City Council and the Charter Commission

The Charter Commission has been meeting since January of this year to craft a revised charter for the city.  This document is the local version of our constitution as it is the document that sets the way the government of the city operates.

The Commission has voted to reduce the size of the City Council (late the Board of Aldermen)  to thirteen from the present twenty four.  This is an action that has long been sought by the League of Women Voters in Newton.  There is a history of two non-binding resolutions passed by the voters that would have reduced the size of the Board of Aldermen – which is now called the City Council. No action was taken as a result either of these votes. The League finally decided to go for a revision of the charter (which was most recently changed in 1972) and put that question on the ballot last fall, along with an endorsement of nine individuals out of a total of about twenty who ran for membership of the commission. The voters approved a commission and elected all nine of the League’s candidates.

Accordingly it is not a big surprise that the Commission has voted unanimously to reduce the size of the Council and also to remove the ward councilors.

Newton has an unusual system of city councilors. There is a total of twenty four. The city has eight wards.  There are eight “ward councilors,” one from each ward, who are elected only by the residents of the ward in which they reside. There are sixteen at large councilors but only two from each ward.  They are called at-large because they are voted by the entire city. The voting is a bit strange because the two at-large seats are voted together in the sense that it is not a one-on-one election. There is a maximum of four candidates for the two positions. The votes are tallied together and the two highest vote getters are elected.  This system makes it very difficult for a challenger to get elected. It did happen last fall when Jacob Auchincloss defeated Macie Johnson.

The revision by the Charter Commission establishes thirteen councilors of whom there must be one from each ward, elected at large, and five may come from any ward, also elected at large.  Accordingly there will no longer be what we now know as ward councilors.

The Commission voted this change in what is called by chair Josh Krintzman a “straw vote.” Upon pressing him for an explanation he explained that this terminology is used because at some time in the future the commission will vote on the entire new charter and it is possible, in principle, to change this or other matters that have been voted, all by straw vote.

The change in the size of the board was debated in a Point-Counterpoint column in the Sunday Globe about a month ago.  Josh Krintzman wrote the Pro column and Ward Councilor Brian Yates the Against.

The principal arguments in favor of the reduction are:

  • Twenty four is too many
  • The Council should have an odd number
  • Meetings take too long when every member wishes to speak
  • Other cities in the Commonwealth have smaller boards

 

The arguments against reduction are:

  • The system is working and is not “broken” so it doesn’t need to be fixed
  • The Ward Councilors are the ones most interested in the issues directly affecting residents
  • The smaller Council put more power into fewer hands
  • The proposed charter makes it possible for one ward to dominate the Council because there is no requirement of wider distribution of the five at-large seats

 

MY OPINION

The matter of reduction of the City Council and removal of the Ward Councilors is likely to be the most, if not the only, contentious issue when the revised charter is placed before the voters in November 2017.  This city’s voters, unfortunately, have a poor record of attendance at the polls.  The election of 2015 drew only twenty percent of registered voters.  Worse, very few voters are really informed about city elections in general and about the details of city government in particular.

The arguments in favor of reduction do not stand up to scrutiny.

  1. The length of meetings is rarely an issue. Meetings are under the control of the Council president. Robert’s rules, under which the Council operates, specifically provide for limitation of debate by the chair. If the duration of meetings is really an issue then the president merely needs to hold members to a strict limit.
  2. The agenda may be an issue. Again a limit on debate combined with a judicious choice of items can control the duration of the meeting.
  3. The comparison of size of Council with other municipalities across the state is irrelevant. Newton has operates with 24 councilors for forty years and we have had a reasonably good government. Other municipalities can do as they wish.
  4. There is an operational difference between the ward and at large councilors, no matter their job description. The ward councilor is the first one a citizen approaches with an issue affecting them. The ward councilor is more sensitive to the citizen than the at-large councilor because a given citizen (and their friends) represent a larger portion of their voter base than the at-large councilor.
  5. The argument about the need for an odd number does not make good sense. The US Senate operates with an even number. While it seems to be accomplishing very little the evenness of the number is not the reason. The chair votes only to break a tie. The same rule can be adopted by the Newton City Council.

 

While chairman Krintzman states that another vote will be taken by the Commission to adopt the entire document that will go before the voters, it is a virtual impossibility that the reduced size of the Council will be changed.

The recent divisive issue of the Austin Street parking lot development has shown how important it is to have a large City Council that is responsive to the citizens.  The close vote on the project was manipulated by the mayor in the last minute by giving the wavering aldermen an additional six “affordable” units.  While there is good reason to argue about the actual meaning of “affordable” there has been some improvement in the project as a result of this action.

Newton is under attack by developers abetted by a mayor who is determined to change the character of the entire city by his policy of encouraging large housing developments in the name of “diversity.”  The odds are stacked in the mayor’s favor by his power of appointment of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the city agencies including the Planning department.  The City Council is the only place where citizens will be able to mount effective opposition to the mayor’s plans.  Reduction of the size of the council will strengthen the mayor’s hand and weaken citizens’ power to control our city.

 

Ernest Loewenstein

July 4, 2016

 

 

 

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Lynne LeBlanc

Ernest thank you, on this 4th of July, for your terrific assessment. I know you have attended most (all?) of the CC meetings and your time an effort is greatly appreciated. I concur that the elimination of Ward Councilors will be most contentious. If the size of the Board were truly an issue, the call should have been to eliminate at-Large seats I’ve said it before and I will say it again: eliminating our most direct link to city government smacks of political and power consolidation at a time when changes in many of our city are desired by some elected – and not – officials and players.
Happy 4th!
.