In 2016, a Charter Commission in Amherst (MA) was approved by a majority with 60% voters in favor. The commission is proposing a new form of local government with elections held with ranked choice voting (RCV). The task of the Charter Commission is to study Amherst government and recommend changes within two years.
Currently, the town is structured with a town meeting and select board, which are elected by Amherst voters. The town manager is responsible for running all the town departments and functions, except for schools, libraries and the hiring of employees. As of now, town meeting representatives meet twelve nights out of the year making decisions on money appropriation, law creation and land use zoning. This structure for local government used to be far more common, and it arguably provides a good model for citizen engagement in local policymaking. However, as towns grow and become more complex, various interests in Amherst have pushed for changing the system.
After a 16 month study, the Charter Commission recommended replacing Town Meeting with a town council, among other recommendations. Charter Commission Chairman Andy Churchill said the proposal would call for 13 town councilors, three at large and two each will become five wards instead of the current 10 precincts. Churchill wrote, “We believe the result is a set of recommendations that reflect the varied interests of our residents.” Opponents worry that the new model could make governance less representative and less effective, while introducing concerns about money in politics.
The final report from the commission must be submitted by September 29 and voters will decide whether or not to adopt the recommendations of the new charter in the spring election. On March 27, 2018 the people of Amherst will vote on the new recommendations of the charter commission. The key recommendations from this elected commision include: a 13 member town council, a town manager, town election date change, and a voting commission.
FairVote has no position on replacing Amherst’s town meeting, but we are pleased that one of the recommendations of the charter commission was to incorporate a voting commission which will form to identify how Amherst can implement RCV in their city elections and be tasked with putting that recommendation on the ballot.
RCV is promoted as a means to fairly represents the voters. In cities where RCV is used, the benefits have been restoring majority choice by allowing voters to rank their preferences, encourages more positive campaigns, and candidates have more of an incentive to engage voters which would essentially increase participation and hold candidates accountable.
If the city votes to adopt RCV, they will be the second city in the state that uses it. Cambridge has used RCV for its elections for city council and school committee for decades. The use of RCV in Cambridge has had a number of positive impacts.