Charter Commission Public Hearing
September 14, 2016
Attending from the Charter Commission: Josh Krintzman (Chair), Rhanna Kidwell (Vice-Chair), Bryan Barash, Jane Frantz, Anne Larner, Brooke Lipsitt, Karen Manning, Chris Steele
Attending Panelists: Anil Adyanthaya, Marc Kaufman, Sallee Lipshutz, Srdj Nedeljkovic, John Rice, Terry Sauro
August Minutes: Approved with some clarifications of discussion (8-0).
Betsy Barker (on behalf of Rodney Barker): Rodney has been an Aldermen and School Committee member in the past, while holding a full-time job. Loved serving Newton. Feels that amount of decision-makers is needed to do all the work; otherwise, with fewer City Councilors, only people who can do the job full-time will be able to serve. Trying to fix something that is not broke.
Rodney Barker: feels very strongly that current City Council works very well. While full Board meetings can be rather long, the work is done primarily in committee. Diversity of Council represents the diversity in the community. Reducing the size of the Board is anti-democratic—democracy works well in Newton as is. Councilors play an important role in a large city. Encourages the Charter Commission to rethink the size of the City Council, otherwise only wealthy people would be able to serve.
Ernest Lowenstein: request to speak very close to the microphone.
Panel Discussion (led by Chris Steele, Karen Manning and Jane Frantz):
KM: Thanks for joining the discussion on Article 9 on Neighborhood Councils. Thoughts are with Howard, and all hope that he feels better soon. Each article warrants a different approach. Want all to understand several points.
JF: First, research shows that most charters don’t include articles about neighborhood area councils. Second, not all issues should be resolved through the charter. As issues are uncovered over the course of the review, they might not be included in the charter, but might appear in other documentation that the CC will provide the city at the end of the review process.
CS: Panelists are from current NAC and village associations. [Introduces panelists] Please keep comments concise.
JF: 1st question: What is the mission/purpose of your NAC or village association?
AA: Two main goals: community building in Upper Falls (all types of residents and feeling that sense of community was being lost) and conduit between residents and City Council and other departments. Perceived to be more accessible than other parts of city government.
SL: Mission statement of WAC is to hear, respond to and represent village concerns and issues, provide forum for Waban issues and to promote resident involvement in local government. The Waban Improvement Society is a sister organization that does more community-type events. WAC focused more on interaction with government, informing citizens (i.e. about 40B) and representing neighborhood concerns. Cooperates with other area councils to provide Candidates’ Night during elections.
SN: purpose is to do as much as can to encourage citizen involvement in government. Community nights, village day, and to give input on issue of importance to neighborhood (i.e. what to do with the Crystal Lake Bathhouse).
MK: Council was formed 3 years ago. Tasks are to promote a public dialogue, have the community be a part of the process in terms of local government. Help develop a vision for Newtonville and discuss issues of development that are concern to the neighborhood.
JR: Area councils have a feel for each village. Each doesn’t operate exactly the same because each village is different. Communication, a lot of public meetings, on issues of interest—Crystal Lake, parking, etc. Great thing is that they have a very diverse discussion: ice cream, parking in same meeting. Many members don’t want to run for City Council. Good things happen at Area Councils.
TS: Nonantum is an association, not an area council. Started with a focus on beautification and upkeep in neighborhood. Doesn’t want to be a councilor—feels that she is effective as is. Do beautification, shop ‘m stroll, have facebook page for community events, outreach. Mission is to foster improvements and initiatives for growth, prosperity and advocacy for Nonantum. Involve elected officials, officers.
CS: 2nd question: Under current charter, Area Council are form on a grass roots level. What are your thoughts on how they are formed now, including surface areas, what has worked and suggestions for going further?
MK: How do you begin? School system? Voting district? Newtonville efforts looked at city maps, sketched out area, got feedback from people. Evolved and became more formal when make application other city. Was an organic process and different for each area council. Not a formal process.
SN: NHAC started with concerns about changes in the community. Been approached by people on south side of Route 9—part of Newton Highlands, why can’t run? So area council expanded based on people coming to them, got signatures and expanded. One of the strengths of the local structure is that it represents mutual shared interests in a community, provides for a great deal of diversity in terms of representation. Have discussed whether or not Newton be carved up into different areas—majority that current system should prevail.
AA: believe that it should be divided up by villages. Creates opportunity for hyperlocal focus—if keep them as village institutions that address issues of individual constituencies.
SL: Area Council means gain access to city councilors and people who work for the city. If have a few area councils with many areas not covered by such organizations—those areas lack the same access that others have. Thinks that every citizen in Newton should have an area that they belong to. Should not be on their shoulders to determine the boundaries. Is a terribly complex process. Has a proposal that has given to the Mayor. Should divide the city into Area Councils that resemble neighborhoods with similar concerns and then present to the City Council for them to hold hearings on, etc.
TS: focus on what is going on in Nonantum and how to improve it.
JR: CC has to look at how to set up boundaries across the city. City Council should lay out the boundaries. Councilors have had meetings where people fight over boundaries.
SN: System of notification when area councils are being formed. Should be a formal notification so that everyone in proposed area so that they can be part of that process of establishing an area council for that zone. Hope to see that improved moving forward.
SL: no funding presently; hope that the city would do this by mail to all residents in boundary area.
KM: 3rd question: Any other comments on signature gathering? Comments on election process?
SL: Election should take place at same place and same time as municipal elections. Legitimately election commissioners. Signature collection—city councilor need 50 for ward, and then 25 for an Area Councilor seems reasonable.
SN: Clarifies what is already happening—currently collect 25 signatures. For 3 of the 4 area council, elected with municipal officials.
JR: NHAC election was run by LWVN, but since have been run by city has been a much smoother process.
JF: 4th question: How does the board of a village association form its board?
TS: started off with 3, now up to 11. Don’t have elections. Put on facebook asking for people to join. No election, not formal. Don’t we all want to work together, as a council? Nor as formal as the councils, open to all things.
MK: have a fairly large number of people available in an area. Questions about how you do elections and politics. When join city voting process.
JR: agree with Terry.
AA: has been done on same ballot. Impression on legitimacy and importance of area council when elected during municipal election.
JF: 5th question: Functions may be advisory or may provide substantive authority on a range of topics. What do you perceive as the relationship between the area council and the City Council?
SL: Area has not asked for powers other than advisory. Asked to be heard as a strong voice in the community, engaged with city employees to garner info for residents and to relate concerns about City resources. Worked with reps on City Council to direct interactions with city employees. Don’t believe that they should be confined to advisory function only. If Ward Councilor is eliminated and City Council is shrunk, then Area Council might be called upon to fill more responsibility. Letter from WAC calls for power of Area Councils to be identical.
SN: NHAC has taken an advisory role, not taken authority to enact powers. Charter is being written for the future—important to maintain that clause to allow both advisory and authority on topics. Expand to include functions and activities—transportation and parking, design review, open space. Charter Commission needs to clarify clause giving city council ability to delegate power.
TS: 4 councils in Newton, with 13 villages. Why aren’t others forming councils? As far as allocating funds, how do you do that? How much do you give? Doing everything the council is doing…would like to see other villages form associations. Maybe put associations in charter? Maybe not?
MK: Love that the current charter is so big—allowed the area council to do everything and anything. Example—survey on Austin Street. Different responsibilities to the area council—would lead to different types of people running. Perceive themselves as being group-sensitive issue in Newtonville.
AA: role is largely advisory. Number of city councilors changes the area council.
SL: after 20% of boundary residents are collected, they are taken to city council, which determines whether there is a legitimate area council. Produce a resolution empowering the area council with specific allowed responsibilities. Three area councils have limited authority given to them from what is possible. Highlands Council was formed many years ago—has been given more powers. Whether they use them or not is up to the area council. Consider that all area councils be allowed the same powers. Memo to the Board of Aldermen with pros and cons of giving area councils certain powers.
KM: 6th question: Comment on sources of funding, expenditures and accounting practices? How do you manage money?
MK: One source of funding; spend virtually nothing, except on signs and printing. Most money is put aside for hardscape changes in Newtonville—benches, etc. Asking local business to contribute as well.
SN: Income is from Village Day (booth sales, silent auction, donations); spend money on Village Day, skating rink, beautification, community outreach (mailing to all in area—trying electronic); Section 9a—NHAC requests that CC consider—change so that allow area councils to accept funds from public, city and other sources. Not to mandate allocation of funding, but to allow them to accept funds. Generate new sources of revenue—establish improvement districts (also needs to be added to the charter.)
SL: Sources from silent auction on Waban Village Day–$3K—as well as matching grant made to subcommittee for bridges across Charles River walking trail. Reports finances annually—maintenance of treasury is in limbo. Hopes to handle its own funds instead of as a “city gift fund.” Lack of source of income has tied their hands has limited the ability to “take the temperature” of the community on certain issues.
TS: Have Village Day, sponsors, fundraisers, gave scholarships. Treasurer handles the money. She’s hearing the others ask for $10K, but what about the other areas without area councils?
JR: allowing them to accept funding that is approved by City Council.
AA: funds from Upper Falls Community Development Corporation—donates as needed, Village Day fees and private donations. Funding is a challenge—limits what they can do with communication.
CS: Last question: getting feedback from residents as well as acting as a conduit to the city. Describe how they communicate with residents formally and informally to get a full range of opinions.
MK: spend a lot of time on communication. Complicated because as much as they try to reach out, miss people. Have an email list of 900 names—use to inform about event. Have own website separate from city website. Do opinion surveys, word-of-mouth. Have own booths. Have gone door-to-door about public meetings. Participate in city-related blog. Have signs that go on islands in Newtonville. Still miss people, but do try.
SL: produced brochures about area council; email mailchimp list; maintain a website and post info on concerns; list emails of members; hold regular meetings; announce all meetings on City’s website. Have link from city website; collect emails from members at meetings, election days, village days. City could support by asking people to send email addresses to area councils. Exercise best efforts to reach out to residents. Facebook page and nextdoor.com
TS: Facebook page, emails, people reach out to them.
AA: facebook page; participate on Nextdoor.com, rely on city webpage, no separate web presence.
SN: everything everyone else said; what happens when someone from outside the group “hogs” the group. Use the Walnut Street Bridge for signs.
JR: lot of dialogue.
JF: Thanks so much…have people who do want to speak.
SN: Thanks to area council member who has done a lot of research.
JF: Thanks to all of your for the information and for taking the time to share their thoughts.
SL: Thanks for the opportunity. Collins Center has recommended that not include area councils in the charter. Recommend most strongly that area council will have a much better change of being successful if they are enshrined in the charter.
Public Comments Related to Article 9:
Lynn Weisberg: Very interesting to hear from all the members. Wants to focus the conversation—look at the mission, goals, purposes that can identify. Agree that citizen involvement, building community are all worthwhile. Question before the charter commission is whether or not NAC should be codified in the charter. Would urge whether the work that is being done by each of the area councils could be done by a neighborhood association. Don’t have 13 area councils. Her ability to participate in civic life has not been hampered by no area council in Newton Center. Question the assumption whether the most important organizing principal should be based on villages. Many groups are based on issues and not addresses. Simply no need to have them elevated to that status. Experience has had to do with housing issues in the city—positions taken by area councils were not representative of those villages. Gives an opinion an edge—shouldn’t carry more weight.
Councilor Albright: definition of public engagement—people willing to get involved. Charters inclusion of area council was to foster engagement in government. City Council should b charged with setting up mechanisms for how area councils should operate. Should be across the city, with city council determining boundaries and fair elections across the city. She agrees with Sallee. But…basically same people who come to area council meetings.
Lois Levin: agrees with Lynn. A lot of organizations in the city—some do a great job, some not so great. Don’t have them throughout the city, and Terry has been highly successful without an area council. We’re talking about putting something into our governmental charter—this issue isn’t there yet.
Helen Rittenberg: Lois stole her words. Do everything in power to build community. Don’t need to have anything in the constitution about this.
Dolores Acivedo Garcia: consider not including area councils in the charter. Agree with earlier points about community participation. Problem in terms of representation—shocked about election numbers. 6.3% of voters showed up to elect Area Council members, and none had more than 180 votes. Do not adequately represent views in community, especially around housing issues. Diversity of opinion in Waban—WAC is fully aware and has chosen to represent only one side. Involved in St Philip Neri site—sent letter on behalf of neighborhood, but wasn’t represented. Process issues in WAC meetings—limited dissent.
Councilor Ruthanne Fuller: Area Councils have more access and more power. Was president of the Chestnut Hill Association—no center, no school, no community center. Historic District but not the whole thing…definitely neighbors, though. Raised money for legal efforts to fight Boston College, have social events, etc. More democratic with area councils, but maybe more inclusive with neighborhood associations. Concern about money and responsibilities. CHNA thought hard about wanting to become a neighborhood area council…to force a neighborhood to have one would be very uncomfortable. 13 villages aren’t all real villages, some centers are different from others. Have 15 elementary schools—can’t use that as an organizing basis. How do you figure out the money? How give to 4 councils? Funds aren’t audited…don’t want them on the city books. To go through city expense procedures would be a nightmare for area councils and for the city. If weren’t in the charter, how much would it hurt the area councils to have to set up on their own?
Response: SN: agree with much of what Ruthanne said. Maintain diversity…leaves room for neighborhood associations to exist. What do you gain by eliminating something? SL: Comments on Ms. Garcia’s comments. WAC is transparent—discussion occurs at meetings and do not take formal positions. Feels there would be much less involvement in local government without the area councils. Difficult to make needs heard to the City Council. JR: Doing away with area councils would have significant negative impact. Some members have been on for 30 years. Lot of issues that NHAC gets involved with. TS: want to open this up—associations work hard too, have community input. Not making any decisions—just bring things forward.
Councilor Deb Crossley: Commend CC for how they’ve organized the discussion. Like that they take straw votes and move on. Hope to this completely before go back and revisit, because things are intricately tied together. Citizen participation is the core question here. How do we use the charter to encourage citizen input. Want to make sure that people have a voice. A lot of opportunity for people to speak to city council. How should the charter recognize and regulate area councils—need to ask why? What are the benefits to the city at large? If it’s going to be formalized, why should a resident of the city need to be a registered voter to participate what is going on in their neighborhood? Would there really be less overall involvement in the city? Does the notion of putting this in the charter…does it impact citizen involvement? Is there a burden on city resources? Is it reasonable? Should some number of neighborhoods have greater access?
Kathleen Hobson: a layer of government we don’t need; understand meant to encourage citizen participation. Were meant to be neutral and unbiased, but found that two paragraphs were missing in some area council documents about hearing from diversity in opinions; disallow any attempt to convey an “neighborhood consensus”—WAC has not been neutral, and it has been true since its inception. Started based on Engine 6 controversy. Most members on first council were against housing development. They are accorded special authority that they don’t deserve.
Chris Pitts: VP of Waban Improvement Society. Different kind of person who is interested in community building. Now is the most important time for area councils—see them in the “hot” spots for Newton. Development, schools and traffic. Disagrees with comments on Waban Area Council—doesn’t stop anyone who wants to speak in meetings. Area Councils have learned about topics related to housing, have been hearing from residents. System for a single citizen to come to Newton to raise a complaint is difficulty—area councils help people deal with that. Area Councils help City Councilors be very effective.
Sue Flicop: inequitable representation around the city due to Area Councils. They arose because of a failure of local government to make people feel they’ve been heard and responded to. The solution is not to add more area councils—just adding another layer of government. Taking away ward councilors but adding back area councils? How is this going to improve things? Read the Planning Department Report recently—staff in that department are demoralized and overworked. Without enough staff, difficult to respond to 24 councilors—now going to add Area Councilors with their own issues? That would continue the current problems we have.
Nathaniel Lichtin: To take away a choice that others have made reduced citizen engagement. Area councils are elected bodies and are transparent. If you don’t like what they do, the answer to that is elections. Allow participation throughout the meeting. Small vote numbers—aren’t elected by a large number of people—need to improve, not a reason to do away with—instead work to make more representative. Doing away with another point of contact—leave 13 people with responsibility to respond to the city. Worthy of having funds for projects—City Council, which represents all the city, would decide whether to fund.
September 28th is the next CC meeting, where Article 9 will be discussed.
Respectfully submitted by Sue Flicop