A Sideways Glance XCVII
Published in Amherst Bulletin, Nov. 28, 2016
November 28, 2016
Proposition 5 called for building two co-located elementary schools to house Grades 2 through 6 on the Wildwood site. Wildwood and Fort River Schools would be closed and Crocker Farm School would become an early education center housing younger grades.
Full disclosure: Last month I wrote “On Question 5 the main Yes argument seems to be grab the money while we can. The arguments for No seem to have more to do with the substance of the changes in the schools and the experiences of the children. I lean toward NO but it troubles me that this will be one of the rare occasions that I would disagree with Ellen Story if I vote that way. Still wavering.” I wound up voting NO. The last Town vote I heard was 6,753 YES, 6,651 NO. A difference of 102 out of the 13,404 votes. Seventy-six hundredths of a percent. Then Town Meeting voted against the Proposition, defeating it.
Immediately there were cries of outrage that Town Meeting, a small, questionably representative body, could overturn the will of the Town as represented by the majority of the voters. Majority should rule.
But should it? Always? We certainly at present do not elect a president in this country by majority rule. And there are numerous other systems that can be recommended (tinyurl.com/lbyzj53) although we rarely hear about them. We do hear about the requirement of a 60% super majority used in the Senate and a two-thirds majority for proposal of constitutional amendments. These cases indicate that in some contexts simply one more than 50% is not enough. The matter is too important to be left to a mere simple majority.
It seems to me that requiring more than a simple majority in some contexts has merit and that we should consider this approach in Amherst. Suppose we did not require Town Meeting approval of Proposition 5 and the 50.38% of the voters had their way. Then 49.62% of the voters would have been frustrated. I call these percentages both 50%. The decision-making process would have left half the voters chortling over their magnificent victory and half bitterly complaining that so slight a difference in the vote could make so great a difference in the lives of them and their children. This is not a caring community-oriented approach to decision-making for the town. It is said that in court you do not get justice, you get a decision. Perhaps with majority rule involving a tiny majority you do not get care and concern for your neighbors, you get a decision.
Oh, and by the way, please do not argue that the group responsible for making the proposal, and any number of other groups that approved it, worked ever so hard at their jobs, and that this hard work confers merit on their product. It doesn’t. They were supposed to work hard. Kudos to them for doing so. Nevertheless, evaluation of the product should be independent of how monumental their labors were.
So what should we do? Amherst has many commissions: Agricultural; Charter; Conservation; District; Historical; Human Rights; etc. Perhaps the town should establish a commission to formulate a carefully considered improved approach to town-wide decision making. I imagine perhaps a classification of projects together with the type of majority required for passage of a proposition for a project falling into a given category. A replacement for Proposition 5 might require an eighty or ninety percent majority. The commission might inquire into alternatives to our methods of electing candidates, such as the use of rankings of the candidates.
We would want the commission to set some priorities having to do with methods that move discussions and plans toward consensus, while acknowledging that complete consensus may not be achievable. We would want genuine concern for minority opinions and compromise. We would want patience and genuine effort toward achieving projects that work for a large majority.