Amherst three years ago was seen as a big victory in the fight for smaller government.
That’s why downsizing activist Kevin Gaughan is steamed that the region’s largest town is now having second thoughts about shrinking its Town Board.
“I never saw more support for government downsizing than I did in Amherst,” Gaughan said. “For politicians in the largest and one of the most important towns to try and reverse history is disappointing.”
By a more than 2-to-1 margin, Amherst voters in 2010 voted to abolish two seats from the board, which was one of the few remaining seven-member bodies in the state.
One of the seats was trimmed when then-Council Member Barry A. Weinstein was elected supervisor, and the final one was set to be abolished this year.
But Amherst leaders, citing everything from the size of the town to the workload of each council member, have now set a public vote on whether to keep the board at six members.
“This is a big town, and there’s a lot of work to do,” Weinstein said. “We want to make sure the taxpayers have a board size that meets their need.”
Also behind the new vote are concerns that the board – if it shrinks to five members – would eventually be reduced to three.
State law allows for citizens to force by petition a downsizing vote, but only if the board is originally at five members. And despite the occasional tie vote with six members, three is a number the board doesn’t want to get to.
“It would be impossible,” Weinstein said of the workload.
Council Member Guy R. Marlette said the town has reduced taxes, consolidated departments and made the town more efficient even with six members.
“Maybe, just maybe, they’re quite happy with the size of six,” Marlette said of Amherst residents.
“I don’t think anybody expected a six-member board to be as productive and efficient as it has been,” added Council Member Steven D. Sanders.
To Gaughan, the about-face from many of the same board members who called for the original downsizing vote is pure hypocrisy.
“This is a referendum no Amherst voters asked for,” he said, “and it’s entirely politician-initiated.”
Council Member Mark A. Manna – the board’s lone Democrat – was once an ardent opponent of downsizing but now supports the move to trim another board seat.
“The people have spoken,” he said. “Let’s finish the job we told the residents we’d do.”
Gaughan has challenged each board member to debate the issue in public – an idea that is not getting much traction at Town Hall.
Sanders said he would be open to the idea, while Weinstein and Marlette say it’s not likely to happen.
“I think he’s overreacting,” Weinstein said of Gaughan. “I think he’s taking it too personally.”
Voters will decide whether to keep the board at six members June 11. If they reject the idea, one seat will be abolished from the Town Board later this year.
Gaughan said he will soon canvass town neighborhoods along with Amherst residents who are part of his grassroots organization.
And despite the criticism, the civic activist remains undeterred.
“I look forward to speaking with the residents of Amherst,” he said, “and explaining how their politicians are attempting to reverse their reform.”