Charter Commission Adrift

Top of the day to all,

The breaking news in Newton is that the League of Women Voters sponsored Charter Commission has unanimously voted to ask Newton voters to abolish the position of Ward Councilor (formerly Ward Alderman) and create a new City Council of 8 Councilors at Large with a residency requirement, one from each ward, and 5 Councilors at Large.  The lucky 13.

Such a proposal has all the markings of an elite, philosophically Republican, proposal to remove the electorate another step away from the legislative members of government by eliminating the Councilor position most responsive to local concerns.

I can’t wait to hear the arguments in favor.  I’ll bet efficiency is at the top of the list.  Efficiency is not a hallmark of democracy.  Historically, Dictators run the most efficient governments.

I guess that comparison to other cities will also be at the top of the list.  I didn’t move to Newton so I could live in City that struggled to upgrade its government so it could favorably compare to Somerville.

It could be that the League’s long term goal is to overburden the Councilors with constituent and legislative work so they can be reclassified to full time Councilor, with an office, staff and a living wage salary.  Full time legislators are a league favorite.

Those white gloved, hatted, League Ladies of yesteryear will rejoice in their heaven at the thought that the Newton Legislature may be returned to responsible people who understand what is best for our City.

The political problem is that there is no one to address ward problems and issues.  The fact that a Councilor at Large lives in a particular Ward does not mean that her support and her votes come from that Ward.  In a great many cities Councilors at Large, without residency requirements, tend to come from a particular area, ward or neighborhood.

Those with experience in elective politics will agree that Ward Councilors can be most difficult to deal with.  However, they also say, if you want something accomplished in your neighborhood the first person you ask for help is your Ward Councilor.

Some say the concept of local representation in government is one of the basic concepts of American Democracy.  From Congress on down, the requirement that the smaller blocks of voters, whether States, House of Representative Districts or Municipal Wards, must have representation has been a continuing condition in all of our government organizing documents.

Your thoughts?

Peter F. Harrington

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17 Comments on "Charter Commission Adrift"

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Miles Fidelman

Peter, I agree completely. If it’s that important to reduce the size of the Board, let’s go to all Ward Aldermen (actually, let’s do that anyway).

arthur jackson

It’s easy to criticize the size of the city council when you are not invested in the city of Newton since it seems from afar that there are a lot officials for one small city.

However, if you are ever actually involved in a complicated Newton issue, you learn to appreciate the fact there are actually council members who live in your neighborhood and who can directly relate to the problem. And those same council members then have the power to represent your interests and vote on government actions.

For a small city, Newton has many complicated issues and if we have a large group of councilors from all areas of the city, it is more likely will get a result that is good for the city as a whole.

Tom Davis

It’s almost as if the CC forgot that Newton has evolved into one of the best communities in the United States with our current structure. Thus far, I’m deeply concerned by what I’m seeing from this group.

Lynne LeBlanc

Good point, Tom. And while many complain about the size of the Board, it is exactly the portion the CC wants to eliminate that allows many residents access and a voice in this complicated city.

Susan Huffman

I too am deeply concerned/disturbed by the actions so far of this group. Ward Councilors are definitely worth keeping. I believe we need 24 – at a minimum. It’s way too easy for a small group to run roughshod over the whole community. And it’s harder to get a majority of them on a particular side of an issue. I certainly do not want to go the way of Boston whose City Council just automatically does whatever the Mayor wants. I do not want that much power invested in so few people. I hope this group will change their minds, or else I will have to vote no on the whole proposal – on this one issue alone.

Sallee Lipshutz

Peter, it’s interesting that you address the fundamental problems that the Charter Commission has stated as important, but has seemed to neglect: What is the best mechanism 1) to get more voters to the poles, 2) to provide those voters with a more intelligible ballot and 3) to produce more contested races? How changing Ward Councilors to Ward Councilors at-large produces the results the Commissioners has deemed important is definitely not clear. As you said, they are dumbing down the ballot by reducing the size of the Council, but this move does not achieve the other two of their stated goals and dumbing down doesn’t get more voters to vote. Even on our Sister Blog, Village 14, every time I have challenged the writers to speak to voter motivation and education, it has fallen on deaf ears. The CC should be addressing that issue as its highest and best priority. The argument for moving Ward Councilors to at-large Ward Councilors has been made that only 500 voters could elect Ward Councilors when voted on only by voters in a specific Ward. If you extrapolate that reasoning, 4000 voters in eight Wards (8 times 500) could elect at-large Councilors (either at-large with or without a Ward residency requirement). That is still a paltry fraction of the total 57,700 voters who were registered to vote in 2012 and hardly a mandate for any legislative program that might be imposed on a targeted Ward of the City.

Lynne LeBlanc

Thanks for this assessment, Peter. Your words of wisdom “Efficiency is not a hallmark of democracy” should be carved into the pediment of City Hall. And it is astounding that the very body that is the most democratic (Ward Councilors) is the one the CC has named as unworthy and vestigial.

John Koot

Great post, Peter! I agree completely with the points you make. I think most of us would agree that the size of Newton’s population would make a town-meeting-style of government cumbersome—if Newton were still a town—but 24 councilors is certainly not too many given the complex and thorny issues that continually crop up, usually involving land use, density, traffic, transportation, and schools. Newton’s village structure makes it unique among cities I have lived in and helps it preserve the small-town character that many of us treasure. There is no single downtown and therefore no area suitable for dense urban development. It therefore makes little sense to talk, as some have, of the need for councilors more wedded to a view of the “city as a whole.” That way lies more “streamlining,” “efficiency,” centralization, and consolidation, with an accompanying eliding of the differences that give our villages their distinctiveness. Rather than eliminate the ward councilors, I would, if anything, suggest changing the proportion to two ward councilors and one at-large from each ward. All politics is local, and many people in Newton appreciate the fact that they can bring their concerns to a ward councilor who is familiar with their neighborhood and whose responsiveness is heightened because the councilor knows that he or she will need those neighborhood votes to continue in office.

Elaine Rush Arruda

I agree 100% and actually wrote a blog about it, but you were quicker to post, Peter! Another concern about removing Ward Councilors that hasn’t yet been mentioned is that running for an at-large seat is a much more expensive campaign, thereby favoring rich candidates, those with rich donors (e.g. developers and their lawyers), and those politically connected. I have yet to hear a good reason, with examples, of why a smaller City Council will be better for Newton and what problem it is solving.

I am appalled that the Charter Commission is recommending this change and will absolutely vote against it. I believe that the Commission went into this process with a pre-determined outcome that they would recommend reducing the size of the City Council. As a matter of fact, at one of their earlier meetings, one member commented about a timeframe for next charter review stating “the new city council structure will be in place by then.” This was well before the size of the council was even on the agenda or any public input had been taken. Appalled appalled appalled!

Sallee Lipshutz

Peter…your Somerville remark and your allusion to dead hatted LeagueLadies of yore has gotten a lot of negative attention on Village 14 as snarky…To me, you sound angry at the cc’s actions. I respect that (and agree with you). Maybe some of those critics will speak politely here and ask you what has gotten you so angry. As I mentioned onV14, I think of the League as the voice of a progressive branch of a one-party Democratic City. I’m all for removijg bias. Does your assessment of the League cancel out mine? I am truly confused!

Kathleen Kouril Grieser

I like the fact that Chris Pitts set up this blog as a place for polite, civilized discussion of all things Newton. Peter’s reference to the long-departed, hatted League ladies of yesteryear was a bit edgy for this venue. It’s necessary to point out how one disagrees with the League members of then, and now, but somehow mentioning their hats makes it feel kind of personal. It’s not the people espousing certain policies that are bad; it’s the policies that are bad. Another thing that confuses me, Peter, is your characterization of the League and the Charter Commission’s preference for eliminating the ward councilors (though hopefully not in the way implied by the amusing photo at left) as “Republican”. I am a life-long Democrat, but to my mind, most of the problems we have with local government In Newton have to do with the fact that we are virtually a one-party city. It’s Democrats – in the League, on the Charter Commission, and perhaps even in the NDCC – who are pushing for these anti-democratic changes to our city charter. If we had a few more Republicans (or members or other parties) in our local government, the ruling insider group might not have such a stranglehold on power. A healthy democracy has room for different points of view. In fact, it depends on them.

Janet Sterman

FUNNY PHOTO! It says a lot.
I agree with Peter Harrington. The value of Ward Councilors is immeasurable and vital to keeping a genuine local voice in Newton’s legislative process. It is almost impossible to unseat an incumbent at-large representative, and statistically easier to win a state representative seat (11th and 12th Middlesex Districts) in Newton.
Waltham has 9 Ward Councilors and 6 at-large councilors, where Somerville has 7 Ward aldermen and 4 at-large aldermen. Both run every two years. Don’t have to look very far from Newton for a good example. In both of these cities, alderman.city councilor is a part-time job.

Sallee Lipshutz

Greg Reibman on Village 14 has started a thread saying that, as editor of the Tab long ago, he almost made a poor choice of illustration “art” regarding Ken Parker’s Aldermanic candidacy. Glad that he had restrained himself, he cautioned against NewtonForum’s choice of gun sights on the faces of our Ward Councilors as ill- advised. I hadn’t noticed it before, but think in this nutty day, not out of political correctness, but out of an abundance of caution and genuine politeness, we should find a better illustration for some very excellent arguments that might get lost in the picture controversy.!
I must add, however, that what I found funny in this picture (and I think it really is very funny) is that John Rice, MY WARD ALDERMAN, isn’t pictured there!!!!!!!!

Most likely John Rice was taking the picture given how hard he works! You’re right again Sallee, I changed the photo so as not to distract from the important issues being discussed here. Thanks for your good advice.