Sunday, May 28, 2006

In my humble opinion

So Town Meeting is wading through a budget that has been painstakingly crafted over many months and countless hours, countless meetings of every relevant department and committee, countless agonizing compromises and calculations, all to balance a $4.7 million deficit. Through the diligent work of the Town Manager (actual and interim,) the Finance Committee, the School Committee, the Library Board of Trustees and the Select Board, we have before us a balanced budget recommendation with near unanimous support, excepting a few very small differences recommended by the Select Board majority and minority.

Let me emphasize again how much time and effort and big-picture balancing, cooperation, compromise and painful cutting created this budget recommendation. Lots. Get it? A ton.

So at Town Meeting, our job should be simple. Learn as much as we can or care to about this resulting budget recommendation, ask good questions to further our understanding, appreciate the heck out of all the work that went into its creation, and then pass the damn thing.

Instead, we’re getting ad hoc policy and spending recommendations from the floor: I think we should do this. I don’t like this – why don’t we do this? Why do we do this anyway, when we should be doing this?

Umm, a little late, folks.

To me, the idea of 200-ish people weighing in on different ways to distribute our spending at this point in the process is frankly nuts. Could we as individuals or as a body have a better sense of all the contingent factors of each allotment than the Finance Committee? Do our personal opinions take into account all the future financial and community effects? Do we think that we have more information or better judgment than the Finance Committee?

Of course not.

Those who want to influence the town’s spending priorities in different ways need to make themselves part of the budget process very early on. Get all your information together (because an opinion is not the same as information.) Talk to the experts. Go to the meetings. Spend the spring making your case. That is how to effect change in the budget. If the change you are sure we need is important enough, then it is worth the time and effort that will take. The budget is not created in a cavalier seat-of-the-pants fashion, nor should it be altered that way.

This really gets to the heart of my philosophy about committee recommendations. Basically, I tend to trust them. I believe that the Finance Committee has the most expertise about the town’s finances. I believe the Planning Board to be the most expert entity in dealing with the town’s planning/zoning situation. I believe no one knows more about the realities and needs of our schools than the School Committee. And who better than the Shade Tree Committee . . . nah, I won’t go into that one again.

“We’re not just a rubber stamp of approval!” is the cry echoing from every corner.

To that I say: Why not?

Unless you doubt their facts, their competence, their process, their motives or their integrity, then why would you doubt their conclusions?

The point of all of these entities is the specialization enabled by division of labor. Their purview is complex, and they become the experts in their areas so that the rest of us don’t have to. And there is vast opportunity for each of us to weigh in with our personal questions, concerns and ideas as part of the long and deliberative process that precedes and informs the recommendations that are ultimately made to Town Meeting.

And as a Town Meeting member, if you really can’t agree with a recommendation, you can always vote to oppose it. That makes much more sense than trying to alter it in some complicated way that disrespects both the committee process in bringing the recommendation, and the Town Meeting members’ process of making diligent and informed voting decisions.

I am, of course, brand new at this. I may be too na├»ve or idealistic in my view of how “the system” works. Perhaps being heard and effecting change are less possible than I believe. Fair enough – I concede that point. However, as a new TM-er, trying my best to make good and educated voting choices, I can say without hesitation that I can not and will not vote for a complex and significant alteration of a recommendation that has only been presented mid-discussion, giving me no time to consider, study or prepare. If your recommendation can stand up to scrutiny, please give me plenty of time to scrutinize it – not minutes – days, better yet, weeks. It is not that I think that the committees are automatically right, but in my eyes, you as the “opposer” bear the burden of proof. And if you can do that, I welcome it, and in fact, I thank you.

Just my opinion, of course.


Anonymous said...


How did you get a real sense of the process so quickly? It's wonderful.

Unfortunately, the few -- but hardly small -- differences between the FC and the SB recommendations this year make it harder than usual to "just pass the damn thing" -- there being two diverging "the's". But in principle, I agree emphatically with what you say. Thank you.

andyc said...

Hi Stephanie,
You should publish this as a column in the Bulletin.

Marcy S. said...

Hi Stephanie,

Love your blog and find myself sharing many of your perspectives on town governance. I too am a charter supporter turned TMer. I was elected with one write in vote (my own) after getting to the polls and realizing how under represented my precinct was at risk of being in our "representative" form of government. It's been an education. I have followed past sessions on ACTV, and pretty much new what I was getting in for, but I must say that I had been hoping for more of a shift in membership in the direction of greater support for the work of committees and towards what seems (at least to me) like the town's obvious need to increase the revenue side of the budget. It's been disappointing that neither of these hopes are being realized. The jury is still out as to whether I enjoyed TM more as a spectator sport or a participatory one. But I do still feel that the Town has outgrown the Meeting form of government.

The amounts of money we have been tinkering with in these amendments to the budget are such a small percentage of what the overall appropriation is going to be that it seems, at times, to be much ado about nothing. In the process of all this tweaking, I'm afraid we're losing sight of the big picture needs and issues of our town.

In response to your question on committees, "Unless you doubt their facts, their competence, their process, their motives or their integrity, then why would you doubt their conclusions?", I think the answer lies in some fundamental disagreements about policy. It seems to me that town meeting is quite factionalized along some basic policy dimensions. I would much rather see those policy differences hammered out in a larger political arena where all the residents of Amherst could weigh in, and not just a few of us.

In the meantime, I'm finding your commentary both entertaining and enlightening and agree with Andy C. that you should consider publishing in the Bulletin. Your insights deserve a wider audience.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Thanks to all for the compliments. After three mentions of the blog in the Bulletin (counting my pre-election TM statement) I think everyone who might be interested in "the world according to Stephanie" has found their way here. No need to further inflict my rantings and ravings on them.

Marcy -- good for you for writing yourself in. I think that the more people involved in this process, the better. All of the new people taking part, the new viewpoints and perspectives they/we bring, has made me really optimistic. New TM-ers, the beginning of a master plan -- Amherst is moving forward, despite all the stonewalling by the status-quoers.

Thanks for commenting!


Gavin Andresen said...

I have a nutso, utterly radical proposal.

Lets give control over budget decisions to the taxpayers.

Have town meeting decide what budget items there aught to be (plowing streets, golf courses, charity), and then leave it up to each individual taxpayer to decide how their tax money is spent, OR allow them to delegate their decision back to town meeting (which I bet a lot of people would do).

I'm sure the scan-o-matic machines used for voting could be used to tally up all of the "Please spend 20% of my property taxes on schools, etc...".

We could even make people's decisions a matter of public record, so we could shame our neighbors into making good decisions if we wanted ("You spent all of your money on the GOLF COURSE? Are you NUTS?"), and make sure that nobody cooked the numbers to fund their favorite pet project.

I'd be a whole lot happier paying my taxes if I got to control what they were spent on... (if the federal government did this, I'd REALLY like to vote with my wallet NOT to fund the war in Iraq).