“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.