The most epic local political battle in the entire history of our town will see a return engagement in 2016 as Amherst For All, has initiated the movement to place before voters formation of a Charter Commission to study and present a new improved form of local governance.
In other words, a death sentence for 257 year old Amherst representative Town Meeting, which many people now think is no longer "representative."
Amherst, a "college town", has the lowest median age in the state (22) where the majority of residents are renters; but Town Meeting is mostly populated by a gray-haired crowd of homeowners.
Who yell at the 22-year-olds to "get off their lawn!"
While self absorbed NIMBY/BANANA zealots have never reached a majority level in Town Meeting, the problem is they only require one-third-plus-one minority to stop any reasonable pro-development zoning article. And that low benchmark was reached a long time ago.
Amherst Town Meeting last May
Amherst's tax base is 90% residential and only 10% commercial, with over half the property in town owned by tax-exempts, mainly our higher education entities: Amherst College, UMass and Hampshire College respectively.
On April 3rd, 2001 Amherst voters -- with a voter turnout of 17% -- endorsed the formation of a Charter Commission which came up with a mayor/council form of government, but one that also retained a town manager.
Question 1 (binding): Charter formation? Question 3 (non binding): Should we dump Town Meeting?
In April, 2003 -- with a voter turnout of 31% -- that ballot question to change our form of government failed by only 14 votes, 2414 to 2400 (with 21 blank ballots cast). Two years later -- with a voter turnout of 35% -- the same question lost by 252 votes, 2,953 to 2,701.
Fast forward to this afternoon. According to Town Clerk Sandra Burgess:
The petition must contain the signature of 15% of the number of registered voters in that city or town at the time of the last state election.
Because this is state law, the number of registered voters includes inactives.
The total number of registered voters at the last state election (2014) was 21,430. So if you were planning on filing a petition to place a charter question on the 2016 Annual Town Election Ballot you would have to collect 3,215 signatures to force the question on the ballot.
Town Clerk Sandra Burgess accepts Ballot Committee papers from Adam Lussier
To make the deadline for the 2016 annual election ballot all the signatures must be confirmed 100 days before the election (the exact date has not yet been set) so roughly by mid-December. Considering the Charter Commission created at the annual 2001 election required almost two years to collect the (2,600) signatures, an ambitious time line.
Back then, however, the signatures were collected pretty much single handedly by one very determined man, Stan Durnakowski, using the tagline Amherst needs a (strong) Mayor.
Mr. Durnakowski was also elected to the Charter Commission but he couldn't convince a quorum of fellow commissioners to support a strong mayor.
The Charter Commission instead opted for a weak mayor, maintained a "professional" town manager but did at least ditch town meeting in favor of a city council.
The 9-member Charter Commission is elected on the same ballot that voters approve forming said Commission, so it's important Amherst For All put up a slate of candidates who will represent their views for reforming town government.
Under Massachusetts Home Rule Amendment to the state's constitution the newly elected Charter Commission then has 18 months to produce its "Final Report," aka a blueprint for a new & improved government. During that time period the Commission must hold at least two public forums.
The BIG difference today vs 2003 when the Charter change failed by only 14 votes is Social Media (why you're reading this here first). Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin were not even born, and blogs were in their infancy.
Thus the power of the web will be a key factor this time around.
And when the cyber-smoke clears I foresee Stan Durnakowski looking down from above, giving us a thumbs up ... with his bespectacled face glowing with a broad grin.
Select Board member Jim Wald (who would be out of a job) and concerned looking Town Meeting aficionado Vince O'Connor (who would also be out of a job) look on as the Town Clerk briefs Amherst For All Steering Committee
Official Kick Off Signature Drive Launch Party is September 2nd @ The Pub from 5-7PM