UMass Democrats host debate on updates to Amherst town charter

Vote No on Charter Change and Amherst for All debated the proposed changes

Elizabeth Polvere/Daily Collegian)

Elizabeth Polvere/Daily Collegian)

By Will Mallas

The University of Massachusetts Democrats hosted a public debate on Wednesday over the proposed changes to the Amherst town charter; the debate was between two local political activist groups, Vote No on Charter Change and Amherst for All.

The debate, run by UMass Democrats president Sonia Guglani and vice president Jack Eccles, began with opening statements from members of each side, followed by questions from Guglani and from the over 50-member audience, concluding with closing statements from each side.

Vote No on Charter Change, represented by Carol Gray, a political science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, and Saul Shanabrook, a recent UMass graduate in computer science, argued that keeping a town meeting style of local government allows for greater opportunities for Amherst citizens to become involved in local politics.

“Town meeting is important because it gives anyone in Amherst a chance to learn how the government works and a chance to be a part of it.” said Shanabrook during the opening statements. “Any time you reduce the number of representatives, like we are here from 240 to 13, then you are just, by definition, going to have less people involved in Amherst politics.”

In contrast, Amherst for All, the side supportive of the updated charter, argued having a large town meeting body can diminish the influence of Amherst voters on their elected officials.

Johanna Neumann, the Chair of Amherst for All, an organization fighting for an update to the town charter, said, “I feel like right now in Amherst, my voice as an everyday citizen is drowned out by 240 largely unaccountable voters, who vote their own conscience and don’t represent their constituents.”

Neumann was also joined by Mandi Jo Hanneke, the vice chair of the Charter Commission, the nine-member elected body that crafted the charter proposal.

The Amherst town charter is a legal document that determines the structure and functions of the Amherst town government. Proposed updates to the charter include reducing the 240-member town meeting and five-person board of selectmen to a 13-person town council and moving local elections from the springtime to the first Tuesday of November in odd numbered years.

The pro-charter team also cited the inclusion of rank-choice voting, semi-annual district meetings and codification of the Amherst master plan into the updated charter as additional benefits to the proposal.

In addition, the pro-charter team emphasized how a smaller local government will be beneficial to UMass students looking to be a part of the Amherst government.

Neumann said, “Sure, it’s possible for students to run for town meeting. Let’s say there are five UMass students on town meeting, that’s five out of 240. Whereas if the students actually organized, and a student ran for council and was elected, they would be one of thirteen people. It’s a much larger voice.”

On the other side, Gray emphasized the importance of keeping the current town charter to help prevent the influence of money in politics during Amherst elections.

Gray said in her closing statement, “I just want to tell you this is really important, this is probably the most important vote our town is facing this century. Do we take our grassroots democracy and do we throw it out and do we let big money take over our town?”

The vote for the proposed charter will take place on March 27. Only registered Amherst voters can vote in the election, with registration closing on March 7. Vote No on Charter Change in particular placed an importance on voter turnout.

Gray said, “If you guys vote, you can turn the election. If you stay home, we could lose something really valuable, so please vote.”

Will Mallas can be reached at [email protected]