A win for democracy

By Eric Magazu

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On both Monday and Wednesday of last week, select Amherst citizens met for a special session of Town Meeting. Fourteen separate articles were brought up for consideration by a select group of Amherst citizens that have been elected by their fellow citizens for the purpose of representing them at Town Meeting. While these meetings can often be quite dry, they are an extraordinary experience in the representative Democracy that we are welcome to witness here in Amherst.

For international students, academicians and guests, this is a great time to observe an American institution that has been copied in many places across the world. Our form of government is no longer the exclusive province of the American people, but is open to all the peoples and nations of the world. For local students who grew up in New England, it is a great chance to finally delve into the form of government that many of our own towns share.

Of the 14 articles, there were two articles during this special session of Town Meeting that were more contested than the others, Article 9 and Article 14.

Article 9 made an important bylaw change that makes it much easier to open medical offices inside of professional research parks, a zoning area that previously did not allow such offices. For a professional research park, there is a desire that there be limited traffic to and from the various offices inside of the PRP. A previous bylaw change allowed for attorneys to place their offices in PRPs. This was approved with the expectation that there would be only a certain number of appointments that a lawyer can take throughout the day. With medical offices, the number of appointments taken throughout the day is much higher, and there were concerns that such a change to the bylaws would alter the character of PRP zones.

Nevertheless, supporters of the Article 9 won the day by arguing that it makes it much easier to operate small medical offices and retain good doctors right here in Amherst. The article needed a two-thirds majority and passed with 105 votes in favor to 51 against.

Article 14 was much more in the public eye due to the fact that it is national in scope. The article addressed the fact that last year President Barack Obama made a commitment to close down the detention center at the American military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The detention center currently holds many people who have been suspected of aiding and abetting terrorism, but to this day have not yet had their cases discharged in any satisfactory military or civilian court proceeding.

Article 14 made two separate requests in this regard. The first part requests that Congress repeal the ban on releasing cleared detainees into the United States, and the second part welcomes these cleared detainees into the Amherst community.

Detractors of our college town, who lovingly refer to Amherst as the “People’s Republic of Amherst,” have played this article nationally as radicals voting to give terrorists safe haven in Amherst. However, local residents on both sides of the issue did not see it this way.

Opponents of the article, including chair of the Amherst Select Board Stephanie O’Keeffe, did not argue against the merits of article, but primarily on the scope of Town Meeting to take policy positions on issues of American national security. While it has been a tradition in certain towns to pass articles on national issues, generally they are viewed dismissively by their opponents throughout the nation. O’Keeffe was also concerned about the reputation of the town and the ability of our local colleges.

The argument that won the day was exemplified by the sentiments of Select Board members Gerry Weiss and Diana Stein. Weiss delivered the report of the Select Board, who had earlier voted 2-1 to endorse the article, with passion and conviction. He invoked the situation during World War II of Jewish refugees from Germany being denied entry into Cuba, and eventually being sent back to Europe where many were later killed. Since many of the Guantanamo terror suspects are not trusted in their home countries, there is fear that many may meet a similar end. Other supporters of the article, including Selectwoman Diana Stein, were strong in asserting that the article only applies to Guantanamo detainees that have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Both parts of Article 14, the last article of last week’s special session of Town Meeting, were both passed by a voice vote. Supporters left the meeting with grins on their faces. Stein said that she is “so happy to be living in the People’s Republic of Amherst.” No matter what our individual position may be on particular issues, we have to be glad that we have the amazing form of government that we do in Amherst, and even opponents have to smile knowing that we reside in such an interesting and marvelous college town like Amherst.

Eric Magazu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]