Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Stand and be counted

After a one week hiatus, we’re back in action.

But first, some other business to attend to. Precinct 9 had one TM vacancy, so we 9-ers were to convene a caucus at the back of the auditorium at 7:00, and elect a new member. We had received a letter about this from the Town Clerk’s office last week. The process didn’t go quite as I had expected – I expected nominations, discussion and then voting. But apparently this was deemed an “election,” so while people could say the names of potential candidates, they could not speak about them. I voted for Robert Harris, simply because he was the next-highest vote getter from election day in April. I don’t know who won.

After the caucus, I submitted my nomination (for myself) for Town Meeting Coordinating Committee. Then I chose my seat. This time I opted for the center section, approximately two-thirds of the way back, middle of the row. This proved to be an excellent choice. Otherwise, I might never have learned that copies of the school and town budgets are now available at the superintendent’s office, and town manager’s office respectively. I thought these would be mailed to us in our second packet, but the guts of that will apparently be the second report from the finance committee. So much to learn! Many thanks to Alan Powell, who sat next to me, for sharing that info.

The meeting was called to order and we got down to business. First were various announcements and clarifications. Then the first motions were to change the order of several articles – defer 19 (zoning for drive-throughs) until after 41, because some changes have been made and the planning board needs to hold a public hearing on it before it comes to TM; defer 20 (zoning regarding dimensonal requirement for residences located over businesses) to follow 23, because the planning board wants to provide a written report, instead of reading the report to TM; and defer 22 (rezoning South East Street to prevent condos) until Monday, May 15 to allow interested parties to attend a conservation commission meeting on the subject, set for Wednesday, May 10.

I was a little concerned after all this that we would get into articles that I hadn’t prepared for yet, blog-wise (my pre-meeting analysis of 1-17 is here, and 18-22 is here.) Silly me! Just how quickly did I really expect us to get through this stuff?

So we began with article 13. This sought to establish a task force to analyze the efficiencies (or lack thereof) of the Town’s current committee structure, and make recommendations for improvements. This article originally also had a section that dealt with the Special Municipal Employee situation, but that was removed due to overlap with article 12. I had intended to learn more about this article prior to the meeting, but the week got away from me, so the discussion would have to suffice, and luckily, there was plenty of that. Alan Root, who sponsored this article, spoke to the sheer volume of Amherst committees and how they outnumber those of any other town he could find, and also outnumber those of the state and federal legislatures. He and others spoke to the lack of standards among the committees for filing agendas and minutes of meetings, which affects the ability of citizens to participate. Some people spoke to the idea of a “committee on committees,” and the challenges and benefits of setting standards, determining what committees are necessary, improving the process of recruiting and appointing members. Some felt much of this was stepping on the responsibilities of the Select Board, or that setting recording standards would require more assistance from paid staff. I was persuaded that agendas and minutes are vital elements of committee accountability, but I didn’t feel that a task force was necessary to accomplish this. (How about a letter to the committees from the Select Board informing/reminding them of this requirement? How about follow-up with those committees that aren’t complying?) But I did not feel that a task force would have the ability to determine what committees are necessary or doing good work or where efficiencies could be realized by combining committees, personnel, etc. I opposed the article, but it passed.

Because the votes were so close on this article, it required a standing vote. First, all those in favor stand, and remain standing until the designated “counters” have reported the total to the moderator, and then all those opposed stand, while they are counted and reported. This is a high-pressure situation! No wonder people tend to sit with those whose views they share – it is rather awkward to stand or not stand when those around you are doing the opposite. Even though the tally vote is kind of the most powerful, because your name is attached to your vote, it has none of the “peer pressure” of the standing vote, where you are publicly proclaiming your viewpoint. Very weird feeling, but one I would become much more familiar with as the night went on.

Article 14 sought to reaffirm a past TM vote sending a message to the state legislature that Amherst supports single-payer universal health care. The League of Women Voters sponsored this article, and Diana Stein spoke to the various horrors of our current health care system – too expensive, too much waste, not universal, problems with having coverage tied to employment. Others supported that position with stories of high costs, lack of access for many, comparisons to other countries. As I’ve noted, I have a lot of reservations about a government-based health care system, (as well as “advisory” articles to other bodies,) but I do agree that the current system is a mess and no clear alternatives exist, and so I concede that this may be the best option. I supported the article, as did all but one or two others. Some wanted a tally vote on this, despite its near-unanimous support, as a way of more forcefully backing up their vote with their names. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, because it would have taken a lot of time for no real effect.

Then we get to articles 15 – 17, all opposing genetically engineered crops in various ways. (You can read the warrant if you want the details of each article.) We probably spent an hour and a half on these. If there were 200 people in attendance, that means 300 man hours (people hours – yeah, yeah) were expended on this – all to send another “message” to the powers that be, on a topic that few in attendance were remotely qualified to truly discuss. I don’t know anything about the science or law behind this stuff, and I am inclined to oppose it. Heck, I’m a vegetarian – I don’t want weird animal genes mixed with my veggies, never mind scary chemicals and pesticides. But I am not so naïve as to think it is as simple as that. And when confronted with an entirely one-sided attack, full of scare tactics and negative ad populem triggers – agri-biz controlling the food supply, monopoly by corporate entities, Monsanto suing family farmers – then I feel manipulated, and I actually start sympathizing with the other side. Because there is another side! This was not a balanced and circumspect consideration of a vastly complicated issue – it was an impassioned appeal to reactionism and fear. Some people, bless them, spoke to the complexities of this, to the science, to the benefits. But this was not a forum that leant itself to full consideration of the topic – because, duh! – this was Amherst Town Meeting, not the World Conference of scientists, ethicists and food health and safety experts. A couple of people said they didn’t think this was an appropriate TM topic, and would oppose the articles on that ground. Select Board Member Gerry Weiss said that those who felt that way should abstain, not oppose, which I didn’t agree with at all, since it specifically says on page 3 of the Town Meeting Handbook: “Failure to vote implies acquiescence in the majority opinion.” So the bottom line is that we spent forever on an issue that I felt we weren’t qualified to consider, and the outcome of which was merely symbolic. I opposed all three articles, and all three passed.

I think two of the votes on these articles were standing votes (things got kind of complicated, with various motions to refer two of the articles to the Board of Health thrown in to the mix – we may have stood for those also.) The good thing about the standing votes is standing. The seats get pretty tight and uncomfortable after a while, so the opportunity to stand up and stretch is quite welcome.

And one of the motions to refer gave me my first – but certainly not last– voting mistake. In planning to oppose the motion to refer, I ended up first opposing the motion to call the previous question – whoops! I’ll probably mess that up a dozen more times before I get the hang of all this.

We adjourned just after 10:00. Five articles gave us four advisories to the legislature and one committee to study committees.

Just another night of taking caring of Amherst’s business.


Baer Tierkel said...

Hi Stephanie

I'm really enjoying your blog. Thanks for sharing with us in town! See you at TM.

Baer Tierkel
Precinct 4

Clare Bertrand said...

I was also confused about the idea of "abstaining" from voting and really appreciated your research from the handbook. Have you sent that to gerry Weiss. Perhaps we should all be reminded of it. Thanks for your observations. They are right on.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Thanks to both of you for stopping by and commenting!

Clare -- I have not sent the abstention note to Gerry Weiss, but I think I will. It would be unfortunate if people are taking what he said as gospel, when it does directly contradict the handbook. Thanks for the suggestion.