Does size matter? Opinions on the Charter Commission’s recommendation for City Council

One of the items slated for discussion by the Charter Commission is the size of the City Council. Recommendations regarding ward vs. at large, potential term limits and staggered elections are also on the table, which will be covered in future posts here on NewtonForum. For now, let’s talk size. I have heard that the impetus for the Charter Commission review was to reduce the size of the city council. However, I have not heard any examples of why our current size is bad. I have attended three Charter Commission meetings/hearings and heard “other cities and towns our size have smaller city councils.” That is not a good enough reason for me to believe the size needs reduction. It reminds me of “all the other kids are jumping off the bridge, so I should, too” mentality. I heard “some people in Newton don’t even know how many councilors there are.” So, making the council smaller will change this? I think not. I heard, “24 city councilors is inefficient.” In what way? I have attended at least one hundred city council committee meetings over the last two years, and the only inefficiencies I have witnessed are by councilors who are not skilled in running a meeting. It is not the quantity but the quality of city councilors that matters.

I can tell you what is good about 24 city councilors: I believe that more city councilors means more resident representation, and a broad range of opinions represented in decision making. I believe that the amount of work done by the city councilors is immense, and the ability to break into multiple sub committees enables this work to get done.

The Charter Commission will be discussing this “Legislative Branch” of our city government on April 13 & 27, and there will be a public hearing on March 30. It is important that residents share their views with the Charter Commission in order for this to be a democratic process. Do you think the size of Newton’s City Council should change, and why?

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Jack Priorneal FleisherLisa DiFeliceLynne LeBlancKen Parker Recent comment authors
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If Councilors like Emily Norton, John Rice, Brian Yates, Jim Cote, and several others are good indicators of how much work you get for 10K a year, I would say this is one of the best return on investments the city has. In spite of similarities, no city is a corporation and making decisions based on shareholder or officer profits leads to situations like Flint, MI. A democratic institution needs to be responsive and in touch with the citizenry. To that end, I believe each ward would benefit from 4 councilors rather than 3 by adding another Ward councilor. It is not the amount of people that make government run poorly, it is the quality and integrity of the people we elect and the influence special interests can impose.

Julia Malakie

Okay, hands up (sorry, strike that), anyone else appreciate the double-entendre in this headline? But seriously, on the question of number, I have always been skeptical of the idea of reducing the number, ever since it was floated a decade or two ago (or maybe both). I appreciate having multiple views and more of the work, especially on land use decisions, done by people who are at least theoretically accountable to the voters. We’ve seen how appointed JAPGs (Joint Area Planning Groups) have been biased toward getting rid of public property. I suspect the Austin Street proposal would have gone through as originally proposed, without the improvements (such as they were) and additional affordable units, had it required approval by only staff and appointees. And I really don’t buy the argument about people not knowing who their city councilors are because there are so many. There are about 24 people on a major league baseball roster. If you care about your team, you can probably name all of them. And if you don’t care about city government, you probably won’t be able to name nine or 11 or 15 either. How many people can’t name the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices? How many can’t name any? If we really want to have people have fewer names to vote for, make them all ward councilors, or make two out of three ward councilors instead of one out of three. That might also encourage more candidates to run, because the logistics and… Read more »

Colleen Minaker

I come from a city where strong local government does not exist. I have always believed that Newton does not need 24 councilors. However I think our school committee is weak with 8 members. With so many difficult problems to solve presently I support a strong city council. However I don’t believe the actual number is the key factor. Rather who are the best councilors to lead the city? I have little confidence in the electorate as too many voters know little about critical issues. If the city council is smaller, who stays and who goes? A smaller less diverse group could have a very destructive influence on our future and lead to greater divisiveness.

James Cote

Council size is a very interesting dynamic in the governance of the city. I have weighed in with the Charter Commission members with my thoughts on size and make-up realizing that for the most part they lack the intimate knowledge of Council duties.
Reducing the size of the Council would result in the redistribution of duties and quite possibly require the administration to increase staffing.
I agree directly with Elaine’s comment on quality and the one fear that everyone in the city should have is that reducing the Council size will result in the long serving popular names staying on the Council, to the detriment of new faces with new ideas.
Previously never one to embrace term limits, I now feel that term limits would be the most effective way to control the many issues that residents face with the existing Council.

Ken Parker

I favor reducing the number of Councilors to 15 — 8 Ward Councilors plus 7 true At-Large Councilors who can live anywhere in the City. Putting all of the at-large candidates in one pool would increase competition and accountability (all of them would likely have opposition every election cycle). Also, having an odd number of Councilors would reduce tie-vote deadlocks.

Jack Prior

I think most residents don’t realize the “at-large” councilors, while drawn uniformly from across the city, do not represent their ward’s interests. That was certainly driven home to Ward 2 last year.

Some Ward 2 residents were surprised to hear that Jake will hold his office hours in Newton Highlands, but that is as good a place as any for an at-large councilor and perhaps gives him broader context.

My impression is that the ward councilors have a strong orientation to the residents of their wards, which leads to a mindset of “customer-focus” to all residents when they are reviewing issues across the city.

Some have suggested that ward councilors are elected by too few voters, but that cuts both ways in keeping them on their toes. Assuming the workload can be downsized proportionally, Ken’s proposal might lead to more accountability for the at-large group. The concern would be unintended consequences if at-large membership came predominantly from narrow portions of the city, and their city-wide orientation came into question.

Lynne LeBlanc

I think some of the features we have are safeguards against mis- or non-representation: a ward Councilor, and two at-Large who must live in their ward.

If we do reduce the size of the Board I had thought keep the Ward Councilor and one at-Large but still have the at-Large be required to live in the Ward. The reason for at-large needing to live in the ward is for equal representation and I really believe it is the surest way to a city government that represents all people.

That having been said, I am really warming to Chris Pitt’s idea: 4 Ward Councilors voted on only by each ward precinct. THAT is real representation.

Lisa DiFelice

I think we could definitely do with less City Councilors. If we opened up the At-Large to anywhere in the city, neighborhoods would be at risk of having no representation so I don’t love that idea. If we keep it as is, I would propose having two Ward Councilors and one At-Large. It would be a true representative for the residence in that Ward. My thought is two Councilors for each Ward. One At-Large and one Ward rep.

neal Fleisher
neal Fleisher

Two possibilities:
we could reconfigure the ward sizes, so we have a total of 6, which will reduce the size of the council to 18, with the same configuration.
Alternatively – we can have a representative from 2 wards, example: an at large councilor from Ward 1/2, and a ward councilor from 1/2,
and reduce the total to 12.