John Stewart conducted this interview with Florence Rubin on May 21, 2007
This document is also available as a downloadable Word file: Rubin Interview.doc.
JS: I thought it would be helpful for the record to have you talk about how you got involved in Newton politics. You moved to Newton sometime in the late ’40s early ’50s?
FR: I grew up in New York City which is very different from the way government is handled in Massachusetts. It is significant as far as your question is concerned because when I moved to Massachusetts, which I did the day after my husband and I were married, I found Massachusetts so different from New York that it was fascinating in itself to me to see the small cities and towns and the way they governed themselves, and so on. And I didn’t know anyone here, and when I was trying to get used to living here and figuring out how people did things and what they were interested in, I got hooked on the League of Women Voters. Basically a lot of what I did in politics was what the League of Women Voters was doing. I became an officer of the League first at the local level, then the state level, then the national level, so I was really into that. Life was very different for women then, especially women who were educated. The League of Women Voters members were women like that. They were smart, many of them, they had good educations. But they couldn’t do a lot of things because society didn’t let them.
JS: The League in Newton, by the 1950s, was a very powerful organization?
FR: Yes, and it was in the state in general. As a matter of fact, when I moved here to Newton in the early ’60s, I was interested in a place that would have a good education system and access to Boston, so I lived near the T for that reason. I was also interested in a place that had an organization like the League of Women Voters. When I was the President of the League in Newton, there were about 600 members. So it was really a big organization and powerful partly because of that. It was very political as far as issues were concerned but never about candidates, which I also found very interesting because I never knew it was an organization like that. That’s really the way I became involved in a lot of things.
The other thing that happened, that isn’t too germane to what we’re talking about, is that Frank Flashner was an alderman when I moved here. I got to be friendly with him and I liked him very much and he liked me, and we used to talk about the courts. As a result I convinced the League to study the court system, and I was friendly with Frank Flashner until he died which was very young unfortunately. He was only about 52 or something like that. It had a big impact on me. I had lived in Winchester before and that was a town meeting type of government. When I moved here and found that it was more city, a larger community, a large city, it was more like some of the village areas in New York. Even though it was a big city compared to many others in Massachusetts, it was still handling a number of issues in what I guess was an old-fashioned way. So all of that really relates to the League of Women Voters – what was different about government and what I was interested in for that reason.
JS: This is good background for my first big question: Do you remember when you first became aware for the need to look at the Charter of the city and specifically, did the impetus really come from the League or from somewhere else?
FR: It really came from the League because the League was interested not only in local government, but in state government. I spent a lot of time at the State House so I was very well aware, especially after I became an officer in The League, of what was going on at the state level. It’s difficult to amend the constitution in Massachusetts as I’m sure you know. You have to convince two legislatures to vote for it and that’s over a period of time, a number of years. I knew what was going on about the amendments and the minute the amendment was finally becoming a part of the state constitution, The League of Women Voters knew about it. I thought this would be a great opportunity to have Newton try to test that issue and see how it would work.
JS: There was an amendment to the constitution that made it, in effect, easier for cities and towns to reorganize.
FR: It gave them the authority to make their own decisions under certain circumstances in certain things. It seemed like something we certainly could do and should do. It was a reasonable thing. We supported the amendment at the state level and when it finally took effect, we wanted to be part of trying it.
The other thing is, there were a few issues in Newton that were really things that the aldermen were doing that were, I think, wrong and so did the public. And it wasn’t the size of the Board of Aldermen; frankly, it was more what used to happen more and more in elections where aldermen who knew that they weren’t going to continue, ran for office so that they could control the seat. Then when they were elected, they would resign and the board would replace and control the seat. To me it seemed like a real horrible practice.
JS: The Board could appoint someone to finish out the term.
FR: That’s correct. It would be almost the whole term. It was well known. So that more than the size of the board of aldermen, one of the League’s big concerns and certainly my concern, was the way aldermen are nominated and their lack of interest in the public’s interests. It was a real corrupt procedure. One of the major issues, for me personally and for the League organizationally, was to try and do away with the business of running for office and resigning so that your colleagues could fill the seats. I still think that’s a bad thing. It doesn’t happen now. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen.
JS: Looking back on the whole reason why people started looking at the Charter, was it sort of part of the 1960s surge for new and better ways of doing things in government, part of the opening of government?
FR: In part in that we really wanted to look at better ways to do things. But that particular issue when I think what the League was interested in, what it was talking about and what the people in the community were talking about, was the way vacancies were filled.
JS: But Newton was certainly changing in this period, changing quite dramatically.
FR: Yes, but that wasn’t obvious to everyone. It’s really interesting. It was and I don’t understand to this day why the Republicans completely ignored that. When we were collecting signatures for the League, we realized we had a tremendous number of people to get in touch with. I remember talking to the Chamber of Commerce and to the Democratic City Committee people – it was Herb Reigel I talked to. It was the same with the Republicans. Nobody in the Republicans was the least bit responsive even though they were living in the City and could see what was going to happen. The only thing I can think of is that the City was so Republican then as far as office holders were concerned. After all, the year the Charter was on the ballot was the beginning of Ted Mann’s long reign. I don’t know if they collected one signature, but the Democrats did really work on this and Herb Reigel collected lots of signatures and organized other Democrats to do the same. But this was not something The League figured on in that, first of all, many of us would not have looked in that direction because the League was very eager to be nonpartisan.
JS: The Board of Aldermen, as you recall, actually headed a study. There was a legislation committee of the Board of Aldermen and they held a number of hearings and wrote a report that came out in June of 1966.
FR: I attended a number of those meetings.
JS: You don’t remember who really took the initiative on this, do you, within the Board of Aldermen? I have a copy of their report.
FR: No, and I haven’t looked at that for years. Who was on the committee? If you say that I might know.
JS: Glovsky was the Chair, Joe McDonald was a member and he was a fairly young person. Burke from West Newton, Al Barkin was a member of the committee, a fellow named Hovey.
FR: Was Joe Bradley? He was the Democrat and he was the first Democrat that I remember that was elected in Newton to the Board of Aldermen.
JS: And he was a state representative by this time.
FR: That’s right; he was the beginning of the end of the Republicans, sort of.
JS: The Legislation Committee of the Board of Aldermen came out with this report in June of 1966, and very interestingly, on the top of the report it says “For private use only. Not to be released”. This is the Committee’s official report.
FR: Does it list the people who are on it?
JS: The only members of that Committee that I came up with were Glovsky, McDonald, Burke, McDonald, Hovey, and Barkin. There obviously must have been two or three others.
FR: I knew Glovsky quite well. I knew Mintz and Glovsky.
JS: I’m not sure where the initiative to do this really came from. I assume it came from…
FR: I don’t remember since I think most of the people you mentioned were Republicans.
JS: Except for Joe McDonald, obviously.
FR: Right. That’s why I said most.
JS: Again, you don’t remember anyone else other than The League and presumably one or two aldermen really being interested in changing the Charter?
FR: This really was a League project that it did on its own. I had gone to some of the committee meetings because I went to a lot of the committee meetings anyway, and I came to all the aldermanic meetings. I used to come to every one of the budget meetings and everything else. But it was really a strange thing. Strange too that we came out with an item in the charter that we prepared that limited the consecutive terms of the School Committee, but not of the Board of Aldermen. People afterwards complained bitterly about why we let the Board of Aldermen… The reason we didn’t do it for the aldermen is that, generally, they served three 2-year terms and then left. It wasn’t a problem with the Board of Aldermen. Whereas everyone who came to a Charter Commission meeting complained about the difficulty getting elected to the School Committee and they were furious about it.
JS: Those people tended to stay on for years.
FR: One person was on for 42 years. It was unbelievable. Our consultant looked up everybody and we had a whole list of the people. It’s not that they were horrible people, but once they got in they did not move. And the voters were angry about that. So we didn’t like term limits either and that’s why we made it a weak term limit instead of saying you may not serve after 4 terms or 2 terms, you have to get out at least for 2 years. That way you give other people a chance, and they don’t have to keep voting for the same person. The reason was, the School Committee was very group oriented when they decided who to support. And the aldermen were not except that most of them turned out to be Republicans, they didn’t prepare in a pack, shall we say.
JS: This is still the case in Newton. The School Committee remains an in-group that picks its successors.
FR: I think all the time, what is it we could have down to have broken up that way in which things were, because newcomers really have a hard time. And they knew it and they were angry.
JS: For two years, apparently, The League conducted this study in 1966 and 1967. They came out with this report in April 1967 with seven major recommendations for reducing the size of the Board, retaining the residence requirements for School Committee, Special Elections, a four-year term for Mayor, four-year staggered terms for School Committee.
FR: That last one never took off. We had open meetings all the time and people did come. We would not let them talk at will, but when we finished our formal discussion for the evening, I would open up the meetings and say if you have any comments you want to make, we’re eager to hear them. And they told us. Incidentally, that was the time when Newton North recently opened. We put some stuff in about the process that should be used because the other thing that everybody hated was Newton North. It astonished me. My kids went to Newton South so I didn’t know much about Newton North. But when we started having open meetings when we were discussing issues, instead of “how do you do the work” kind of thing, everybody who came, said “that awful, horrible school, we don’t know why we have that school and why it was allowed to be built that way”. It was flabbergasting, frankly. So we put into the Charter a provision about how to select an architect and the Design Review Committee. Some of them have been altered a little but they are still in the Charter or the ordinances. And that was because it was the most unpopular building I’ve ever seen.
JS: It was brand new. It had just opened.
FR: It wasn’t the condition of the building. I’ve heard since then that the architect, and I don’t know if this is true or not because I wasn’t involved with that building at all, that the architect was somebody who used to design prisons.
JS: I heard that too, but I don’t know if it’s true.
FR: I don’t know either but I’m just telling you that the people who came to us to talk about it just hated it. And they hated the other issue about the aldermen picking their own successors.
JS: In terms of the process, The League did this study which they came out with in April 1967 and recommended the creation of a Charter Commission which obviously had to be approved.
FR: I would never have been involved in doing it if they hadn’t because The League was very disciplined in its work, and officers considered that is was their responsibility to carry out a program that the members had decided they wanted to deal with.
JS: So the League really took the responsibility for organizing the effort.
FR: The study as well as the collection of signatures, and so on.
JS: Was there ever any doubt about the success of the petition drive?
FR: Yes, there certainly was. Remember how late it used to be for Newton totals of the ballot? So it was late at night and somebody had the kindness to call me and tell me what the vote was. But we were anything but certain.
JS: But it was overwhelming – 13,000 to 2,500. It won overwhelmingly.
FR: I remember hearing about it and I think it’s a clear indication that there were things that the public was angry about. I think we discussed the things. There was the high school that they hated. I can’t think it’s just by accident that the people who didn’t like the high school came to our meetings. And also the whole business about the aldermen deciding who was going to take over for them.
JS: How important was this whole matter to you and the people in the League of reducing the size of the Board of Aldermen?
FR: We felt that the Board was too large because mainly we found, in talking to people and we sure talked to a lot of people because we collected door to door, that most people did not know who the aldermen were. There is something wrong with an election if there are so many people that you’re voting for, that they don’t even know who they are. And they didn’t really. There were a few names that were recognized but they really just didn’t know their aldermen. So the idea that you needed a lot so that they could know who their aldermen were and the aldermen could really represent them was a lot of baloney. There may be other reasons. I can tell you what certainly made me negative about it. When I looked up in the library the reports of the city government departments and how they got to be the way they were, and it wasn’t because of any particular theory on the part of the office holders, it was because when they were changing to a city that was the way they wanted to get everybody a seat, and they had to put all the people who were there together. It turned out to be a lot of people. It seemed to me to be a pretty poor reason to have a lot of aldermen that people didn’t know and were just there because people didn’t want to give up their seat.
JS: In terms of the referendum in 1969, the referendum, and I should have looked this up, at the same time the voters were saying whether they wanted to have a Commission or not, they were also choosing members of the Commission?
FR: Yes, that’s true.
JS: So people in effect had to say “do you want to have a Commission, yes or no, and who should the members of the Commission be”.
FR: That’s right. And there were many more than were going to be elected. I can’t remember exactly how many but it was a significant number. It’s interesting, the same thing happened here. I don’t think it’s so unusual but of all the people who ran, the one’s who had the best name recognition were elected whether they were good, bad, or indifferent. And that happened, incidentally, in all the Charter Commissioners that were elected. That’s why many people who were then in office in another position ran for the Charter Commission whether it was here or elsewhere, because they knew they had a good chance of being elected, and they could protect what they were interested in. That doesn’t make them bad people but it was a flaw in the process of selecting Charter Commissioners. There’s nothing wrong with people being in office and being Charter Commissioners. But city after city, and elsewhere, and any other kind of government, it always worked out that the incumbents in other positions who ran for office were generally elected over the ones who were not as well known.
JS: There were two state representatives on the charter commission; Joe Bradley and Jim Shea? And there were three aldermen; Adelaide Ball, Haskell Freedman, he was the School Committee Chair, and Richard Mintz. (He was an alderman?)
FR: No, Richard Mintz was Norma Mintz’s husband and she was a School Committee member but he did not hold an office. He was an attorney in Mintz, Levin, Common, Glovsky. As was Glovsky.
JS: So there was only one alderman on the commission – Adelaide Ball.
FR: Al Mandell was a School Committee member.
JS: It’s interesting that two of our state representative…
FR: It’s true, but I will tell you whatever office they held and whether they held one was a significant factor in the decisions they made in the Charter Commission. I know I spoke to each of them if I was trying to see what kind of a chance we had for a particular issue. Time and again they’d say to me I’d like to vote for that but I can’t afford to take a chance and the aldermen will sink my re-election, or the aldermen will see that I don’t get elected to the legislature. I was surprised at that. It’s not that I was so sure everybody was such a lovable person, but they really were afraid of that.
We had a few really unfortunate things. Jim Shea committeed suicide and that’s not something that you really expect with a Commissioner. The chairman of the School Committee was sick at that time. I remember we had one meeting near the end where we stood around his bed. He was really sick and we wanted to get his vote but we didn’t know what the heck to do.
JS: Haskell Freedman.
FR: Yes, Haskell.
JS: In terms of getting the Commission organized, you were chosen as chair, obviously right at the start. Was there opposition?
FR: No and I frankly don’t know exactly why, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that they didn’t know what to do if they were the chair and they were nervous about that. They knew that I had run loads of meetings and obviously The League was the one that had started this. I had spoken about it all over the area. The reporters would say “Newton has such a wonderful government, why are you trying to do something about it?” And I said we’re trying to keep it strong. It gave me lots of publicity and that’s why they all knew my name. Jerry Grossman was for peace and everybody knew his name. And the others who were in different offices did far better than others.
JS: This was really the first case in the state under the Home Rule Procedures Act.
FR: Not the first city, but one of the first so it was still a strange thing, I mean, exactly how you’d work everything out. For example, we had the first major meeting where we were discussing an issue instead of just various procedural things. One of the members of the Commission said there’s only one thing that’s important in this, and that’s whether we’re going to have partisan government or nonpartisan government. And I said, “what do you think you would like to have?” and we started the discussion. We finally voted to have nonpartisan government. That particular member said, “now we’re finished” and we can go home. This was the first substantive meeting. I said just wait awhile and I whipped out this three page report we were going to discuss and everybody was sort of flabbergasted. I really think they didn’t know what we would do. They figured we would have one or two meetings at the most, and then they’d all go home.
JS: They had not paid that much attention.
FR: There were so few other communities who had had this thing, no one was expecting a lot of time talking about that.
JS: You had a budget of $25,000 or so?
FR: The City was required to give us a certain amount of assistance and provide some space for us and so on. We were approached by a number of consultants who were happy to write the charter for us the next day, and it would only cost $20,000 to do this and we wouldn’t have to worry! We had a part time secretary and we had expenses, paper, running an ad, and things of that sort. And we did have a consultant who worked with us, Mike Curran. He was very good.
JS: His role was primarily to give you advice on the options, make suggestions, and draft them?
FR: Believe it or not, even though we had tons of lawyers on the Commission, none of them were really working on municipal law. They were doing big deal stuff instead of municipal law. So we needed someone who really knew about municipal law so that we’d know what was useful for us to talk about and try to work out.
JS: Because one of the problems, and I’m embarrassed to say this, I have never really read the pre-1971 Charter of the City, but as I understand it, it was a hodge podge of a lot of things that had been added – legislation, and other things. It needed a lot of editorial work if nothing else.
FR: That’s true and beyond that there was another thing that drove us crazy. During the years since Newton became a city, it had adopted a number of statutes that the legislature had passed that were optional. And we had pages of that that were included in the Charter. Because otherwise, you wouldn’t know if it was there in the government or not. There were just loads of them. We talked about each one but we never would have been able to dig them out even with our law department. But he knew enough about where to look and what to get. He was a very nice man.
JS: Do you know if he’s still around?
FR: I don’t know. I talked to him a few years ago and he was also helpful in drawing our attention to things he knew other cities were either thinking about or would probably look at and so on. That was very helpful because, as I said, there was so little that was known that we could have missed some marvelous opportunity.
There is one other thing I wanted to say because after that meeting when the two people said we’ve finished our work and we want to go home…
JS: Was one of them Joe Bradley?
FR: No. Joe Bradley was actually very helpful. He wanted to do some of the things I wanted to do but he was afraid that he was going to get slaughtered by the other aldermen. I talked to him privately and he talked to me privately and at one point he said to me, if you get one other person to agree to this, only don’t name him in anything, if you get one other person on the side we’re on, I’ll vote for it. But I can’t otherwise. He was very honest and straightforward about it.
I don’t remember what I was going to say earlier. All I could think was that a number of these people who were on the Charter Commission or who ran for it, really didn’t have a clue and had done it for what they considered were good political reasons. There’s nothing wrong with that but they didn’t come in with some ideas that they wanted to try or anything else. Either getting rid of something or getting something new in some other way. I found that astonishing. I would never run for something where I didn’t have any interest other than running and getting elected.
JS: I’d like to ask you to go through a number of the controversial issues and talk about your recollections of them. How controversial were they and the extent to which the Commission really wanted to make some changes but you couldn’t come to any kind of consensus. Starting with the mayor, for example, was there any serious talk of going to a city manager form of government, or having a city manager and a part time mayor.
FR: No there wasn’t. I mean there was within the Commission, but we asked everyone we talked to. We talked to almost everybody in the government and people in groups who were interested in government. We asked everybody, “What would you prefer for the city leader?” Because at the time the Charter Commission was going, the head of the executive branch was also someone who was a state senator. Ted wasn’t elected yet. Monty was elected in November 1969. The Commission came into being in 1970. 1969 and 1970 was when the Charter Commission went on the ballot, I mean the new charter. We were elected in ’69 and the charter that we developed went on the ballot and was accepted in 1971. The Mayor, Ted Mann, was elected in 1971.
JS: Monty was the Mayor. He was elected Mayor in 1969, I think.
FR: He may have, that’s true. The way the charter reads, the four-year term or changes of that sort don’t take effect right away.
JS: Oh, that’s right.
FR: So the first year Ted was elected was a two-year term.
JS: In ’71, and then he ran again in ’73.
FR: That’s correct. For a four-year term. I don’t mean Monty – but when we were collecting the signatures, that’s the time I was talking about. There was someone who was a mayor and I can’t remember his name but I’m pretty sure he was a state senator.
JS: The mayor of Newton?
FR: Yes, because he could hold another… That was one of the reasons, probably the main reason, that we talked about the mayor not holding any other position or job or whatever, because we felt that the City was large enough to have a full time mayor. We made it a four-year term also to strengthen the office of mayor.
JS: But there was some talk of having a full time city manager?
FR: Yes, that’s true. I’m not saying there wasn’t. In fact, Ted did not want a full time city manager and until he was quite sick, and at that time he’d been in office a long, long time…at that time he called a number of people and asked them to meet with him. He may have called you, I know he called me and I know a few other people he called. And he said we shouldn’t have a city manager. Did he talk to you?
JS: Yes, he did.
FR: I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about because at the time the Charter Commission was working, I had asked almost everybody in the city we interviewed about anything concerning the government. We made it clear we wanted a strong mayor. And obviously we could have had a city manager and I talked to Ted, no, he didn’t want it at all. I talked to a number of department heads, no, they didn’t want it. I never found anybody except maybe two members of the Charter Commission who were interested in exploring that. That’s why we asked everybody we talked to about it and there was very little enthusiasm about it until Ted was finishing his term.
JS: And that was 20 years later.
FR: That’s right.
JS: Again, there was no dispute over having a four-year term for the mayor? Everybody agreed with that?
FR: I don’t remember that there was any dispute. We basically decided we wanted a strong mayor form of government. We wanted the mayor to have a reasonable salary, and we wanted the mayor to have an incentive to work through the whole term and so on. We felt there was no way we could strengthen the aldermen to that same degree because there were too many of them. But we did strengthen them in other ways by giving them authority to get paid more and hire staff and appoint the treasurer, which they lost subsequently.
The way I set up the meetings, what we were going to do was start with the discussion of what Newton would be like 25 years later. That brought up a lot of interesting suggestions because it brought up a lot of problems that might be occurring in the future. So it was a successful introduction to discussing issues and problems and opportunities and blah, blah, blah. And most of the members, not all the members except the ones who kept wanting to go home, had interesting suggestions. They felt that Newton was going to continue to be a rich city, so it was going to have a lot of money to do whatever it wanted to do, as it were. There were a lot of feelings that we should encourage the citizens to be more interested in government by setting up the neighborhood area council, which is part of the Charter. We really talked about that a lot and we worked out a process whereby the people in various areas, that they could designate themselves, could form a structure of government to deal with their problems. And the city was not supposed to be spending a lot of money on this, or any money. I mean they weren’t entitled to any money. But they could get grants and they could get money from the city if that was going to be an important and useful thing. The only part of the city that ever took that up was Newton Highlands. I remember when they called me shortly after the Charter was finished because they’d been looking at that before. They said they really would like to form a neighborhood area council and they’d like me to tell them how to go about doing it. We had a number of meetings with the people in the area. They were interested in being in this part of the Charter. They really went out and collected the signatures and so on. They brought it to city hall. The other point was the aldermen who represented whatever area was chosen automatically were part of the structure. And it worked very well for them.
JS: Do you remember where the idea really came from? It was sort of nationally, I guess, local councils were certainly part of the economic opportunity, the anti-poverty program of the Johnson administration.
FR: I don’t remember exactly, but it came up during these discussions we had at the very beginning of the Charter Commission before we attacked any particular area. I have a feeling it was something that Jerry Grossman was interested in. But I don’t know why it came up other than I more or less asked them for what kinds of interesting things they wanted to deal with. So they had the opportunity and we had interesting discussions about that. Everybody was in agreement and I must say I thought it would go further than it ever went. The only other area of the city where we had some interest in that was Newton Corner, which also had committees and groups of people who were working on issues. They asked me at one time to talk with them about that and how they could start it and what they could do, and how much it would do for them, and all of that kind of thing. But they never went ahead with it.
JS: There was some interest in Lower Falls in which I was sort of peripherally involved when they had the big urban renewal project. The mandate of the federal government which financed most of that was that there be what they called a project area committee, which was a committee of citizens in the neighborhood that had a very serious legal role in terms of planning the whole urban renewal project. That committee, believe it or not, still exists in Lower Falls. I remember there was some talk of converting that committee into a neighborhood council but it never happened.
FR: No, it never did, that’s right. But there were committees that were formed that were similar especially on transportation issues. And I don’t know why this didn’t take hold, but it didn’t. But the people in Newton Highlands liked it and used it well for years. That’s where Susan Basham sort of did her thing.
JS: It may have been, and this is getting a little political, because Ted Mann was never enthused with village organization.
JS: Let’s talk about the Board of Alderman. There was no one in the Commission who seriously wanted to push for a reduction in the Board? Or were people sort of afraid?
FR: There was no majority. First of all, Adelaide Ball was not going to be in favor of that, and she wasn’t. Then Al Mandell was so negative about almost everything we were doing.
JS: He wrote a minority report.
FR: It was fine but it didn’t do him any good. He was on the School Committee and he felt that the rest of the Commission was against him. I never had the feeling that anybody was against anybody else on the Commission. I knew that he didn’t like what was happening. But I didn’t feel like people were tormenting him or deliberately trying to do this, that, or the other thing. The reason I say that is after Al died, Tom Mountain said the only reason the Charter Commission talked about limiting the consecutive terms for School Committee people was to get rid of Al Mandell. I was flabbergasted because it was the one thing nobody ever did talk about.
JS: Al must have told him.
FR: I think he made it up himself frankly, but maybe Al talked to him. Who knows. There was nothing like that going on in the Commission. There were people on the Commission who feared what their colleagues would do, but there was nobody who was deliberately talking about that.
FR: Our current Mayor was very much in favor of cutting the size of the Board
JS: Oh, I know.
FR: He wasn’t making any bones about that.
JS: Let me explain in all candor, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on the record or not, David Olson called me up and asked me if I would do this interview knowing that I had some interest in the whole matter and knowing I had done some oral history interviews. And yes, by coincidence, I am part of a little group looking into creating another Charter Commission at some point in the next 2,3, 4 years. In fact, that group is holding a meeting at City hall in 2 weeks from Thursday.
FR: Can you say what kind of group it is? I don’t need to hear names.
JS: Yes. I wrote a little article in the Newton Tab in January, which I will send to you, with some of my thoughts about things that should be investigated. Yes, I have some ideas. I’m not convinced they should be done but at least some things that should be very seriously investigated, namely having a city manger, a full time professional city manager, a Board of Aldermen of 9 or 11 people, a city council with the president being the mayor. A serious group of people. And making some other changes, for example, in the whole structure of boards and commissions in the City which I haven’t really investigated, but I think is something that should be investigated. I’ve talked to several people and everybody has sort of different ideas. Some people are just interested in reducing the size of the Board of Aldermen to either 16 or 11 or whatever. Some people are seriously interested in a city manager.
FR: Why are you interested in a city manager?
JS: I just feel the City could be run a lot better. The departments could be managed better, a lot more efficiently.
FR: The closest we came to that was when Rich Kelliher was here.
JS: I know that.
FR: And he was an excellent manager and people had confidence in him. I don’t know whether it would have been better if he was the city manager. I know the library was built during that time and I was very much involved in building the library. I can tell you I dealt with him every time I could, rather than Ted Mann. He is just a very good manager and he inspires confidence and all the rest of that. But just because you call anybody a city manager, doesn’t mean they’re going to be like that. I don’t think everybody is a marvelous mayor either frankly.
JS: I’m not being critical of the current Mayor or any other Mayor. For a very positive reason, a part time mayor with a 9- or 11-person council, a council that really focused on policies and planning and seriously set an agenda for the City and had some standards that they imposed on department heads and all the rest, I think that would be helpful. In having a day-to-day manager, someone other than the mayor, who will work with the department heads and make sure things got done on a day-to-day basis would be very helpful. But not a city manager like Cambridge has.
FR: I was just going to say I don’t like the Cambridge system. That one we looked at pretty carefully, and we decided we didn’t like it either.
JS: That city manager is far too powerful. That city manager, for example, makes all appointments to boards and commissions. That city manager is in effect the political mayor in addition to being the city manager and that is certainly not the model I would have in mind. I would have in mind something clearly separating the political policy planning decisions and activities from the day-to-day administration of the City. I think it obviously can be done. It’s done all over the country, all over the world. Newton is really an exception in terms of a city of this size whose chief executive officer is a political person.
FR: I think there’s merit in talking about it and I can understand why people would want it. I think from my own experience in talking to a lot of department heads, years ago I mean, that it would be hard to accomplish it.
JS: I agree. I’m not optimistic that it will happen in my lifetime.
FR: There are so many aldermen now who want to be mayor that it’s going to be difficult to even winnow down the alderman wannabes.
JS: But we need a mayor. Obviously we need a political head of the city and a part time mayor who is also the head of the city council can be a reasonably strong if not a very strong person in terms of directing the course of the City. It’s just that this mayor would not be burdened, if you will, with the day-to-day problems. People wouldn’t be calling the mayor to get their potholes fixed and their trashed picked up. They would be dealing with someone in the city managers office.
FR: Then why would he be able to do so many other things if everybody is calling him?
JS: Again, because he would certainly get a lot of direction from the mayor and the city council. That would be the purpose of the mayor and the city council, to provide direction for the city.
FR: So you want a mayor and a city manager and the aldermen?
JS: A city council of 9 or 11 people.
FR: Because that is not what the usual routine is.
JS: It’s a very common routine.
FR: Have you looked at the city itself, I don’t mean Newton, I mean one of these communities. Are you talking about any municipality in Massachusetts?
JS: No. I don’t think there are any in Massachusetts that really operate this way. On the other hand, I have not thoroughly explored it. But I think it’s worth looking into. I certainly think something has to be done with the Board of Aldermen.
FR: It really does. They spend too much time trying to talk issues to death, shall we say.
JS: Trying to figure out their role. The Board of Aldermen has a very difficult role because it is in so many areas, for example, in the construction of Newton North they don’t really have a major role.
FR: That was done better in days gone by. We did the library in a different way. Not a different way of doing everything. What I mean is we had an intelligent way that was coming from what was specified in the Charter from years of experience. It worked fabulously well and it wasn’t because the mayor was a good boss. It’s partly because of Rich Kelliher being a good boss and partly because there are good ways of doing things if you have a decent system. I’ve never seen anything done as poorly as this. I think this school is being managed in the most ridiculous way.
JS: As I say, I have two purposes in learning more about this. One is I think it’s very important.
FR: It’s worth looking at. I don’t know whether it’s possible to get it done in the sense that the public has to like it obviously. I agree with you that the current system is pretty bad. But I don’t really know what the best system is. I do think there should be fewer aldermen and that it should have a clearer function. I do think that there ought to be a strong mayor or boss or whatever you want to call it. Let me know if you’re going to start and I’ll think about it.
JS: Again, I have two interests in looking into the history. One because I really feel, and obviously you do, that documenting what happened in 1969, 1970, and 1971 is very, very important for the people to understand not just today but in a hundred years.
FR: Except that there’s one thing that makes me very nervous about doing that. It’s certainly opened up more opportunities for local government to do what it wants to do, not what the state thinks. People just don’t spend enough time thinking about the structure of government and I don’t know who’s going to do it. I don’t know how you get enough of a constituency to make it happen is what I’m saying.
JS: There are a fair number of people. How many…maybe it’ll get bigger.
FR: How many aldermen are on now, current aldermen?
JS: I’ve gotten comments from 6 or 7 aldermen who were interested in the whole subject.
FR: In other words, they’re not necessarily convinced right at the moment about a particular…
JS: No. But I would guess at least 10 or more aldermen are unhappy with how the Board of Aldermen works.
FR: They have a hard time not being unhappy. I don’t know what you think of the current President of the Board, but I think he annoys some people, let’s put it that way. You don’t have to speak to every issue if you’re the President of the Board. You really don’t. The city will stay whole.