Thursday, November 02, 2006

One for the ages

This time I’ll start at the end and circle back to the beginning.

Just before the meeting ended, I addressed the body for the first time ever. I would have done it sooner in the evening, but the fast and furious pace at which the previous questions were being moved was such that I could scarcely pause my rabid note-taking and put down my pen to raise my hand before we were voting again. So there I was, better late than never, but just barely.

I begin with this because what I said – or more accurately, what I was trying to say – sums up the conundrum of the entire evening for me, and explains why I voted the way I did.

This of course was the “Special Special,” where we were addressing four articles on “matters of universal import” – the genocide in Darfur, the war in Iraq, the potential for war in Iran, and impeaching Bush and Cheney.

While these sorts of “advisory articles” are a fixture of (or a cliché of, depending on your view point) Amherst Town Meeting, they still create much consternation. A significant number of people, members and non-members alike, think it is not appropriate for Town Meeting to deal with such topics. I am firmly in that camp. Among the reasons cited by people who feel as I do: they take up time that should be spent on town business, they lengthen an already-very lengthy process, the enormity of the time commitment keeps good people from serving on TM, we weren’t elected to enact foreign policy, we often lack the expertise to think or vote critically on the issues, passing such articles has no effect, etc. The list is long, and encompasses a wide range of often-divergent opinions on the subject.

So I object to such articles in concept, as noted above, and in practice. How am I supposed to vote on an article that I don’t believe even belongs before the body? If I think it is inappropriate for Town Meeting to be dealing with X, then what am I to do?

There are, as best I can tell, six options – move to dismiss, move to amend, vote yes, vote no, abstain from voting, or stay home.

Moving to dismiss is nearly perfect – and bless Peter Blier’s heart, he did exactly that, and eloquently so. More about that later. I say “nearly perfect” because if it fails (spoiler alert: it failed. Every time.) then you are still stuck needing to make another choice.

Moving to amend might work if the circumstances were such that you could somehow alter the article to make appropriate what had been inappropriate. I can’t even come up with a scenario where that could happen, so that’s not really an option.

Voting yes just rubs me entirely the wrong way. I can’t support that which I don’t even think should be here, regardless of how I, in a non-TM context, feel about the sentiments expressed by the article.

Voting no is the option I chose. I will elaborate more on that shortly.

Abstaining would seem like the best option, except that I really am a stickler for rules and procedures, and the fact is that the Town Meeting Handbook states: “Failure to vote implies acquiescence in the majority opinion.” So in this case, that would feel to me like a vote of support.

Staying home is just not an option I could choose – sorely tempted though I may be.

The problem common to these last four options is that they are all ambiguous and open to interpretation. It would be erroneous, for instance, to draw the conclusion that TM supports these advisory articles just because they all passed. It would also be erroneous to conclude that there are X-number of people on TM who think genocide in Darfur is just fine, since they voted to oppose that article. People who feel the same as I do about these articles not belonging at TM made every one of those four choices. In the absence of a clear option, each of us was left trying to determine how best to represent our sentiments and what our choice would mean.

So I chose to vote no, opting to hang the rationale for my vote not on the substance of the articles but on the procedural boilerplate preceding each one. It reads: “To see if the Town will adopt the following resolution:” Since I don’t want the town to adopt the resolution – nay, I don’t even want the town to be dealing with the resolution – a no vote felt good enough. But this is not an obvious or easy choice, and it might not even be a logical choice. I have heard persuasive arguments on all sides. To me it was the best of a bunch of bad options.

My point is that voting isn’t supposed to be like this, and yet, here we are.

Thus was the complicated and unsatisfying “reasoning” that guided my voting.

So let’s go back to the beginning of this meeting, ’cuz it was a doozy.

We got started at about 7:45. The usual procedural stuff and announcements. Reordering of tonight’s articles, to proceed as 1, 4, 3, 2. Much haggling about why we were doing this meeting now instead of the other meeting, why we’re in conflict with the final gubernatorial debate, etc. And the dullness of all that must have lulled me to sleep, because next thing I knew I was having the most bizarre dream that Select Board member Rob Kusner was wearing a t-shirt with a caricature of George Bush on it, in brazen violation of the “no electioneering/political influencing” rule that the moderator had made clear last meeting and just reiterated tonight. And then – this is where the dream got really nuts – the moderator asked to see the shirt, and Rob took it off while the moderator was ordering him not to, and then Rob, who conveniently just happened to be wearing another t-shirt underneath the Bush one, threw the offending shirt at the moderator, and pandemonium nearly ensued. Gavels were banging, Rob was being weirdly belligerent, the moderator nearly threw him out of the meeting, and it was as though they might come to blows. So then a recess is called and those two go behind the curtain and… No more spicy food for me before Town Meeting, no siree.

Actually, all that was true and it was disgraceful. I was shocked and disappointed that Rob would disrespect his office, the meeting, the moderator and the decorum of the body that way. I will assume that his interpretation of those events is not the same as mine, and if he wants to offer an explanation, I’m sure many of us would be very interested in what he has to say. But mostly, I think we would like an apology.

Moving on.

Article 1. Darfur. The petitioner speaks briefly to her motion and then brings in a gentleman who has lived in Amherst since 1994, after fleeing violence and torture in Sudan. He spoke about the horrors of the situation there and why sanctions and other non-military pressures are necessary, because militarization would harm the people and increase their suffering. Anne Awad spoke regarding the Select Board’s unanimous support for the article. Cited many problems the international community ignored in the past: this is oportunity to give our conscience some protection.

How courageous must you be, and how secure must you be in the reasoning of your argument to get up there after that poor man has described horrible suffering, and move to dismiss this article?

Pretty damned courageous and secure, I’d say.

That’s just what Peter Blier did, and that’s why I believe we should have a tickertape parade in his honor downtown, name a few streets after him and give him a free bus pass.

This was a gutsy move, and he did it with a thoughtfulness and respect that few could manage. Bravo Peter!

He described his strong belief in the sentiments of the articles, and how he agonized over making this motion, but feels strongly that such topics are not the business of Town Meeting. His reasons for dismissal: that our priority should be the town’s business, and that if we are to go beyond the warrant it should be to address local problems that linger and loom; that New England’s long history of addressing such things at TM is not analogous to now, because that used to be the way to express the town’s sentiment and relay information, but today there are many and better options; that the time commitment for TM is onerous enough and precludes participation for many; and that such actions make us feel good but have no real effect, so as individuals we should find ways that are effective instead of holding the false satisfaction of having “acted” here.

The petitioner responded. She disagrees. Thinks it is appropriate, important, effective. The line that spoke to many of us, though not as she intended it, was something like: “There are many people here who know as much about Darfur as they know about local issues.” Indeed. Someone calls the question. We have a tally vote on the motion to dismiss: 53 Yes, 83 No. Dismissal fails; back to the main motion. The question is immediately called again. Overwhelming yes vote, a couple of no votes.

Article 4 – withdrawal from Iraq. Introduced by one person, elaborated on by another. Lies and misrepresentations by the administration. So many deaths. So many casualties. So much suffering and long repercussions. Costs a ton of money. Gerry Weiss speaks to the Select Board’s 4-1 support. War is awful. Please vote to send this message.

This time Joe Bodin moved to dismiss this article, on the grounds that next week we’ll have a ballot question that is nearly identical and the results will be more representative because every voter can make their choice, not just us. The original speaker disagreed: to not vote would be to shirk our responsibility. Someone calls the question. The vote to dismiss is defeated. Mr. Bodin then moves to amend the article to ensure that the results contain a count of the vote. After some ditzing around, the question is called. The vote to amend to include the vote tally succeeds. (I voted yes to this just because. Was there a strategic or ideological way to vote here? I dunno.) Back to the now-amended main motion. Someone speaks in opposition to the article about how this vote would show weakness and that would embolden our enemy. Call the question. Tally vote on the article: 86 Yes, 20 No.

Article 3 – Iran. Two people address this jointly, a husband and wife who went to Iran in the spring as part of a peace delegation. War would be terrible for the people of the country. The people are just like us, kids just like ours. Need to establish diplomatic relations and create diplomatic solutions. Rob Kusner spoke regarding the Select Board’s unanimous vote in support of the article. War is bad. We need diplomacy. Go slowly. Learn the lessons of Iraq war and absence of diplomacy with North Korea.

Blier moved to dismiss again, saying the reasons were identical to the ones stated previously and he supports the spirit of the article but doesn’t believe this is the time or the place for it. The original speaker disagrees. The speaker who opposed withdrawal from Iraq opposes this article even more vehemently. The question gets called. The tally vote on the motion to dismiss fails, 53 Yes and 76 No. The question is called on the original motion. It passes overwhelmingly and without a tally vote.

Article 2 – Impeachment. The petitioner clarifies the less obvious points in the long “where as” list of the article, speaking to the nitty-gritty of why wire tapping laws were broken, why as commander-in-chief the President can be held responsible for torture, and how he has violated different separations of power. Anne Awad spoke for the Select Board’s unanimous vote, believing that such abuses do have local affect. Someone with an impressive background in high-level government law spoke in support. Blier moved to dismiss. It fails again. I offered my two cents about no good voting option for those like me. The question was called for the final time, and the final tally vote was 85 Yes and 29 No.

As a body, we either sent strong clear messages to the world and did our part to help effect change, or we accomplished zip. I sure think it’s the latter, but I’d love to be wrong.

Later this afternoon, (it’s almost 4 a.m. – uggh.) I’ll put up some attendance and tally vote info. Even though the muddiness of the voting leaves its interpretation highly suspect, I can’t resist looking at it.


Anonymous said...

So we demanded the President do something about Darfur and to get out of Iraq immediately and to never attack Iran (who just tested a new missile that can reach Israel) and oh yeah, by the way, we also voted to impeach him. Makes it a tad less likely for anything to get done on the first three items.

And the last time a President was distracted by impeachment he took his eye off a ruthless enemy who unleashed death and destruction previously unimagined by complacent Americans.

So it was okay for folks to infer the President lied about Iraq--but when I replayed on Monday night Anne Awad giving Town Meeting a bad figure at the May 30’th Cherry Hill discussion (with the subtle suggestion she lied) I get censored.

President Bush either lied about Iraq and should indeed be impeached; or he believed some of his advisors, who were obviously wrong.

Anne Awad either lied about Cherry Hill revenue intake “as of May 22’nd” and should be impeached; or she believed an advisor who was wrong.

When the Town Clerk read the Warrant she announced Rob’s formal name “Robert K Kusner”. I wondered for a moment what the K stood for. After his T-shirt performance, I figured it must be “Kid”.

You Know Who

Jeff Blaustein said...

First of all, some thank yous. Thank you Stephanie for staying up into the wee hours to write this articulate report and have it ready for our morning coffee. Second, thank you Peter Blier for taking the courageous steps that will undoubtedly be misunderstood by many. Thank you Harrison Gregg for sticking to your guns and requiring that, if we are going to have a Town Meeting form of government, then people involved be required to show some respect for it and for the Moderator. No comment yet on Mr. Kusner, until I figure out what the point of the show was.

I think it's fair to say the the vast majority of Amherst residents probably agree with the intent of the four articles that we dealt with last night. However, I wish that there were a way to count the votes of those us us who may have agreed with the philosophy of the articles, but disagreed with TM as a forum for them. Some of us abstained; some, like Stephanie may have voted no; many stayed home. Votes of 86 or 85 out of two-hundred-forty something TM members are not convincing. It's wrong to think that 85 or 86 TM members have a right to speak for 35,000 or so residents on anything more than town government. Those residents have a right and responsibility to speak for themselves on matters of national and international policy.

Yuri Friman said...

I was unable to attend last nights meeting. I was working for Swing the Vote and MoveOn.I could not justify letting those responsibilies go in favor of debating national or international issues that our votes will have no real effect on changing things. There is still time to get out there and try to change the course of our nation and the world. Talk to me and I'll tell you how you can be involved.

Stephanie once again thank you for your thoughtful and thorough writings on Town meeting although I'm worried for you that you should have such an awful dream about Mr. K.. Perhaps you should drink a little more coffee before the meeting so you don't dose off and have such nightmares.


Richard Morse said...

As Stephanie has demonstrated, the only way to avoid ambiguity in this situation is to explain. The neat trick in these resolutions is that they put a gun to your head as a Town Meeting member: it's a form of coercion.

So let the record show: I stayed home. And further,I had nothing better to do. But I decided I would not play the proponents' game. I make no judgement on what others did. Stephanie could not bear to stay home, and I respect that. I could not bear to vote "no" on the Darfur resolution, even though I believed it didn't belong in Town Meeting. In addition, as a private citizen, I could have voted "yes" on the Iran resolution. So Stephanie's blanket "no" would not have been ok for me.

I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the "yes" vote on the motion to dismiss and, if we have another Night of Political Self-Indulgence, I would attend and vote with that contingent.

If voters think that I have shirked my duty as a Town Meeting member, they are welcome to vote me out if and when I run again in 2009 or 2010. But I do not believe that I should speak on behalf of Precinct 7 residents on these issues.

It seems to me that one of these resolutions per year is enough to keep Amherst Town Meeting in contact with the grand New England tradition of grass roots petitioning that the proponents keep puffing about. Until they realize that, I believe that they are contributing to the slow atrophy of an institution about which they say that they care so deeply.

Rich Morse, Precinct 7

Jonathan O'Keeffe said...

From jeff blaustein's comments:
However, I wish that there were a way to count the votes of those us us who may have agreed with the philosophy of the articles, but disagreed with TM as a forum for them. Some of us abstained; some, like Stephanie may have voted no; many stayed home.

I think the votes to dismiss provided exactly this opportunity, in a way that abstention and particularly absence did not. Attendence at last night's meeting was 24 fewer than at Monday's meeting. It's probably safe to assume that the bulk of those who chose not to attend last night were opposed to TM's consideration of these issues. As it happens, 24 votes is exactly the number of additional votes that would have been required to pass the motion to dismiss Article 3.

It's quite likely that the majority of TM opposes consideration of these issues, but TM missed the opportunity to say this because of the variety of ways that people chose to express this view - in particular, remaining absent. So instead, we have the Town of Amherst going on record as supporting these issues with a vote of around 35% of its legislative body. Town Meeting's "voter turnout" last night (59.9%) was less than that of the general public in the 2000 US Presidential Election - a sad situation indeed in a town that prides itself on its political activism and citizen involvement.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Stephanie for your clear thinking, your devotion to Amherst and your ability to describe the the unimaginable.

Last night's meeting was bizarre and a new low for Amherst town government. How long, dear Lord, must we continue to be the laughing stock of Western Massachusetts?

Shame on you, Bob Kusner! It's time you grew up!

Kudos to you, Peter Blier, for your eloquent attempt to interject a note of sanity in this mad charade.

My way? I abstained until nausea got the better of me and then I left.

Anonymous said...

So is Dennis Haster (R) now the President of the United States?

Anonymous said...

Let me try to explain why I support TM considering resolutions and petitions on matters beyond the scope of town affairs. First, as a legislative body we are expected to discuss matters brought to us by town boards or citizens. As individuals we may write letters, op-ed commentaries and speeches, but it is easy to be entranced by the sound of our own voices and rare to hear opposing viewpoints. Last night we spent so much time discussing dismissal that we couldn't have a real discussion on the issues. Perhaps it is hard to imagine an opposing viewpoint on Darfur, but the other three articles might have been debated in a useful way.

Second, why should we debate such matters of national and international import? As Mr Blier acknowledges, there is a long tradition of town meetings voting on national and international matters; it is one of the reasons that I am such a committed supporter of town meetings. I do not agree with him that anything has changed to replace this conception of democracy. We can blog to our heart's content and find common cause with likeminded partisans, but a serious discussion among neighbors of issues that affect us all cannot be had in the swirl of new technologies.

Third, what has changed are the rigid divisions between domestic and international, and local and national. If Tip were alive today I suspect even he would say that all politics is global.

Lastly (and I could go on), one of the things I think I have learned from history is the high and tragic cost of staying silent in the face of injustice or incipient tyranny. Arguments like "its not our concern" or "it doesn't belong here" sound painfully familiar, and I will always choose to consider such articles seriously. So while I appreciate Peter Blier's lucid and respectful presentation of reasons for dismissal, and while I appreciate and understand Stephanie's reasoning, I also appreciate the petitioners who are refusing to stay silent.

Michael Greenebaum

Richard Morse said...

So, in essence, Mr. Greenebaum rejects a fundamental discipline of government: to draw lines. No topic, no "concern" is out of bounds. Everything is on the table.

He has stated the counterargument clearly, however. I would submit that there are premises to his very rhetorical argument that haven't been examined. (The basic argument seems to be "we've always done things this way, so why change?")

Here's one assumption that never gets examined: I'd love to be a dustspeck on one of these Town Meeting resolutions, one of these pieces of paper, after it left the Middle School Auditorium, to see just how long I would ride along, whose desk I would get buried on, before I ended up in a wastepaper basket.

Will anyone report back to Town Meeting just what happened to last night's resolutions, some of which were passed with a vote total less than a quorum? Just what makes what Town Meeting did last night something more than just talk, something that we could characterize as "action"? Or are we getting "talk" and "action" all mixed up?

Gavin Andresen said...

I'm firmly in the "Town meeting should stick to town issues" camp.

I'm barely sympathetic to the "We need to discuss these Important Issues and Make Ourselves Heard" crowd. There are a gazillion opportunities to contribute to the National Debates: talk radio, the Internet, national polls, letters to the editor...

Making a couple hundred people sit through a presentation of your pet issue at town meeting (no matter how heartfelt) is impolite.

You believe the President should do something about Darfur. I believe our government should stay the heck out of other countries (and you should support private organizations NOT run by a knucklehead like George Bush that might actually have a chance of doing some good overseas).

Town meeting isn't the right place for a debate about the role of the federal government.

Some people believe that 9/11 was a government conspiracy, and another commision should be formed to investigate further (I think they're nuts). Should they be given an opportunity to present their case (they are VERY convinced that they're right and that it's an important issue) at Town Meeting?

Anonymous said...

Good God (oops, there I go again with the Deity thing) please don’t give Mr. Weiss any ideas! He will have Town Meeting sitting thru an entire performance of “Lose Change,” amateur-hour plus one-half. Yikes

And I’m sure he will cite that one-half of the production team, Dylan Avery served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just as he used the silly statistic Wednesday night that 500 active duty military want us to withdraw from Iraq, but failed to mention the other ONE HUNDRED THIRTY NINE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED who did not sign the petition.

You Know Who

Anonymous said...

I am a little confused. One of the articles is about withdrawing from the Iraq war immediately. But, we are not at war with Iraq - in January of 2003 Town Meeting passed a warrant opposing a military attack on Iraq. So how could we be in Iraq?