Charter Commission Meeting January 27, 2016
Attending: all commissioners, plus Jose Morgan (support staff to Commission); NewTV staff to film the meeting, and about 8 members of the public.
Meeting began with public comment period; 4 people took the opportunity to speak:
City Councilor Lisle Baker encouraged the commission to ensure that the charter ensures that members of the city government are the repository of decision making and can exercise their judgement when needed; he cited a passage regarding who is empowered to take action when the Mayor is unavailable, which should leave room for flexibility in case none of the named officeholders is available.
Earnest Lowenstein noted that he was unable to hear a number of commissioners in the recording of the last meeting.
Sallee Lipshutz asked about the status of the use of the word “forthwith” in describing how quickly a special election must be called and encouraged the commission to use specific, not vague, language, such as stating the requirement as a number of days or weeks.
Andrea Kelley spoke of her personal observations of the Board of Alderman over the past 30 years and advocated for a smaller number of city councilors, believing it would help voters know their representatives to have a smaller group; she also thought it would increase efficiency by reducing the number of people who feel compelled to speak on nearly every issue. She also advocated considering removing the ward alderman position, as she felt ward aldermen have sometimes had too narrow a vision. And, most important, she advocated a change in who has special permitting authority, which she believes would result in fewer conflicts and fairer decisions if it were held by an appointed body rather than the whole city council.
OVERVIEW OF ARTICLES 2, 3 AND 4
The meeting began with an overview of articles 2, 3 and 4; Brooke Lipsitt and Rhanna Kidwell handed out documents outlining the contents of those articles, highlighting areas that they believed deserved close attention.
APPOINTMENTS – Lipsett pointed out unusual provisions in the existing charter, notably how the Treasurer and also the Secretary of the Election Commission are appointed. The authority to appoint the Treasurer moved from the BOA to the Mayor some 30 years ago, but the BOA kept some power, such as requiring its permission to fire a treasurer, and that only with a 2/3 majority. Anne Larner reported on her experience leading a search committee for a Treasurer, where she noted candidates seemed put off by the arrangement and which may have reduced the number of candidates.
Another area of potential concern is temporary appointments, which are supposed to required approval by the BOA within 6 months, but in practice, don’t. The question is, do we care? Concern is that we should a) know what we care and about, and b) be sure it is spelled out, and enforced. This issue often comes into play when an elected official leaves office, but is wanted to fill a spot in city hall. State law requires a one-year waiting period, so a temporary appointment often comes into play (unclear whether a placeholder person is given the job for a year, or that if it’s a temporary position, the state restriction doesn’t apply?)
Salaries – Mayor and Councilors’ are set by ordinance, as it city clerk’s and maybe a few others? Perhaps to ensure that the mayor can’t pressure the council by reducing its staff? Suggestion by Frantz that language re: review should be more specific than the current ‘from time to time.’ Also noted that the Comptroller is hired by the BOA but the salary is set by the mayor.
Boards and Commissions – several suggestions about wanting to look for ways to speed the filling of empty spots. Steele noted that when boards are not filled, it can become hard even to reach a quorum. (question: does the threshold for a quorum exist independently of number of members?) Also, there’s inconsistency between boards about whether a sitting member whose term has expired can or should stay in place until the replacement member is named – would like to see consistency.
FINANCIAL ISSUES – Lipsett mentioned the obscure provision in 4.3(iv), concerning the school committee’s power to provide ordinary maintenance and repairs on school buildings up to a maximum of 2% of the previous year’s operating budget, and asked Larner for an opinion about its meaning and relevance; she declared it was not well written, hasn’t been observed, and that it’s not relevant and should be removed.
Lipsett also noted that it was often unclear which parts of the school budget are, or should be, paid out of the non-school budget, such as building maintenance etc. This may not be an issue that the charter should address, just noting it.
Budget submission and approval – Pretty standard provisions, mayor submits, council approves; council can reduce but not add to the budget. One suggestion to allow the Council to add items as long as the addition(s) are balanced by cuts of the same size.
Capital Improvement Plan – Several noted that the CIP doesn’t have much force; Haywood mentioned the desire to find a way to give it more teeth, e.g. adding some kind of requirement that there is a report on the status of the prior CIP when the next one is introduced (the city produces a 5-year plan every year, not one 5-year plan every 5 years). Lipsett suggested the mayor already makes an annual report on the finances of the city and perhaps a CIP report could be included in that. In general, there was discussion of ways to increase citizens’ faith that the plan has meaning and will be followed. It was also noted that the CIP is a *planning* document and doesn’t authorize or appropriate anything.
There was also mention that we don’t have a requirement for an audit – we do have a standing audit committee, which is relatively new, but it’s not in the charter. There was a suggestion that a requirement for an outside auditor be added, and also the need for an audit of processes and controls.
Last someone mentioned that Everett specifies that there be quarterly communications from the mayor to the council, but that we are vaguer about the frequency of reports, and that we might want to look at that requirement as a way to improve communications between branches.
Some oddity here in that the Council can reorganize/combine/abolish departments as it wishes, but that those departments are controlled by, and do the work of, the executive branch. Also, the mayor may propose reorganizations but has to ask for approval, and the Council may only say yes or not, not make any amendments. Frantz also asked what exactly constitutes a reorganization?
Finally, there was discussion about how the Special Permitting Authority came to be in the hands of the Council, and the suggestion to ask the consultant for help researching how other cities came to put that control elsewhere.
Update on Consultant
Kidwell reported on a phone conversation with the Collins Center to establish a verbal outline of a revision of their revised proposal, which the Commission had been disappointed to see wasn’t much different from the original. Haywood expressed concerns about the Commission reducing the scope of the proposal too much, and not asking for more help, saying that he didn’t want to shortchange that part, noting how much work the Commission had to do. Manning explained that they were proposing to do things the Newton Commission had already done and/or that it didn’t want outsiders to do. Haywood noted that the proposed budget is the same dollar amount as the budget 45 years ago and wondered how that could possibly be sufficient, but conceded to the group’s assurances that the budget included a very significant cushion for additional unanticipated work.
Manning reported that a number of wrinkles had been ironed out re: the website, the mailing list, etc. and that the communications work was getting much better and everyone’s patience was much appreciated.
Steele and Manning agreed to confer about adding social media to their communications strategy (by automatically pushing email updates to Facebook and Twitter, very easy to do with Mailchimp – NOT adding to anyone’s workload).
Review of Article 8
There was agreement that Krinzman’s re-numbering of the articles should be reverted, using letters was too confusing, fine to stick with the existing article numbers until further along in the process and the commission had a better idea of how things would be reorganized. There were a number of additional small items in the redlined version of the revision that were reviewed and Krinzman agreed to make those changes to the revised article.
Financing of the Commission
Krintzman explained that city clerk David Olson had assured him that it was not the commission’s responsibility to fund the mailing of the proposed revisions, but the City Council’s; he also noted that the timing would push it into the 2018 fiscal year so it was too early to worry about it.
The commission agreed with Krinzman that the total amount that they’d ask the Council for is $45,500, including $30K for the consultant, money to cover help to the Commission’s by Jose Morgan, and money to cover the cost of routine printing and copying of documents for each meeting.
Krinzman then raised the question of whether the Commission wanted office space from the city, something the city is obligated to provide if so. Lipsett reminded the group that the space would be very modest, but there was agreement that it would be very helpful even so, especially to give Morgan a place to write up minutes etc. And there was much discussion of the need for a printer, something the commission currently lacks any access to.
Additional Meetings/Public Hearings
Work on the first of the additional meetings/public hearings is underway: there’s a plan to meeting Feb 29th and invite mayors from other communities, former mayors, perhaps people who ran for mayor. There was agreement to work on a list of topics to be discussed, and also agreement that there should be an option for people to respond in writing if they were unable to attend in person.
The meeting was adjourned at 9:21.
Submitted by Lisa Mirabile, 2-9-16