Is it possible to live simply and serenely while debating controversial issues?
On March 25, I wrote this blog post about my concern that as a candidate for an Amherst commission considering new forms of government, I was turning into a more argumentative person than I want to be. Four days later, I was elected to this “charter commission,” and since then I have participated in five meetings and a public hearing.
I’m pleased to report that the nine members of the commission are treating each other with open-mindedness and respect. I am one of six members who were endorsed by a group seeking fundamental change, and three of us were supported by a group seeking only minor adjustments to our form of government.
Under the conciliatory leadership of Chair Andy Churchill and Vice Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke, our differences have been of lesser importance as we seek feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. We recognize the seriousness of the task, and our attendance at meetings has been 100 percent. Most of us seeking major change admit that there are wonderful things about our current form of government, and most who want only minor changes acknowledge its problems.
We all know that when we get down to crafting a new form of government early next year, we will have vigorous debates. But now we are slowly building up trust, so that when those debates come, I hope we can consider ideas on their merits and with a minimum of rancor.
We’re finding some common ground. I’ve met twice with Meg Gage, a member from the “other side” who I’ve known for 30 years. Last week we took turns describing problems that we see in the current form of government. I interviewed a potential consultant with Diana Stein, another member who was endorsed by a different group. This week I’m meeting with a community leader who has a different perspective than mine.
I’ve been making a list of things that all of us might agree that we want in our local government: broad citizen participation, elections that matter, a forceful voice speaking on the town’s behalf, avoidance of big-money politics, a feeling among all constituencies that their views are represented, issue-oriented debates during campaigns, greater voter turnout, and productive, happy town employees.
I’m making another list of ways that we could broaden citizen participation, which is a strong point in our current form of government. I realized last week that if I could magically replace some of the commission members from the “other side” with new ones seeking fundamental change, I wouldn’t do it. I think it’s better to seek consensus through compromise than for a majority to ram through its wish list. After all, voters will have to approve of our ultimate recommendations.
So I’ve been planting our garden and then going to Town Hall meetings, chopping wood and then listening as citizens speak about the pros and cons of our form of government. There’s been no sacrifice of peace and serenity so far. I hope it stays that way.
To learn more about the Amherst Charter Commission, click here.
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