Charter Commission Public Hearing
March 30, 2016
Attending: Jane Frantz, Anne Larner, Josh Krintzman, Howard Haywood, Karen Manning, Chris Steele, Rhanna Kidwell, Brooke Lipsitt, Bryan Barash
Rick Lipof: started back in 1977, goes up to 2007 with Rick and Verne Vance. 250 page book with history of the reduction in the size of the Board of Aldermen (BOA). Last real debate in 2006-2008, sparked by Rick and Verne’s proposal. Will leave summary and response with Charter Commission (CC). This reason is why we have the CC. 10 Aldermen signed on in 2006, with 3 others for a reduction in the size of the Board, but only by CC. Had 13 people who were in support. Twice the public overwhelmingly agreed in a reduction in the BoA. Number 1 question—how are you going to restructure the work? Many ways to do this—will hear about this tomorrow night at the next hearing. Can combine committees, work that doesn’t need the BoA to do—rubber stamping, etc. #1 thing is the special permit authority that the CoA has. As a real estate professional, knows that other communities handle things differently. Should be done differently here—with the Planning Board.
Sue Flicop and Lisa Mirabile: LWVN statement (see LWVN website)
Ernest Lowenstein: Believes should be the present size due to special permits. If in the hands of an appointed Board, Austin Street would never have been publicly discussed. Keep the ward aldermen—closer to their neighborhood and neighbors…whether to have two at-large aldermen from each ward? If reduce the aldermen, hands go into “the big money guys.” About the Mayor working with the aldermen, how about Charlie Baker and state legislators? President Obama and the Congress? At-large Aldermen run one-on-one, instead of way it is now (??) Citizens of Newton don’t know what the size of the Board is and how it is elected. Teach the children of Newton how it works.
Lynn Weissberg: Support the LWVN statement. First, size of the Board needs to be drastically reduced. Materials that commission has prepared that compares Newton to other cities show that Newton is a complete outlier. No need to have 24 people in the legislative body…leads to hearings that are far too long. Whatever the number, no justification for maintaining 24 or exceeding 13. Yes, the House and Senate of the US have 535 members—dealing with a range of issues that is far greater than our Governor and our Mayor deals with. Comparison doesn’t mean anything. Size of Newton, issues that the legislative body has to deal with can be handled by a smaller group. Second, should be elected at large—residency requirements like School Committee. Important to have representation from areas around the city. The decisions on special permits should not be the province of politicians. Process that is not needed, plays into worst instincts of politicians—should be handled by professionals. Other communities have qualifications for these decisions.
Cathy Laufer: in favor of a reduction in the size of the Board of Aldermen. Some things before councilor is should be done by staff—paid by the city and have some expertise to bear. Appreciate thoughtfulness of LWVN and Councilor Lipof considering the history. Look more creatively; size of the Board has contributed to divisiveness. A smaller board will hopefully work together and with a better process.
Kathleen Hobson: Agree with LWVN and Lynn Weisberg and Kathy Laufer—aldermen should be at-large; land use needs to go to a professional board. Most influenced by a master’s thesis (‘battle of victory’ field). Cites the large size of the board and decentralized and fragmented decision-making. [From Brooke: who should be determined to select the qualifications? No need to reinvent the wheel—follow other communities.]
Jonathan Code: speak against shrinking the size of the City Council. Invites others to look at juries—why twelve? Streamlining government makes him nervous—tool of autocrats, despots, etc. What other communities do is irrelevant; other than Cambridge, few other communities have a population like Newton. Current City Council has experts on many topics. Should be grateful that 24 people are willing to serve; many hands make light work—many hands lessens the burden that falls on any one of them. The smaller the Council, easier to be manipulated or influenced. Would recommend two ward councilors and one at-large per ward. Taking away land use favors developers. Professionals look at how to tweak the project but evaluate it. City Councilors are more responsive to residents than City employees.
Ruthanne Fuller: Guiding principles that she is considering: deep belief in democracy—power of people to elect those who are making the decisions is powerful and essential—tempting to put important decisions in hands of professionals. But would lean towards giving them to elected officials. Question of term limits—leave it up to the voters to re-elect someone. Length of service helps deliberations. Land use and special permits—prefers a hybrid. In past, a traffic council was established to deal with traffic issues—staffed by professionals with one elected official. Decision-making was turned over from elected officials to this group. Decisions are appeal-able back to the City Council; the professional group does such a good job, they only get one or two appeals a year. Another principle: diversity of opinion: city is extremely diverse—having that show up in elected officials is really important. Third principle: are we 13 villages in one city or one city with 13 villages? Goes with the latter. Lose the one-city perspective when voted on by only one section of the city. Another principle: strong Mayor, strong staff, volunteer City Council. Keep it volunteer, part-time, power with the Mayor (accountable to everyone.) Size of the Council—isn’t the key question though is on the mind of voters. Let it fall out of the other decisions—not opposed but let it be driven by other decisions. Issue of effectiveness is dependent on who is elected—size affecting effectiveness is a red herring. Essential functions of a City Council: finance, writing the zoning ordinances, public facilities, land use. Other things are more routine.
Rob Gifford: strongly favor scenario D—7-9 at-large councilors. Strongly in keeping with National Civic League and benchmark communities. Will better serve residents, bring them closer to the city. Hard to get a timely work in when have an agenda with 24 councilors who need to speak; reduces incentive to come again and speak—contributes to lack of engagement. Most residents don’t understand the structure of government—tough to get people engaged unless involved. Size and complexity of Board is a deterrence to broad-based citizen engagement. By eliminating ward councilors—found that ward at-large councilors are very aware of issues and responsive to their ward voters. Need to have staff to support the board. Recommend lightening the load by using professionals for land use decisions.
[From Brooke: meetings of full board don’t have public comment, so how would reducing the size of the city council change that? Public comment happens in smaller meetings. Ruthanne—for a controversial item, a committee might hold public hearing in council chambers where many, many members come and are allowed to ask questions long before the public is allowed to comment.]
Sallee Lipshutz: important to maintain current size of city council. Oversees important function of city, with 8 on each committee. Gives them time to focus specialized oversight of important city functions and to become competent. Study in detail, ask relevant questions of administration and professionals. Fewer would lead to less competent and less effective oversight. Arguments are slowed down, but they are also clarified and honed, allowing for consideration of multiple views. Better chance at solid regulation by having to have so many people agree. Gives the public the opportunity to speak and be heard. Should take a concerted effort to make change and not be made by an unelected body. Ward councilor is nearest to the people. Chooses scenario A as ideal…have the at large councilors run independently of each other. Two-year terms are too short for candidates to “learn the ropes.” Three year terms would be an ideal change, with 5-term maximum limit. Refresh body but allow competency. Advertise the elections with voter education to encourage voting. Salary review should be required every 15 years.
Deb Crossley: was President of LWVN when the referendum happened. What is the Board charged to take on, versus what has it assigned to itself? Much of the work done by the Council is small stuff. Florence Rubin would say that if you reduce the size, you reduce the workload. Very important work that the Council does and it is a time sacrifice (among other ways). Duties and responsibilities that could give up without harming the City. Some are quite small. Would prefer to focus on zoning, land use, more strategic issues. If can take the land use decision-making from the City Council, incumbent on group as to how that should be done. Would be better not to have the responsibility on elected members—pits neighbor against neighbor. Item before the City Council to try to draw a line between small and large projects. Boards and commissions: section in the charter that the Mayor appoints the members, but there is one with appointments from numerous voters. A number that are extremely useful, and it might be useful to require that some of them have seats appointed by the City Council. One paragraph at the end of the charter—about the comprehensive plan. Should be updated. A lot in the charter that is not being observed. Smaller legislative body—easier to figure out how to vote. No term limits for either the City Council or the School Committee. If make the ballot more legible, make responsibilities clearer, then get a bigger turnout at the ballot box. [From Bryan Barash: change the commissions and board—list them in the charter? Too many, but a one is not fully appointed by the Mayor.]
Claire Sokoloff: Once in a generation opportunity to really think about if we are doing things as well as we can. People try to engage, but still have difficulty understanding and then don’t engage. Need less cumbersome system. People have to wait to hear 24 aldermen, redundant and not productive. Likes geographic diversity and representation. Thought the SC system worked well—person had the pulse of that ward but a city-wide focus. Challenge of handling issues—was easy to divert people who came to the SC to professionals. Current BoA system adds a layer of management (talking about potholes, etc.). Term limits—felt that had a lot to offer even was term limited out, but felt it was good for the system. People who stay too long can amass too much power and can be intimidating to other people.
Brian Yates: Newton was ranked as the 4th best place to live in country—good place to live. LWVMA successfully passed a reduction in the size in the House of Representatives—can’t think of any standards that have improved with a smaller body.
Jay Walter: land use should be taken out of the hands of politicians. Problems on boards and commissions can be solve by mayoral and council appointments. Should be addressed by professionals dedicated to work of a certain commission. Some project that perfectly align with comprehensive plan require a long term response, not a project by project discussion.