Amherst experiencing an Orwellian fantasy

There is increasingly justified citizen concern in Amherst over the conduct of its Board of Oligarchs.

Of course, the official title is Board of Selectmen, but its five members are running things as if they have been conferred an indisputable and impenetrable right of rule.

Of course, that is not the case. The selectmen were elected by Amherst voters and therefore are legally and morally bound to conduct the public’s business in public.

Of course, the selectmen don’t see it that way. Even though the town is in the midst of a serious controversy, they don’t believe they have an obligation to inform the public of even the most fundamental facts of the case. If fact, the selectmen’s conduct is frighteningly Orwellian in demeanor and deed.

The case in point is Town Administrator Jim O’Mara, who apparently has become an “unperson.” The term was coined by British journalist George Orwell in his dystopian novel “1984” to describe people whose existence is expunged from the public record by a repressive regime.

O’Mara was placed on administrative leave Dec. 5, we think. It’s not exactly clear because there is no public record of that action. There are no available minutes documenting the action or indicating whether O’Mara is still being paid – something Amherst taxpayers deserve to know.

“Was there a vote on this? If so, was it 5-0, 3-2 …? When was the action taken? We have no minutes, no statements, no records … and no town administrator,” said Mark Vincent, a member of the School District Ways and Means Committee and chairman of the Amherst Citizens Association.

Sometimes, public officials withhold information out of ignorance, other times out of pure arrogance. In Amherst, the latter is the case, as a gag order has been imposed on those with knowledge of what happened and when.

Selectman George Infanti told The Telegraph he couldn’t comment not simply because it’s a personnel matter, but also because he was instructed to sign a nondisclosure agreement. He said he believes the entire Town Hall staff was asked to sign similar agreements.

Nondisclosure agreements are frequently part of negotiated legal deals that often include financial considerations.

The selectmen contend they’re precluded from making any comments because O’Mara’s purgatory is a personnel matter. That’s a self-serving canard. They could easily convey the underlying reasons for O’Mara’s current job status without violating anyone’s rights.

Instead, residents are left to speculate about what caused O’Mara to disappear. Speculation breeds mistrust. Mistrust breeds conflict. Conflict is the enemy of good government.

In two months, at Town Meeting, residents will make crucial decisions about the future of Amherst. That means selectmen are also facing the ethical imperative to be open and honest about how money is to be spent and who will be responsible for administering town government in the coming next year.

To offer anything less would insult the very notion of citizen democracy, which is the proud essence of New England town meetings.