“The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”   George Orwell

For a city that values diversity, there was none in the Charter Commission’s unanimous straw vote to eliminate all ward councilors and reduce the total number of councilors to 13. Their unanimity produced a proposal unpopular with opinion leaders ranging from Ward Councilor Emily Norton to Tab Editor Andy Levin.  And their proposals are unlikely to achieve their goals of greater efficiency and participation in municipal government.

A month ago, on this Forum, I pointed out that Newton’s municipal turnouts were mediocre compared to other large Massachusetts cities, and that Newton had more drop-off in turnout than any of those 13 cities between our last presidential and municipal elections.  These issues concern the Charter Commission, since they say they want more participation, and since they themselves were elected by majorities in an electorate representing only 20% of registered, and 18% of eligible voters.

The Commission’s intent of boosting participation by cutting City Councilors is based on the false premise stated by Commissioner Kidwell that a “long ballot” for 24 Councilors is “not consistent” with the Commission’s “goal of encouraging participation.”   In fact, the long ballot and large numbers of aldermen were not obstacles to higher turnouts in the decades before our current charter (1951-1971).  Then, turnouts were two to three times higher than those in recent aldermanic-only elections. Our current Charter, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, greatly reduced turnouts and competition in municipal elections by extending mayoral terms to four years and separating mayoral from aldermanic (now councilor) elections by every two years.   Not only were turnouts higher, but the vast majority of at-large aldermanic elections were contested in the earlier period, in sharp contrast to recent decades.

That party competition generates turnout is one of the best-established principles in American political science.  The organization and publicity that promotes such competition reduces voters’ time and information costs, giving them more incentive to vote, even in the face of long ballots like Newton’s.  The Democratic Establishment overcame these costs in 2015 by effectively mobilizing their core supporters and cueing them to vote party-line in that ostensibly non-partisan, municipal election.   For instance, Shawn Fitzgibbons, Chair of the Newton Democratic City Committee, in a memo to Democrats just before the election, not only pointed out which candidates for Charter Commission were Democrats, but also indicated those on the NDCC.  Seemingly, this paid off, as seven of the eight top finishers for the Commission’s nine seats were members of the NDCC. The other was a former board member of the League of Women Voters and a Democrat, as was the ninth-place finisher.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, as the old saying goes.  And with Republicans representing 7.5% of Newton’s registered voters, versus 44% for the Democrats, and with the “Unenrolled” 47% lacking any coherent organization or ideology, Newton’s Democratic machine dominates Newton politics.   And in 2015, the machine elected the orthodox.

Losing were prominent members of the NDCC who were part of a slate espousing skeptical views about the Mayor’s development policies, like the Austin Street Project   ̶   a major issue in that election. Ward 2’s Democratic Committee carried the flag for the party on that issue, pushing that project as an official Friend of Austin Street.  Meanwhile the whole NDCC gave its tacit support by never publicly debating the topic. So, for now, the upshot is that the Charter Commission represents establishment Democrats leaning strongly toward the Mayor’s and developer interests, rather than the public’s.  That they would want to eliminate ward councilors, who were some of Austin Street’s most vociferous opponents, is not surprising.

This orthodoxy conflicts with the interests of rank-and-file Democrats.  That was exemplified by majorities of voters in Ward 2, the ward with the second-highest concentration of Democrats in Newton voting against their at-large, pro-Austin Street, Democratic alders, in favor of independents, and defeating one of them.   To sum up, the NDCC represented only a minority within a minority of Newton’s population last November, so it’s not surprising that this homogeneous electoral base gave rise to the Commission’s gramophone mind.

Regarding the Commission’s proposal to reduce the number of Councilors, we can see from the proposals of this smaller-sized Commission, smaller size does not guarantee the representation of diverse views and interests.  The Commission’s proposal to eliminate Ward Councilors would have similar effects.  One of the great things about local government is that it allows people from a broad spectrum of society to run for office, especially in local jurisdictions.  As Tom Kraus, chair of the Newtonville Area Council, recently stated, his wife, a former ward alderman, was unable to run at-large since she lacked name recognition and organizational resources outside of Newtonville.  Conversely, our at-large Councilors in Ward 2, Auchincloss and Albright, raised more than $27K  and $21K, respectively, for their elections, while, Ward Councilor Norton spent $5.6K.  In her previous, hotly contested election, she spent under $10K.  Both Albright and Auchincloss raised almost all of their money from outside of Newtonville, which could make them less accountable to local residents.

Next election cycle, winning a contested at-large Councilor race will probably cost more than $30K, and exclude those who are not well-heeled, well-connected, or well-known.   While it might seem that at-large Councilors would be more concerned with the interests of Newton as a whole than their ward counterparts, it’s not unlikely that the interests of those who contribute to their campaigns (as well as the interests of developers whose lawyers hold fundraisers for them) will at the very least be given strong consideration.

Conversely, in the case of my Ward Councilor, Norton has played a leading role in city-wide issues such as renaming the new City Council and advocating for Newton’s solar program by fighting for solar panels over the Main Library parking lot.  In doing so, she took an arguably broader and more independent view than local residents and groups like the often-allied Newton Villages Alliance might have preferred.  She is also frequently visible in the ward and easily accessible, with regular office hours in Newtonville.    To put it in Edmund Burke’s terms, despite her ward position, she serves well as both a trustee (representative) and a delegate.  Checks like a strong Mayor and large complement of at-large Councilors ensure that other ward councilors serve in both capacities as well.

Comparative analysis reinforces the idea that Newton should keep its ward councilors.   In 1943, Lowell introduced the first system of all at-large representation in Massachusetts, and provides the best example of what we might expect.

There, we find what critics fear most.  Despite a poor, largely immigrant, 40% minority population, representation in municipal government is completely dominated by whites living in an affluent enclave.    Were there locally elected ward representatives, minority groups would be able to elect people like themselves.  But the costs and organization needed to run for election city-wide against the political machine have proven too high.  Lowell’s example shows that all at-large representation is efficient mostly at removing less affluent populations from governing power.   Likewise, in the South “federal judges have ruled that entirely at-large voting schemes violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965” due to the burdens they place on minorities and the less affluent.[i]

American history teaches similar lessons.  A century ago, upper-middle class “Progressive” reformers and business people drastically reduced turnout in local elections, excluding large numbers of farmers and workers from representation.  They did this with reforms eliminating partisan elections, shifting representation from ward to at-large, and de-coupling municipal from national elections.[ii]

To conclude, what could the Charter Commission do, in addition to keeping ward councilors, to boost participation, accountability, and diversity of opinion?

  • Turnout could be boosted by re-coupling mayoral and councilor terms, so that their elections were held jointly every two years.  If a two-year term for mayor is not politically feasible, we could have City Councilors elected every two years, to guarantee their accountability, but in even-numbered years, when relatively high-profile Presidential and Congressional elections would bring more people to the polls.
  • The public should have recall ability to hold the mayor accountable over a four-year term.
  • Notifying the public regarding when it would be able to speak in public hearings, how much time it would be allotted, and ensuring that public time would not start late in the hearing, as Bryan Barash has proposed, would also likely boost interest and participation.

As for the dominant party, it would be wise if the Democrats would honor the spirit of non-partisanship in municipal government, and refrain from guiding voters in the partisan ways noted earlier.  As James Fallows has noted in his American Futures series for the Atlantic, regional and local governments are often more successful than national government today since they are less strait-jacketed and polarized by ideological orthodoxies and party discipline.  Party loyalty is not the key to good, non-partisan government.  Instead, as we’ve seen in the case of the Charter Commission, such guidance is more likely to lead to conformity and groupthink.

The party should also allow development and Charter issues to be debated.  And Ward Committees should not take stands that conflict with the wishes of their rank-and-file, without at least first allowing them to be debated.

[i] Ted Siefer, “Why whites control Lowell city government.”  Commonwealth (magazine): Politics, Ideas, and Civic Life in Massachusetts.  April 11, 2016.

[ii] Walter Dean Burnham, “The System of 1896: An Analysis,” in Paul Kleppner, et al., The Evolution of American Electoral Systems, Greenwood Press. (1983)

James Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State.  Beacon Press (1968), Chapter 4.

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
9 Comment threads
11 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
9 Comment authors
Shawn FitzgibbonsspfitzgibbonsJeffrey PontiffPeter Bruce Recent comment authors
newest oldest
Notify of

A big thank you to Peter Bruce for articulating so clearly and cogently what the issues are with regard to local representation, in Newton and beyond. I heartily support his critique of the Commission’s proposal to get rid of ward council members. His proposals for increasing voter turnout make a lot of sense and are backed up by historical facts he cites. I will be very distressed if the Commission does not step back and reconsider the result of its straw vote. Keep the ward councilors. If size is truly a concern, cut down on the number of councilors elected city-wide. It’s easy enough to come up with an odd number. Knowing the scope of knowledge and purview expected of them, ward candidates will have to measure up to their dual roles, as many already do and have done.

As a complete amateur about governance, I do find it hard to understand how the Commission can decide on the size and composition of a board before knowing what the scope of the board’s responsibilities and activity are to be, and in what executive climate.

Revising the charter is no easy project, and we all owe thanks to those on the Commission for putting the time in. But we don’t have to agree with their conclusions. I surely hope that further deliberation will ensue before Article 2 goes before the voters.

Bob Kavanagh
Bob Kavanagh

As Andy Levin of the Tab wrote in a recent editorial “…the Charter Commission put the cart before the horse and should have determined the City Council’s functions before settling on the size of its membership.”
I want and need a Ward Councilor whose primary focus is my ward. I will have city-wide councillors under both the current system and the commission proposal.
The LWV was also a strong advocate for reducing the size of the MA House in the 1970s.(
The result has not necessarily led to greater efficiency or honesty. 3 of the Speakers since 1974 have gone to jail. Is smaller better?

Lynne LeBlanc

Peter, you raise a number of important issues with the potential for disastrous consequences: less representation, a higher cost associated with a city-wide run, and greater likelihood of political insiders having control of offices because of (predictably) lower voter turnout.
Another issue that you so clearly articulated is why party affiliation is less important at the local level: “regional and local governments are often more successful than national government today since they are less strait-jacketed and polarized by ideological orthodoxies and party discipline. Party loyalty is not the key to good, non-partisan government.” Because our one-party City is so entrenched, we have a whole host of disenfranchised Newton voters. Consider their make up: roughly 1/3 each of D, R and U. Yet, only one elected official has a designation of something other than D after this election. There are a lot of good ideas to be had, committed people to bring in, and political bridges to be built. Ward representation is the means to true, small “d” democratic representation.

Eric Myrvaagnes
Eric Myrvaagnes

Thank you, Peter, for presenting the issue so clearly and thoroughly. For years our Ward aldermen have been available and responsive to the needs and wishes of those in our ward, while the at-large aldermen have often failed in that respect. I completely agree with nsm59m’s suggestion that if the number of councilors is to be reduced, then the reduction should take place only in at-large councilors. I am extremely disappointed that the Charter Commission put its attention on the size of the Council before defining its functions.

Emily Norton
Emily Norton

Very thoughtful piece Peter, and thank you for the kind words. I do recommend people read the Commonwealth Magazine piece Peter referenced. While Lowell has no residency requirements for their at-large seats, so that is a bit different than what is being proposed here, it does make the case that when you eliminate the local representation, you mute the voices of those with the least power. And even with the proposal by the Charter Commission there would be 5 at large seats with no residency requirement… it is not a stretch to predict they would all come from our tonier zip codes.

Jeffrey Pontiff
Jeffrey Pontiff

Great job Peter.

I agree with sentiment regarding Ward Councilors. That being said, I see the reduction in the number of councilors as an improvement. In my mind, we should have 100% ward councilors. I predict fewer elections will result in an increase the proportion of contested elections.

I don’t think participation per se is as much of problem as the lack of contested election. People who don’t normally show up are less informed than consistent voters. I really don’t want someone who is paying attention to the mayoral election and NOT the councilor elections bringing their councilor’s “cheat sheet” to election both.

Lynne LeBlanc

Jeffrey, agreed: “cheat sheets” are the bane of Newton elections and what makes incumbency so difficult to run against. So many do not know how to vote so they look at the sheets, see one or two names they know, and vote for everyone else without a clue to consequence. Or, alternatively, they ask neighbors who to vote for (I know, I did both when I first moved to Newton). What I find fascinating is it seems OK to ask whom to vote for in a local election but who could ever imagine doing the same in a national election?
So the cheat sheets mean people have not a clue. And you have a great idea: 100% Ward candidates could be the best way to go. Ward Councilors, as I noted in another blog, are the only Councilors residents actually know and keep track of. To get rid of them? What, oh, what are the CC members thinking?!

Shawn Fitzgibbons
Shawn Fitzgibbons


Thanks for your commentary. As I mentioned to you by phone after the March 1 Primary, congratulations on being elected a member of the NDCC. We’re a group that is open to all committed Democrats and look forward to your participation. Our next meeting is next Thursday, 7:30 pm at Newton City Hall room 211 if you are interested in stopping by and meeting the NDCC executive committee.


Tom Sheff

Peter, fantastic commentary. Good luck in trying to turn the NDCC around. I got so frustrated with them I left the party. I hope that doesn’t happen to you. While I agree with much of what you said, I do believe that it was an important step to cut the size of the board. We talk about democracy all the time. We say people’s voices should be heard, but when we don’t like what the people say, many people (including the board of councilors) ignore the WILL of the people. There was a vote to cut the size of the board 2 different times. In both times, the people responded with a clear mandate to make the cut by roughly 2:1 vote. In political terms that’s not even a close vote. The city decided to ignore the outcome. The Board could have made the changes themselves. In other words, it’s the Board that forced us to have a charter commission. There will be some people who will say that the people don’t know what they were voting on. That may or may not be true, but that’s true in every election. Matter of fact, I say that on every election I lose :). I’ve been involved with this issue for almost 15 years and many councilors promised they would make the change through home rule petition and if that happened there probably wouldn’t have had the need for a charter commission. No change came from the Board, so people took… Read more »

Tom Sheff

Hi Peter,
I didn’t get back to Newton until December, 2001, so I didn’t participate in the two elections. The first happened in 1996 and the second in 2000. They were both b a 2:1 margin. Mayor Cohen wasn’t compelled to do anything, because he put them on the ballot as non-binding. He could listen to the voters or not, but in my mind the voters spoke loud and clear. It is common knowledge that this occurred, as I said earlier, I wasn’t in the city at the time, but the vote did occur twice. You can go the league of women voters website and they should have something on it.
In 2000, a non-binding resolution was passed by Newton voters by a 2-1 margin, calling for a reduction in the size of the BOA.

Tom Sheff

I didn’t properly cut and paste the lwv site. Here it is again:
In 2000,a non-binding resolution was passed by Newton voters by a 2-1 margin, calling for a reduction in the size of the BOA.