Charter Commission Considers Removing Special Permitting Authority from City Council

The Charter Commission is reaching out to a wide range of folks with insight (or at least opinions) on possible changes to the Newton Charter. That list includes former Newton elected officials, so they invited me to testify at last Monday’s hearing. The Commission offered witnesses the opportunity to speak on any issue related to the Charter, but also sent us some suggested questions to answer, one of which caught my attention: “Zoning and planning as well as the granting of special permits are hot topics. Who should handle those responsibilities and to whom should those boards be responsible?”

This question suggests to me that they are considering removing Newton’s Special Permit Granting Authority from the City Council and giving it to an appointed body, something that I know gets brought up periodically — usually after a particularly controversial Special Permit application. So it’s no surprise that this would be a topic of discussion following the consideration of the Austin St. petition.

I told the Commission that I think this authority should reside with elected officials who are accountable to Newton voters, since whether to approve major projects affects the face of our City and constitutes important policy-making authority. Yes, I know it is called “quasi-judicial” authority, but policies can be made by setting precedent and the zoning ordinances grant broad discretion, so the decision whether to approve a permit application amounts to setting land use policy to a large extent.

I testified that I think the special permit granting authority could be taken away from the City Council, so long as it was given to another elected body, but that it should not be transferred to appointed officials. No matter how well-meaning, appointed committees and commissions are by their very nature not as responsive to Newton residents as elected officials.

What do you think? Is the current process too political or do you agree that it is important that Newton’s special permit granting authority continue to be accountable to voters?

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7 Comments on "Charter Commission Considers Removing Special Permitting Authority from City Council"

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Colleen Minaker

Elected officials should govern land use decisions.

Elaine Rush Arruda

Absolutely – special permits should be decided by an elected body! I have heard the suggestion that very small requests like a slight change to a front porch or similar could be handled by city staff or appointed group. I could understand considering that change in order to free up the elected body for larger requests but it would have to be VERY SPECIFIC as to what designates a small request.

Lynne LeBlanc

I agree: an appointment is too removed and there are enough reasons to hold someone directly responsible for decisions made.

Sallee Lipshutz

Well, Ken: it seems that you’re preaching to the Choir here! Most of us who have watched the intense negotiating of Special Permits and other land use issues would want to ensure that the decision-makers listen closely to the arguments of their constituents. Some might call this process “too political”. I would call it “more democratic”. If the elected officials value residents’ opinions because they rely on the voters for their approval for re-election, so be it! The residents, after all, live here and enjoy or suffer the consequences of the decision-makers actions and so, too, should the elected officials.

Lynne LeBlanc

A bit off topic but a comment about the process of asking mayor candidates their opinion on the Charter Commission’s review regarding executive powers. I mean no personal offence to anyone who spoke but I think it is unnecessarily prejudicial to single out mayoral hopefuls for input. It legitimizes or give a special voice to the next round of candidates in a way that seems undemocratic. I know there are many citizens who have worked long and hard in this city whose input could have been singled out. Relegating these voices to “second tier” was presumptuous. Perhaps a better way for the Commission to ask for advice or feedback would be to allow all citizens/residents for input without giving anyone elevated status. If the CC has a question, it seems counterproductive to ask only the usual suspects.

Jane Frantz

Hi Lynn,
The Charter Commission actively encourages all residents to provide input on any charter related topics. Please be assured that we listen to every voice and do not place greater importance on one person’s thoughts/opinions over another’s.

I talk to people all the time at this point about a wide spectrum of issues. Anyone who would like to let the Commission know your perspective on an issue should write to chartercommission@newtonma.gov.
Thank you.
Jane

Miles Fidelman

I’d kind of like to see a LOT more attention to the special permitting process. Starting with having a real master plan, and then making it VERY hard to approve a special permit that does not align with the master plan.

Personally, I see the involvement of the City Council as making the whole process extremely political, and biased toward well-connected developers.

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