By Nina Mankin
I grew up in Amherst. I served on Town Meeting. I own a home here, and a business. I am raising a child here. I’ve seen and experienced firsthand how our town and school officials can be dismissive of public input. I’ve experienced the rage when I feel personally disrespected by that dismissal. I experienced the awful divisions revealed through the loss of state funding for new schools and our shift away from Town Meeting toward a new council form of government. And I’ve come to believe that we, culturally, for good and bad, are driven by symbolism. This symbolism is a factor of both our specialness and, as is so often the case with specialness, our privilege.
In Amherst, we do things “on principle” and, while I am proud of our principled culture, I’ve also seen it bite us in the ass. It was our privilege to turn away $34 million on principle because half of our community didn’t like the way the School Department reconfigured our schools to solve what they, and the state, had determined to be core problems in our system. It is our privilege that has, for decades, made it so difficult for developers to build new housing and create new business opportunities in town, leaving residential taxes to carry so much of our infrastructure burden, because while our main economy is driven by students, we don’t want our aesthetics to be ruled by financial interests that take advantage of that.
It was our privilege that, years ago, resulted in our failure to adopt a “form-based” zoning overlay that would have created height and setback restrictions (and pre-empted recent aesthetic blunders) because of vocal outcry against what many saw as an attempt to throw us to the developers. If we vote against the library project, it will be our privilege to turn away $13 million in state funds to build a truly 21st century learning center, an investment that I believe aligns with our core values of equity and community. Our principled stance will then allow us to say “Take your money and we’ll spend the same amount just to fix the building as it is!” because some very vocal, very angry and principled members of our community are horrified by the symbolism of spending so much money on a new library, even if the project won’t increase our taxes and the money won’t go toward other needed projects (two of the many false rumors spread in rage over what is perceived as an unprincipled act of fiscal and cultural irresponsibility).
This driving force of symbolism (or principle; I’m still parsing the difference) can be a powerful force for good; it is also, I believe, what makes us such a difficult community to govern. Town Meeting was a symbolically beautiful institution but it met only a scant number of times a year, and during those times there was a history, that I experienced firsthand, of destroying plans and budgets our extremely qualified hired professionals had spent months and even years working on — with one raised hand, one symbolic gesture and a room full of people who felt great about doing work to advance what they (we) saw as progress.
These symbolic/principled actions had real consequences, for good and ill (depending on your perspective) like the half-percent for art vote that added sometimes many tens of thousands of dollars for art into our capital budgets, or the time we added extra funds to enable more scholarships for low-income children to participate in public programs. Unfortunately, I believe, these gestures also created a history of antagonism between those struggling daily to govern our community and the public they serve.
It’s complicated. We have a population of very smart and often very privileged (again, for good and ill) people with the time and resources to put a lot of energy into how our government runs and what it does, and a governing staff and body that I believe sees those folks largely as a threat. There’s a legacy of, dare I use the acronym, PTSD on both sides of this equation. It’s why so many people I know, myself included, would never want to run for public office in Amherst. Engaging in a battle of symbolism is necessary for change to happen (think any progressive social movement) but it is also exhausting, often thankless and sometimes deeply counterproductive.