Sue Flicop and Lisa Mirabile, LWVN President and Board Member, read the statement below at the March 30th public hearing on the City Charter:
In our experience helping collect the more than 8,500 signatures required to establish this Charter Commission, the opportunity to reduce the size of our City Council was by far the most compelling reason Newton voters chose to sign that petition. Ask any signature collector, and you will hear that the quickest way to gain a voter’s interest was to mention that a Charter Commission would be able to propose a change to the size of the then Board of Aldermen. Across the city, pens were seized with gusto.
This enthusiasm for change is no surprise to anyone, of course: the size of Newton’s legislature was the key unaddressed change left over from the last charter review. Newton voters also overwhelmingly supported a reduction in the size of the City Council in not one but two non-binding referenda, in 1996 and 2000. In 2006, 10 sitting legislators (many of whom are still sitting) supported a proposed reduction of the board’s size, to no avail.
We hope this Charter Commission will propose a reduction in the size of the City Council for some very specific reasons:
- The unusually large size of Newton’s City Council means a diffusion of responsibility and low accountability. Voters must cast ballots for 17 aldermen every two years (16 at-large plus 1 ward councilor) – a very large number of candidates for even the most civic-minded voter to stay informed about, especially when you add the need to evaluate an additional eight school committee members and sometimes a mayor.
- That information burden on voters, however, is reduced because so few seats are contested. The sheer number of people needed to fill all 24 seats on the City Council, coupled with the residency requirement, means that we sometimes have members who aren’t eager to serve. Many of us in this room know of instances where candidates have had to be pressured to run because no one else showed any interest.
- The size of the City Council costs our legislators and our residents untold wasted hours. Just finding the time for all 24 councilors to speak on a topic and ask questions extends the process of governing substantially, with meetings often running so late that even highly interested members of the public leave before the discussion is over. Anyone who has sat through these meetings can attest to the rarity of original comments after the first 5 or 6 Councilors have spoken.
- The size of the City Council is a burden to the rest of Newton’s government, as well as to its citizens. In your recent hearing on the executive branch, for example, the Mayor of Braintree couldn’t fathom how a single Mayor could work with 24 legislators in a productive and efficient manner. In your last public hearing, one citizen described the impossibility of advocating effectively for her cause: she simply did not have time to communicate with each and every one of the 24 Aldermen, because she also had a job.
What would a smaller City Council have to offer? A smaller City Council could choose to focus on policy matters and delegate administrative details to professionals. It could devote its time to the larger picture, and delegate smaller, less-controversial decisions to appropriate staff. Constituent services are, and will always be, important, but it is neither efficient nor effective for constituents to believe they must contact their own councilor to be sure a pothole is filled. A smaller City Council could clarify roles, improve service, and devote more time to long-term strategic thinking.
Those who want to keep a 24-member Council often argue that if something isn’t broken, we shouldn’t try to fix it. Newton certainly isn’t “broken,” but just as certainly, there’s room for improvement. All change carries risk. But to refuse to change out of fear is just as risky.
Another frequent refrain is that voters want to continue to be able to contact their representatives. Reducing the size of the Council will not somehow mysteriously remove Councilors’ ability to answer calls or emails. Residents who are passionate about an issue, whether it is dog parks, leaf blowers, development or anything else, will still be able to advocate with their representatives. Fewer councilors will make it easier to meet each and every one.
What seems to fuel this argument is the fear that a smaller group of councilors means less chance of finding a sympathetic ear. Which, of course, it will. But how many representatives can a body have before it becomes mired in mud, slowed to a crawl by the unimportant, and ineffective in tackling important issues, especially the unpopular and the controversial? Government is not, and should not be, about efficiency only, but some level of efficiency is necessary to be effective.
For the record, we note that Newton’s City Council is by far the largest in the Commonwealth; the next largest is 15, and Boston itself manages with only 13.
Fewer councilors will inevitably mean individual councilors will have to field more calls. It will also reduce a citizen’s choice of councilors to approach about an issue. We are confident that these are not fatal burdens – in fact, we believe they are strong advantages. A smaller Council would offer the opportunity for a more engaged electorate and more accountability for councilors. A reduction in size would necessitate a review of how and why our Council works the way it does, and a chance to align it with the realities of the present day. Our current Council structure of 24 aldermen, three residents from each ward, two of them elected by the whole city but one by the residents of that ward only, was concocted in 1897, when Newton became a city and “streamlined” its legislature from a bicameral Board of Alderman (one per ward) and Common Council (two per ward) to a single body. Then, as now, politicians were no doubt reluctant to put any of their fellows out of a job. The two bodies were combined into one without reducing their numbers. Today, nearly 120 years later, in an immeasurably different world – one with automobiles, telephones, radios, televisions, computers, cell phones, and the internet, not to mention reverse 911 call systems –we think it is time to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our government by reducing the number of legislators.