A former opponent of downsizing the Amherst Town Board now says a triumvirate is “inevitable” and wants residents of the county’s most populous town to vote on a referendum.
“It’s inevitable that Amherst will be a three-member board,” said Council Member Mark Manna, who five times previously has voted against downsizing. “The board should have some control over when it takes place and maintain balance over the seats that are still going to be there.”
The board previously downsized from seven members to six in 2011 and is scheduled to go to five members next year.
The board Monday will consider Manna’s call for a public referendum on whether to eliminate two more council member positions.
It’s unlikely Manna’s proposal will gain the necessary four votes (or any), since it would essentially prevent two of his Republican colleagues from being re-elected. Manna is the sole Democrat on the board.
Supervisor Barry Weinstein and other council members questioned Manna’s assertion that a three-member board is inevitable in the region’s largest town of 115,000 residents.
“Sounds to me like he’s trying to produce the inevitable,” Weinstein said. “He’s irrational. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a big town. We have a substantial liaison system where council members are expected to do a lot.”
With the board still in the process of downsizing to five members, he called Manna’s resolution “premature.”
“You have to try five before you try three,” he said.
Manna’s call resurrects a contentious and long-debated topic in Amherst.
“Either you believe in letting the people decide on reducing the size and cost of government, or you don’t,” Manna said. “And too bad if you’re the one looking down the barrel of reform.”
For Amherst residents with long memories, such comments from Manna may seem nothing short of shocking. Manna was a staunch defender of the seven-member board back when Kevin Gaughan was taking his downsizing campaign to towns and villages across the region.
Weinstein pointed out that, before he became supervisor, he introduced four resolutions as a council member in 2008 and 2009 to downsize the board from seven members to five. Manna voted against every one.
Altogether, Manna voted against five downsizing proposals in that period, railing against a “slippery slope” that would eventually see a seven-member board shrunk to three seats. He railed against downsizing as “the democratic process to march ourselves to a dictatorship.”
But less than four years later, he said he’s had a change of heart.
“I believed what I said [then], but seeing how it’s worked in other towns, and seeing what voters have overwhelmingly chosen when this issue has gone before them, you have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to realize this is what people want,” he said.
His complaints about democratic representation, workload and political gamesmanship have also dried up.
“In hindsight, I was wrong on that,” he said. “The issues of loss of representation and the amount of work are still valid, but my goal of letting the residents decide on this issue outweighs my concerns.”
Manna said his proposal is not an attempt to save his own seat. He noted that he cannot run again because of term limits, though his seat would not be at risk of elimination at the end of the year under his plan.
The proposal would eliminate two seats that have terms expiring this December. That would affect Republican Council Members Steven Sanders, Richard “Jay” Anderson and Barbara Nuchereno.
Nuchereno is the only council member who is not expected to run for re-election. She will be running for a town justice seat when Judge Mark Farrell retires at the end of the year.
“Many people have the misconception that you’re just trying to save your own job,” Nuchereno said, “but it’s really just very difficult to manage running a town with so few people. And then you’re leaving a lot of power in the hands of just a few people, too. You need a little more of an exchange of ideas.”
Sanders called the idea of downsizing to three members “a gargantuan mistake.”
“You have to not appreciate the job that your council members do to think that downsizing makes sense,” he said.
“Let the people decide,” Manna responded, repeating Gaughan’s catchphrase. “Our opinion is irrelevant.”
He also said the effectiveness of any board is not the number of people running, but the caliber of people running and their commitment to an open and transparent process.