials really wish to set the stage for future passage of beneficial changes like form based zoning, they need to encourage charter reform, switching to a more professional mayor/council rule to replace antiquated town meeting governance where a minority of village luddites continually stifle progress.

Sometimes you have to destroy the village in order to save it.


Anonymous said...

why isn't there any effort for form-based zoning downtown? The new apartment complex behind Judy's is an eyesore that everyone comments on...Seems it ought to be our first priority- so why isn't it??

Dr. Ed said...

1 of 2

Larry, there is another approach that no one has mentioned -- a return to OPEN town meeting, which Amherst had until about 1935 and what some towns in this state still do have.

Case in point, Wakefield -- which is a relatively well run town, financially stable, and has a town meeting where all registered voters are town meeting members, and can show up or not as they please. It works.

Let's learn from history. Initially, town meeting membership consisted of men who owned at least a certain amount of taxable property. With their wives sitting next to them, I argue that women had a de-facto right to vote -- they met after church and decided which way they would tell their husbands to vote if they knew what was good for them.

This most often involved votes to rehire or fire the town minister, which which the guys really didn't care about, but the wives very much did because one of the duties of the minister (and his wife) was teaching the town children how to read. (Prior to 1855, what is now the Congregational Church was funded out of town tax dollars, the minister often the highest paid town employee, with his salary (and employment) decided by a majority vote at town meeting.)

The reality was that the prosperous families selected the minister, he knew that, and spent all his time with them -- ignoring the poor families who actually needed his attention more. Remember this was a time when half of all children died before adulthood and lots of women died in childbirth -- and that sort of stuff hurt independent of how many acres of land you owned.

Hence a problem quite similar to what Amherst has today -- a town meeting that wasn't representative of the town itself. The solution was to let all men over the age of 21 be members of town meeting.

I argue this included women because most folk were already married by age 21 (men who weren't often were taxed) and I ask any married woman if your husband would *routinely* vote on the other side of issues you felt very strongly about if you were sitting next to him, and if your parents were there too. (Yes, a man might occasionally feel strong enough about one thing, but guys simply aren't going to routinely p*** off both their wives and all the in-laws. Not today, and less so back then when they were more dependent on them.)

(Besides, women collectively have better language skills than men, and we still see guys asking their wives how to phrase things before they stand up to speak -- and most of the married couples in any town meeting usually vote the same way on most everything -- one vote or two, they vote as a team so half of one vote or one of two votes, the wife had franchise.)

So the open town meeting was truly democratic. Evidence suggests that some women (e.g. older widows) who were respected and had something worth saying were permitted to speak and sometimes even hold elective office -- before women could even legally vote.

Case in point is my grandmother who -- as best I can tell -- was the equivalent of a Select Board Member before women could even vote. She had a college education, everyone else had an 8th grade education, and someone had to write to the bureaucrats (in this case) in Augusta (ME).

Remember that this was a time when women formally went by their husband's first name, e.g. "Mrs. John Smith" and that this was the era of pens and inkwells. It wouldn't be that hard to obscure a Mrs. into a Mr. -- with the bureaucrats in Boston, Concord or Augusta not being any the wiser.

I say 1935 because I was once told that Steve Puffer (of Puffton Village, formerly his farm) had been a elected town meeting member ever since that was instituted in 1935 -- and by 1934, women could vote so it was open to everyone.

Dr. Ed said...

2 of 2 -- open town meeting:

The two problems of open town meeting and why the current system was instituted was (a) too many people attending and (b) special interest block voting, particularly for teacher salaries.

A: If every registered voter could show up to town meeting, how many more would? Anyone who wants to be a member essentially can now -- we well could have fewer people there because there is not the ego/glory of being important.

Some things, like zoning, might get a very large turnout -- fine -- Wakefield dealt with this with overflow rooms and running extension cords for the AV system down the hall -- counting the votes in each room individually and adding them up. That was in the 1970s -- we now have technology.

Anyone ever seen the "clickers" that have been used in the large UM lecture courses? Those could be used to count votes on a large scale just as easily, as could other technologies such as secure web browsers and personally owned laptops, and we could easily have 1000/2000 (or more) people participating in a town meeting with less chaos than exists now.

First 200 (or whatever the room holds) who show up get a seat and the ability to speak -- most the members NOW don't speak, just listen & vote -- and there is a live webcast so everyone else can either watch in overflow rooms, at home, or with friends.

If you did this, you would have a few (not many) UMass students voting which would be a GOOD thing in that there no longer would be the student/town schism (the students are no more united on anything than the townies are), and you would both have student voices being expressed *and* have the students knowing this.

That would give Stephanie's letter a lot more traction. The only thing that is going to stop the rowdy parties is peer pressure from fellow UM students, and you won't get that in an us versus you world.

B: Block voting and special interest voting. Like that's not happening now? I am thinking that IS the problem -- how could it possibly become any worse?

The groups that could take over an open meeting system already have taken over the current one -- the fact that they are organized, plan ahead, have the time and energy to get themselves and their supporters elected as town meeting members.

It is those groups that AREN'T organized, that don't have the time and money to be organized, that are disenfranchised and that is why the system is both unbalanced and disfunctional.

I envision a system where you have parents at home with their children -- and a laptop connected to the live web broadcast and being able to simply walk over and vote on the things they want to, without having to worry about childcare and everything else.

A vast majority of the time, a vast majority of the people aren't going to care. Fine. The system worked -- whoever made the decision made one that has so much support that the people don't care to oppose it.

But on the few controversial things, we will no longer have the tyranny of the minority. And when everyone can vote, those who want things done have to build a much broader coalition which means getting people to "buy into" things and not just impose them by fiat.

Back to the noise ordinance -- a noise ordinance that included both the needs/desires of the townies and students would be far more effective in that the students both would have "bought into" it and see specific benefits that THEY get out of it.

Dr. Ed said...

One more thing -- and I can already see the legitimate responses (attacking me personally is a logical fallacy and grounds for summary judgment in debate).

Why should we care about drunken a**hole students who do doubleunplussgood things, both making everyone's life difficult and tying up limited town resources (APD,AFD)?

It is a fair question and I don't support this sort of stuff either. Remember that *all* the UM students are paying for the schmucks that AFD hauls across the bridge -- something like $12/year that I personally (indirectly) pay the town to have the ambulance service and then both the AFD bill and the CDH bill comes out of the student insurance which would be cheaper if they weren't paying for this.

My point is threefold. First, as to Stephanie's letter -- that only applies when students are part of the town, when they both see themselves and are treated by the town as citizens of the town -- neither is currently the case.

Second, young people (and I am not one either) tend to be loud and stupid -- we all were once too. One thing I learned firefighting is that if there is an accident involving a Propane tanker (or railcar) and it already is on fire, the absolute last thing you want to do (in most cases) is put that fire out. No, you want a controlled burn to get rid of it, you want it to boil off *slowly* and burn -- otherwise you will have a heavier-than-air blanket of propane drifting across the ground in search of an ignition source (which it inevitably will find) and if it does before it has dispersed below explosive levels, then you will have a really big "bang." (And as you will be in the middle of said "bang", you are going to have a really bad day...)

I suggest the "controlled burn" approach to dealing with the student party problem. The current approach is not working -- the Puffers' Pond incident being the best example. Instead of burning off the propane slowly, it found an ignition source and exploded.

Third, the only thing that is going to stop the more extreme stuff is peer pressure and peer disapproval from other UM students. And the only way you are going to get that is when the vast majority of UM students see themselves on the side of the town and not on the side of the troublemakers.

This is what "community policing" and the hiring of minority police officers was all about -- the minority communities saw the white male police officers as "them" and the criminals as "us" -- and that had to change. So too here.

I ask one final question: Is either town meeting or the current town bylaws actually working? Are you happy with how things are now?

This is the same thing that I say to women with abusive boyfriends -- are you happy right now? Are things working in your life right now -- with him involved in your life? Do you enjoy being used as a punching bag?

I say the same thing to the town -- the current approach of threats/fines/arrests/suspensions and the rest isn't working. You aren't happy with your lives -- and you are no more likely to make the current approach work than she is likely to get her boyfriend to treat her decently.

In both situations, things are getting worse. This year was worse than last, last worse than the one before, etc. Things are not good and getting worse -- and somehow thinking this will change is the same as her thinking her boyfriend will stop hitting her -- not likely to happen.

So how much worse could a different approach be?

Anonymous said...

The problem isn't Town Meeting.

The problem is the 2/3 majority required for land use changes, which indeed gives the minority (1/3) "ruling power".

We should all support state-wide zoning reform which, in part, will change the 2/3 "super" majority to simple majority.

Anonymous said...

@Dr Ed, you make many good points. I can't claim to fully (or even half) understand this particular zoning issue but I am certainly tired of the same clique dominating TM year in and year out.

@anon 9:19, yeah that apt building is none too handsome and besides, who wants to live amid all the downtown noise?

Anonymous said...

Somewhere between BAA (build anything anywhere) and NIMBY, there are a lot of people in the middle. Working things through requires facts and ideas and some back and forth. Posts here tend to BAA but don't have to.

Anonymous said...

The form based nonsense is a mendacious fallicy to gloss the intent of creating another Hobart Lane/Puffers Pond nightmare,and leave it in the back yard of someone else. The area to be effected isn't lived in by the chief protagonists and the police won't be able to deal with the mess- see Puffers Pond. Business doesn't follow the setting/site, it follows demand. If the demand were so great the strip mall on 63 would be full with other than atms, it's not. A pig in a poke still smells. Try the form based nonsense downtown 1st then get back to TM, which works just fine thank you