By Bob Rakoff
Control over the levers of government in Amherst has shifted, and it’s driving some people bananas!
Many observers have commented on the toxic nature of recent political discourse and activity in town. Is this simply obstruction for obstruction’s sake? An angry campaign for revenge by neglected groups? The result of a failure to understand and respect other points of view and seek common ground? A rejection of democracy?
All of these may well be factors that help us understand what has been going on. But I think there is a more basic explanation for the changing nature of our local political culture.
It’s all about the loss of power.
The minority of people who were able to wield power in the old Town Meeting have lost their power to set agendas, manipulate the rules, and frustrate the will of majorities. In response, they have resorted to name-calling, conspiracy-mongering, promoting citizen limits on our elected Town Council, and wielding various means of obstruction in an effort to regain that lost power and influence. Just in the last few months we have seen local officials called autocrats, claims that petition-signers were singled out for retribution by the Town Clerk, and the filing of lawsuits to override Council decisions that were approved by overwhelming majorities.
The roots of the shift in power and the quality of our political life are well known. The immediate cause, of course, was the infamous vote in Town Meeting to reject the huge state grant for a new school, despite voters’ support, and the subsequent abandonment of Town Meeting for a Town Council. But those events were merely the culmination of several decades of more fundamental change in town, moving us away from that small, relatively homogeneous, pre-1960s New England college town.
Think about what’s been behind the big changes in town in recent decades. The explosive growth of UMass, with its ever more diverse population of students and staff. The disappearance from downtown of many basic, locally owned businesses — the hardware stores, the supermarket, the clothing shops — all unable to compete with nearby malls and big box stores. The growing diversity of our local schools
and the demands placed on them by students and families from so many different backgrounds.
In all these cases, change has been driven, not by the longtime families that dominated local politics and commerce for generations, but rather by newcomers. People from all over the globe, connected to the University and the colleges, believing that government could be a force for good, espousing the liberal ideals of post-World War II America. Build new schools. Expand the library. Intervene in the market to create affordable housing. Raise taxes to pay for these efforts.
The more a minority of Town Meeting members were able to block these sorts of programs and policies, the greater the resolve of the newcomers to find a way around what they saw as knee-jerk obstruction. This led to the successful campaign to replace Town Meeting with a Town Council form of government, one less amenable to behind-the-scenes manipulation by those who had resisted change.
So what we have been seeing in the current struggles over new capital spending, the direction of the schools, density and development downtown and in neighborhoods is, at heart, the playing out of the shift in power over the levers of local government. Some people have, inevitably, taken advantage of this unsettled period of change to fight old battles, attack opponents, propose limits on our elected Town Council, and try to destroy reputations. But I think that, on the whole, this inaugural Town Council has reflected the divisions in town pretty accurately. And in contrast to Town Meeting, it has deliberated and acted largely in the way its proponents hoped: with reasonable competence, attention to detail, and the promise of accountability.