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?