Charter Commission Meeting
August 24, 2016
Attending: Josh Krintzman (chair), Rhanna Kidwell (vice-chair), Bryan Barash, Jane Frantz, Anne Larner, Brooke Lipsitt, Karen Manning, and Chris Steele.
Not attending: Howard Haywood
Approval of Minutes: July 12th minutes—approved 8-0
Ernest Lowenstein: composition of City Council—rep from Worcester at earlier meeting said that one section of the city elected a dominant number of counselors because they were at-large. Nine people on commission were endorsed by LWVN as a slate.
Susan Flicop: LWVN did not endorse any candidates. All were given equal time and there was no LWVN slate.
Ernest Lowenstein: someone did and the current members were all on the slate.
Sally Lipshutz: NACs (neighborhood area councils) were not covered in the definition in the city charter in terms of liability coverage. On city council composition—position has evolved: attached to current system with 24 councilors. But…if number is to be made smaller, consider keeping 8 ward councilors; keep 8 at large city councilors with residency requirement—therefore having 16 councilors. City councilor leadership from 8 at-large; Article 9—expand rules enable growth of NAC to cover all of Newton. If NAC are primarily communication vehicles, then powers should reflect that.
Jack Pryor: echo Ernest and Sally on city council composition. Go from current state with 3 people represented per ward…could become out of skew by having at large councilors.
City Council Composition:
JK: (using powerpoint) 8 ward councilors and 16 at large; mentioned issues that have arisen; looked at 5 potential models with variations of number of ward, at-large councilors.
- size of council 24 to 13
- Difficult to learn about candidates—reduce candidates
- Length of city council meetings—reduce candidates
- Confusion over election—simple method
- Incumbency advantage—ward seat eliminated but term limits added
After discussion with public, heard concern about possible influence by one ward
- Support to maintain majority at large
- Reduction in size
- Desire to hold individual accountable
- Some concern about elimination in Ward councilors.
- Support for citywide accountability for councilors
Maybe talk about at-large councilors, but by district (of which there are 4); districts are more difficult to establish
BB: good starting place for discussion; intrigued by presentation; came into meeting thinking that it might not be wise to have a vote and to wait until fall, especially with something new to think through. Looking forward to discussion.
BL: was prepared to propose what Josh has just proposed; had other benefits—Brooke has been uncomfortable with the concept of 13; know that model city charter said there should be an odd number, but BL has not understood the rationale, since council needs a majority; only concern is what happens when council votes on its own leadership—council has revised its rules so it’s rather irrelevant. New proposal means won’t “stack the deck” in terms of one interest group or another.
CS: glad starting conversation, but want time to get word out that commission is reviewing its decision; starting to think about a similar scenario; concept of officeholder accountability was weighing on him—with truly at-large, couldn’t truly challenge a particular person.
AL: has also been thinking of the same scenario; not ready to move away from the earlier vote, but feels important to create new option and leave it dynamic to get input and feedback; far less concerned about perception of accountability, but likes the notion of a small group that is truly at large—it gets more people running and more competition. It would lead to a more robust field; always a possibility you would get a clump—doubt get them all from one ward—voters are smart and issue would be brought up in an election; if something doesn’t work, the city can respond by ousting people—city responds quickly and firmly. Have had slates run, still do, and it usually starts with an opposition slate trying to oust existing elected officials. The slate wasn’t geographical, but was from a policy or issue perspective. That’s part of politics.
JF: number 12 works much better, since require a 2/3 majority for many votes; doesn’t feel comfortable with 13; noted concern about the group of 5 at-large—none resonate with Jane personally, but hears concern; doesn’t feel comfortable proposing one that has so much concern; in Maine, have a governor elected by a plurality and not a majority because of a large number of independents in state. Would feel more comfortable with a council where people are not elected by a plurality.
RK: two things important to her: downsizing and, after doing all the research, opportunity to add the at-large pool. 52 of 54 cities have at-large councilors. Newton and Barnstable have no truly at large candidates; has benefits—get the best people in the city no matter where they live; pool would be more accountable; get more competition as it becomes less personable. New scenario—all want the same thing—how to best serve the neighborhoods that are at risk of feeling disenfranchised. How would each scenario play out? In either, have one representative from ward. In district—may not have had an opponent; In at large, have best people citywide who have to answer to the whole city, not just one ward. Feels better served with latter scenario. Encountered very few people who are not willing to support semething along these lines.
BB: been considering whether pool or district scenario: like district model because have more regional balance, easier to target a specific person, majority vote. With pool, best competition, more competition, less personal as not running against a neighbor. Concerns about minority voices—point of view or regional. District addresses minority views based on geography. Pool works toward minority viewpoint on policy. Latter happens in other communities. Can give an outlet for a voice that haven’t heard yet.
KM: reactions are personal and subjective; wide range of reactions; commission can’t please everyone; can’t change the model and assume they will have board support; hope that over time people will see that group is conscientious in their decision-making. Speakers felt that system was fairly self-correcting. NO magic formula for widespread support.
BL: like the district approach—goes a small way to address concern about those unhappy with eliminating ward councilors. On the other hand, can be convinced to go with 4 at large. Feel more strongly about 12 v. 13 than about how find those other 4.
AL: gotten a small amount of feedback; need more from public; get more information out there and hear from a wide group of people. Want to talk more abut 12 v 13. Need more convincing about this importance.
BL: one of stated goals was to make the process simpler and easier to understand, to invite greater participation. A number of things that Council does that by statute require 2/3 vote. People count vote on controversial topics…if need 15 2/3 votes, makes it harder to understand.
RK: to get a 2/3 majority of 12, need 8, with 13 need one more person.
BL: Why should we up the ante?
BB: 2/3 is how it is because the legislature wanted to make it hard to pass. Making it out of 13, it gets that much harder (.68 rounds to 1 person).
BL: If don’t get more than 50 percent, don’t win. Can’t come up with a scenario when having an uneven number is beneficial. Election of Council President is done by caucus.
AL: Many votes on SC where there is an even split—Mayor isn’t there for all votes. It’s not a problem.
RK: Address Mr. Lowenstein’s comments—gentlemen from Worcester said that some wards weren’t represented—district model. Newton would have at least one councilor per ward; other cities have only at large and don’t find it a problem. Comment about slates—when came to electing charter commission, a late was kind of useful—there were several, since many people were unknown and there was a large pool. Ton of name recognition in the first at-large election; Sometimes slates don’t work—can be problematic, so can’t see how they will play out. Have been meeting with “city leaders” and everyone has their own opinion—great way to be educated.
JF: concerned about less-involved residents and their understanding of the system. Don’t understand process when there is an issue of great concern to them—12 could be much clearer. Comment on disenfranchisement—taught at Burr, when many felt disenfranchised. See this as a real issue that need to address; they feel that they will never have someone in that pool of at-large councilors and have the same representation.
RK: No guarantee that second rep would be from your ward anyway—could be from the district but not from the ward.
JF: concerned about making a decision that may set the commission back.
BB: on majority with 12, may have 6-6, and that will drive the political process. Need to work to elect the 7th—use elections to address this. 7/12 would allow for more consensus. Also: what have proposed would be a significant improvement; new proposal –find unlikely that all 4 would come from one ward/district. Difference in policy outcomes might not be all that different.
KM: need to brainstorm how to get more input from a larger group
BL: doesn’t think can get a sense of where the community is; need to go with best judgement, explain it and sell it to the public; any time facing tough decision with a radically different and not-radically different choice, go with not-radically different because it is an easier “sell.” Already made a substantial change with a reduction in the size of city council—therefore, go with easier changes to ensure this change would pass. Look at the “endgame” and try to make the big changes as few as possible. Leans toward district, and not at-large.
AL: gut reaction is that they need to sketch out how use the rest of the time and see if can figure a time when substantially complete on straw decisions and have a “dog and pony” show around the city with publicity to try to get a larger amount of feedback. Maybe in January/February?
BB: people will look at this very big picture. Some of the other decisions—might not really enter into the picture, but might come down to a reduction in the size of council. Want to find the best charter for the city and not worry about each individual group.
KM: sees an opportunity to fix things that might have been broken and to take advantage of opportunities; no pleasing everybody; with Brian—build the best charter possible. Cynical about reaching out to people in the dead of winter.
AL: may not get a huge response, but have a responsibility to try more, even though it may fall flat.
RK: got 59 emails when first started this topic; 78% of emails were in favor, 17% had alternative proposal, others wanted to keep the size to 24. 50% of proposed charters pass; reasons they fail includes sometimes not broad support, strong minority report (5-4 vote)
JK: proposed a district model in effort to try to increase number of people who support the proposal; feels that people who support the current proposal will also support the district proposal.
Discussion: One meeting and one public hearing in September, one in October. Find a second date in October?
RK: radical v. less popular: if explain proposal in line with best practices, popular structure with other cities, then it won’t be seen as radical.
BL: not convinced that many people feel that things in this city are not working…where close division and can make the case for either one, go with the less radical change.
Bryan: When talking about Article 11, talked about having some clarity about the process of public comments. Put together some new proposal in packet.
RK: Voted against it before because needed more work. Feels this does belong in the charter, even though don’t want to micromanage. Feel that public comment at a public meeting is a right that needs to be protected. In the current charter, not making it user friendly to citizens. Likes Bryan’s proposal and will support it.
BL: concept is fine. Would propose a modification…change second sentence: add a phrase about considering the convenience of the public. Trying to make sure people are conscious of the responsibility.
RK: interpretation could be done so that comment is at the end.
Discussion about how to include both…problem isn’t that there isn’t public comment—it’s more that it is at the end of the meeting.
BB: prefers beginning of meeting…otherwise too “squishy”
JK: problem is that there are a lot of different issues and behaviors; can’t legislate that behavior. Likes Brooke proposal.
BL: need to define public body
Motion (by Brooke): add to the already adopted language: All public bodies…at reasonable intervals, shall consider the convenience of the public in scheduling such public comment periods and provide notice of when such public comments will occur. Then last sentence—remove “unanticipated”
Process for Article 9:
About area councils, written in 1972, when there weren’t area councils. Language is unclear and needs a good solid review. Panel on September 14th with representation from area council and one village association. Agenda will include public comments. Process of developing guideline questions for panelists. JF: a lot of interesting ideas from around the country about setting up neighborhood councils and the issues they deal with. Need to add info on open meeting law and conflict of interest as well. Deliberations on September 28th.
Preliminary/Final Report: Rhanna, Karen, Jane and Josh will start a draft together to put together some materials.
Bryan Barash: article in Newton TAB and Village 14 about salary discussion. Discussion is happening in the community.
Put compensation back on the agenda and then discuss whether to add to the charter.
Sally Lipshutz: still waiting for answer to question about Area council….definition in Article 11 excludes it. Response: made a note to discuss this issue when discuss Article 9.
Ernest Lowenstein: would at large councilors run against each other or as a pool? Response: top 5 vote getters would be elected.
Discussion: any limit on size of pool? No, but haven’t discussed the issue of preliminary with regard to at-large candidates.
Kathleen Hobson: unclear why stepping back from vote on at-large councilors. Is there anything in the public records? Seems to her that they are imagining a bogeyman that is not there and that they are reacting to it. Fearing defeat more than concerned to craft the best possible size and composition package. Urge to go back to April discussion and re-listen to it. It was so impressive. Not all in agreement at beginning, but were at the end. No one was railroaded. It was an impressive meeting. Response: JF—felt that district councilors were intriguing to her and that both scenarios would serve the city well. Notion of district councilors seemed to be too far a step for city to take. Thought is was a valid way to compose the city council. Kathleen: why? Haven’t heard anything in the public record. It feels a little like a cabal—haven’t seen what is happening. Response: BL: gotten response on straw votes in public and private. Responding to conversations that they are hearing individually. Kathleen: what about the notion that 78% of emails were in favor of what they did. Then there are all the conversations going on in the grocery store.
Sue Flicop: I agree with Kathleen. Feels like stuff going on outside meetings. Response: AL: she didn’t know that this was going on tonight. It was organic. Not a bad thing—a natural thing from a group that is trying hard with limited resources to address complex issues. Organic process.
Jack Pryor: voting is much more local than national. At large candidates need to run citywide. Great that reconsidering this issue—it felt that the straw vote was sudden.
JF: most controversial vote, is right to revisit it.
Next meeting September 14th. Will plan another September meeting.
Respectfully submitted by Sue Flicop.