Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Amherst’s proposed charter subverts democracy and silences the voices of the many

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(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Timothy Scalona, Collegian Columnist

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Democracy thrives on internal conflict and deliberation, a process that takes time to produce viable results. It isn’t meant to be easy because with representation comes a diversity of backgrounds and conflicting perspectives—the building blocks of change. The fewer people involved in the division of power, the easier it is to slip into authoritarianism, where the voices of the minority drown out the majority within the masked image of democracy.

This phenomenon has been observed in the federal government today, as those with political clout and monetary influence are able to attach far greater weight to their agendas while nullifying outside interference by the masses. In the aftermath of the Citizens United court case in 2010, bought politicians have become an everyday norm that threaten the foundation of democracy by furthering wealth inequality and giving power to a small group of disconnected elites.

However, this process is not one that is limited to the federal government; a symptom of our newfound reality has appeared in local politics in the town of Amherst. Through a proposed charter, registered Amherst voters will make the decision on March 27 to replace or retain their current form of government, a 240-person elected legislative body divided between 10 precincts, with a 13-member city council. This change is one rooted in ambiguity, as organizations on each side of the aisle fight for support in a polarizing debate dividing neighbors, friends and families. By vesting power in an all-powerful council, we only open democracy to the same political subversion that has long left minority groups, marginalized communities and the average person silenced.

As a low-income and previously homeless student at the University Massachusetts, I have long felt the sting of powerlessness. Politicians seem disconnected from real societal problems and the people that they are elected to represent, failing to meet the human understanding required to form solutions from their ivory towers. Their political rhetoric is mere theatrics, empty promises built on performative change. During the seven years that I lived in hotels and shelters with six younger siblings and parents, I stood passive to this masquerade in the face of everyday survival. Elected officials at every level of government seemed so distant, their lives unaffected by the reality of trauma. Affordable housing, for example, is often brought up as a goal in campaigning—but when does it truly have lasting results? Why do we have so many families and individuals struggling to pay for meals or the rent, while politicians on both sides of the political spectrum expedite the process of increasing economic disparity?

The smaller the body of government, the easier it is for special interests to govern the fate of legislation while our elected officials are bought and sold to the highest bidder. This proposed council would be no different. Representation would become a facade, as the positions would realistically only be open to those with time, money and influence. As it stands now, it costs nothing to run for a Town Meeting position—a body that has historically been an avenue for diverse perspectives. That trait would disappear at the birth of competitive elections with the proposed charter. Amherst for All, a pro-charter organization, claims that the Town Meeting lacks true representation, as “many Town Meeting members are in effect self-appointed, due to low voter turnout and a large number of seats,” and, “most Town Meeting members say they don’t see it as their job to represent the viewpoints of constituents at all—they say that simply by voting as they wish, in a large group, they represent the town.” I would argue that voter apathy is not a reason to transform the government into one of exclusivity and concentrated influence.

In addition, the idea that a smaller council would better account for representation is a fairytale; as someone from a low-income community, I have no faith in elected aristocrats to understand the gravity of problems such as homelessness, food insecurity, mass-incarceration, education and affordability. While the thirteen members may be more prevalent in the public eye, I would have no true way of knowing whether my needs were truly being represented behind their fanciful rhetoric. I have more faith in my own voice, and that of the common people within the Town Meeting body whom I could reach out to on an individual level to relay my ideas and problems, rather than the empty pleasantries of politicians only focused on the next election cycle. As Town Meeting Works, an anti-charter organization, states: “With 13 members, a two-thirds majority of only nine could change zoning and finances. Only seven members would decide all other issues, including all committee appointments.” This would give voice to a minority of individuals lacking checks and balances and could, for example, bestow undue control upon real estate developers, effectively destabilizing an already unaffordable housing crisis. Seeing this, council members could also target higher income communities within the charter proposal that would transform 10 precincts into five, reducing representation of lower income homeowners and renters.

As a student who understands the weight of poverty, I fear for the future if this charter is to pass. Students will be faced with increasingly unaffordable off-campus housing costs—a common, less costly, option for low-income students—in a system lacking accountability. I want a democracy that represents the individual, free from monetary and systemic corruption. Protecting democracy starts at the local level, and requires citizen participation– students and town residents alike. We need to guarantee that this evolving system is not compromised by the power of special interests. If we want our voices heard, we need to strike down this proposed charter and demand diversity, representation and accountability.

Timothy Scalona is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

4 Comments

4 Responses to “Amherst’s proposed charter subverts democracy and silences the voices of the many”

  1. chet thadius, bro on February 8th, 2018 11:49 pm

    what can we do besides vote down the charter? even with our current local government system there is already real estate development unwanted by any real local of amherst. umass offers great, somewhat affordable education to instate residents but it is also backed by the big corporations (i would guess coca cola, not really sure who exactly) and is inclined to make upscale, plastic, changes to our town. our town used to be a unique, progressive , small scale place that had a lot of free thinkers, not a barbie and ken construction playground.

  2. Bryan Monesson-Olson on February 12th, 2018 11:20 am

    Have you spoken to your Town Meeting Representative? Have you ever been to a Town Meeting? While you theoretically disagree, it sounds like you’ve never engaged with this body. I hope I’m wrong.

  3. Rob on February 17th, 2018 9:31 am

    An important function of government is allowing the voices of a minority – even an individual – to be heard. This is enshrined in the “right to petition” clause of the First Amendment, which can be traced back to the practice of New England town meetings. As we’re seeing now at the national level, where one faction holds a slim majority of representatives, democracy can easily devolve into “dictatorship of the majority” effectively excluding the minority from governing. That’s one of many risks posed by this proposed city charter for Amherst. Another risk is the proposed unitary structure (legislative and executive functions held by the same body – the city council) which eliminates the checks and balances that Town Meeting and the Select Board now afford Amherst. With apologies to Mr. Clemens, the rumors of a problem with Amherst Town Meeting are highly exaggerated: a rational person would be wise to vote NO on this charter.

  4. Janet McGowan on February 17th, 2018 9:50 am

    Chet and all other UMASS students–run for Town Meeting, The 3 precincts with most UMASS students often have open seats on Town Meeting. It’s too late to sign up and be on the ballot, but anyone can write in their name–and get others to also write in their name. We need more student voices in Amherst government and Town Meeting is an easy way to participate.

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