Charter Commission Meeting
April 13, 2016
Attending: Josh Krintzman (Chair), Rhanna Kidwell (Vice-Chair), Bryan Barash, Howard Haywood, Jane Frantz, Brooke Lipsitt, Anne Larner, Karen Manning,
City Councilor Lisle Baker: Upcoming discussion is about the most important decision they’ll make. Important to focus on what’s going right. Newton is an outlier in many ways, makes us the open community we are. Lots of people participate in lots of ways. Greater efficiency & effectiveness are not the automatic outcome of a smaller council. A large council has served the city well, will continue to do so.
Ernest Lowenstein – Would like to draw attention to the word “efficient.” Asks the commission to at least be willing to define it, don’t just throw it around. Democracy is not designed to be efficient.
Matt Hills, chair, School Committee: Current 8 year term limit helps form the culture that makes it the effective body that it is; no one owns it. Troubled by idea that longer limits will ensure more competitive races. Also, there is more history of competitive races than we think. This year, he and Margie Decter Ross will be leaving; 2 strong candidates have emerged. But they wouldn’t likely have emerged or been willing to run against Matt and Margie. Term limits go to the culture of the committee; turnover is good, new blood is good. Wants to see straw vote changed and return to 8-year limit.
Don Ross. Has always felt we should keep council to 24. Never heard a good reason why it should be reduced. In favor because is working well; easier to find a ward or local councilor for constituent services. Also provides more entry points to politics. Wants to be clear there are people just as passionate on the side of keeping a larger council as there are who want to downsize.
Article 4 Draft Discussion:
Begin by looking at draft of article 4 that was sent around. Frantz: great draft. One concern re: term limits. We focused on election, incumbency, opposed elections, etc. Didn’t focus on impact the extension would have on the entire system. More important the vote was 4-2-2, one absent. Not wise to let a very important decision stand when it didn’t pass with a majority vote, wants to table that vote and return to issue.
Steele concurs. Was absent for vote, is concerned re discussion, thinks we don’t have enough data to feel comfortable concurring with it. Return when discussing term limits in general?
Larner: we know the topic will arise again, and there is some connectedness between term limits between the two bodies. Might be good to save, look at the pieces together. There is a system, worth looking at the whole.
Barash, Manning also agree would like to leave for now and return to the discussion when discussing term limits in general. Kidwell, echoes Larner, and Barash, and Manning.
Frantz: wants to be sure have a really robust discussion, re specifics of the school committee in particular.
Barash: asks if Frantz is saying there are factors we didn’t consider at last discussion? If so, please tell the commission what those are before we return to the discussion; Frantz said yes, there are, and she will get that information out.
Krintzman notes he added placeholder language in the draft re: date of residence in the instance of filling a vacancy.
Discussion of the language in 4.1a “The school committee shall be the judge of the election and qualification of its members.” Krintzman sees it as a final check – if the school committee isn’t the ultimate arbiter of who’s a member of its body, then who should be? Election commission certifies the vote, but they couldn’t and shouldn’t be the body that judges, say, that a member should be disqualified because of some conduct unbecoming or something – confer how the Massachusetts House once removed of its own.
Article 2 Discussion – Led by Rhanna Kidwell and Howard Haywood
Haywood: we all recognize how important this section is, and that there’s a need for careful consideration. Struck by Penta’s comment [at last night’s meeting where there was testimony from legislators from surrounding communities] asking what prompted this charter review. If asked most people, they would say it’s about the size of the council.
We’ve looked at benchmark cities; the model cities recommendations. Those give lots of reasons why a smaller board works best, and also that is should be an odd number. So, we need to consider at that, consider what we’ve hear from constituents, and also consider how we assess the performance of our existing Council. We should seek empirical evidence that change would improve matters. He notes that we are way outside the norm for the whole country – not just our benchmark cities.
What are some of the reasons why people think should be smaller? With 24 members, relatively easy for someone elected repeatedly but not contributing much to just float; not accountable. Also, In Newton, having 24 to vote for at a time contributes to bullet voting; if you look at the actual records, can see it happens.
Kidwell: we also need to be clear about terminology: what we call “at large” is not the usual meaning of the term: we have “at large by ward.”
Suggestion, and agreement, to go around table, let each commissioner speak:
Frantz: We need to set priorities. Accountability to voters keeps rising to the top. Her priority is to look for a scenario that best keeps councilors accountable.
Lipsett: hears issue of accountability as important. Her own opinion about size of board has varied a lot. When she was a member, she felt v strongly should retain 24 because she wanted everyone to know an alderman they could go to, and the large number preserved the best access to the board. As communications have improved, with reverse 911, 311 calls, lobby operators – she feels that is less critical. Also, she doesn’t care how long meetings run – that’s the council’s choice; they can control things, and adjust things if meeting length is a problem. Sure, once every year or two there is an Austin St debate, and the public gets very annoyed with meeting length etc. But, that was a really important debate for the community: a long debate was a GOOD thing. Feels it’s important not to base a decision on the occasional, hardest instances. On other hand, re accountability, more convinced as time goes by that having 2 at large councilors run simultaneously is not a good idea. Leaning toward 4 year terms for at-large, alternating, so no one gets free ride against the incumbent. Wants every race to be contested every time – that’s her goal in life. But it doesn’t encourage competition when have 2 incumbents against a challenger. That has become the key issue to her.
Barash: when first heard about Charter Commission, wondered why we should have one. All seems to work reasonably well etc. But as he examined things, it became clear there were a lot of people who felt things were not working well. During campaign, as he knocked on lots of doors, he frequently found a visceral reaction to size of board, that Newton is an outlier, large number doesn’t seem necessary. Reading model charter and recommendations for charter commissions was struck by how strongly the commentary favors trying to get a smaller board, with at-large representation whenever possible. Seems clear these people, who’ve spent a lot of time researching, really think that’s the ideal. Doesn’t mean they’re right, but worth considering.
Manning: appreciates Barash’s historic perspective on his own evolution through the campaign process. Entered without preconceptions, truly. Have heard so much persuasive and heartfelt testimony from important, wise people in community, but have started to form instincts. At-large-by-ward representation strikes an important balance for our city. Believes in term limits. Unambiguous data supports having smaller board – very clear we are outlier, other places have well designed systems to take care of business better. If put more focus on that – on staff etc to run city better: clearly can be done well. At same time, on her work reviewing the School Committee, can understand arguments that Newton is unique, don’t conform to other communities. Respects that point: Newton is special.
Krintzman: Many thanks to Haywood, Kidwell for the hard work and excellent information they’ve provided. Have heard from lots of people – hearings, emails, etc. & commission has obligation to represent the people, and to let people choose their government. One big part here is what the role of the council is. Lot of conceptions. Constituent services is one part. Though as an FYI charter commission already limited constituent service role of council in review of article 11. It was sense of commission that constituent services had a place, but not necessarily as big as some think. Clearly no single right answer. Debate is good. Whatever we do will be unhappy people. Our obligation is to provide very clear reasoning for decisions we come up with. Jobs city council does can be done with fewer people, and still preserve people’s access to the council and councilors. Can certainly come up with a way to represent the whole city, with fewer people. Then council could hone its responsibilities.
Steele: echo and expand on Krintzman. We were elected to represent, but also to bring experience, expertise to table. Re geographic representation – in communities where he’s worked where parts of a community aren’t adequately represented is clearly a bad outcome. At-large-by-ward really helps. Re: having 2 at large per ward, not only does that make it easier for someone to skate by, but, as former candidate, most people assume you are going after one or the other of the sitting people: great misunderstanding of how the system works; few know they can vote for 2. Core principal is to create clarity about how the system functions – and accountability for elected officials. Still need conversation about actual role. Can’t rely on councilors to take up failings of city’s ‘customer service’ function – really masks a deficiency in the system, need to be careful of that.
Kidwell: did come with biases: she undertook signature campaign, obviously wanted to see change. But truly committed to seeing what voters wanted. Did a tally of comments: out of 55,000 voters in Newton, 43 people have weighed in. In favor of status quo: 19; downsize: 24. Arguments for status quo most speak re: importance of accessibility, opportunity for more to participate. Proponents of downsizing speak more strongly, and there are more of them. Voters have repeatedly asked for smaller council, it’s time to give them the option to vote bindingly for that. Also large number of people who’ve served on council to agree we don’t need 24: that speaks really loudly. Not persuaded downsizing would increase workload. Current structure makes job unattractive to many candidates (long meetings, large group). Size of ballot absurd, doesn’t increase participation, accountability, etc. Also no clear mandate when have 2 people from each ward, who’s running against who/what. Almost more bothered by composition — 3 per ward just makes no sense. Automatically leads to redundancy. No one in state – probably not in country – does that. Putting more people on a job than you need is built-in redundancy, just wasteful. Support some councilors truly at-large – just running for office, not against a specific person. Re ward councilors – everyone says job shouldn’t be different if ward vs at-large-by-ward, so why the distinction? School committee members all say they prefer being accountable to whole city.
Larner: not part of LWVN movement; skeptic about having a charter commission. Started doing a lot of reading, talking over summer. Has learned a lot, head has moved over past 8-9 months. Probing deeper re size of board. Consistent thread from active community members: that complexity of ballot and system is consistent theme. It can be easy to pass off complaints and say people just aren’t trying to understand things, but heard from so many people who are active and respected, really have to listen. The undervotes is a fallout from that complexity. Even if you look at which ward appears last on ballot you see fewer votes…! From that piece alone, something has to be done to make ballot simpler, more accessible. To encourage participation. And to also give people who are interested a sense of the lines of accountability. On the other hand, issue is effectiveness. Not so concerned about efficiency – but effectiveness is the question. Is a smaller body more effective? After lot of reading, comparing, listening: comes down that a lot of evidence shows that less than 24 would probably be far more effective. Also believes shouldn’t be too prescriptive re: constraining powers; let the council decide for itself. Broad geographic representation is important; open to some truly at-large, but do want also at-large-by-ward.
Haywood: last speaker. When came to run, considering whether his biases would prevent having an open mind, still concerned as began process. But as began, less concerned. Austin St. process – some people say size of board created a better process, hear more ideas. He thinks size made the process redundant – could have same community input, same meetings etc but 24 people to make decision didn’t mean better discussion or argument. Having a lot of different voices didn’t add any value – in his opinion. In fact, with a smaller board with strong opinions would have made process work better. Newton is an outlier, sure, but really, we’re just people like everyone else. We shouldn’t be holding on to our notions of being so special. “we’re Newton” doesn’t make us better – makes us stagnant. Takes too long to get things done. Smaller, 4-year terms, staggered; have term limits, or not — be consistent with school committee. Are we proud of a dysfunctional system?? When we tell other people about our system, they don’t think we’re special, they think we’re nuts! We should be arguing about what we want from our gov’t. Responsibility of ward vs at-large have no difference in responsibilities. If a ward councilor were only considering my ward, I wouldn’t vote for him: I want them to have same interest in other wards. That’s how we make a better city! You can tell votes are frequently purely political — can hide in the 24. Wants people to speak their mind. If different from constituents, fine – stand on it. Tons of respect for Lisle, but just doesn’t convince me should stay w status quo.
Krintzman: could make a motion; or Kidwell and Haywood have identified composition, could talk about that.
Frantz: wants to say important to have at-large-by-ward, but only 1 per ward. 4 year terms allows to stagger, helps shrink ballot. Very concerned that with such a large board it’s easy to “slip through the cracks,” when that happens, people aren’t held accountable .
Lipsett: her concern about reducing size has been how exactly you do it: the balance between the ward representation and the at-large. How reduce size without changing the weight, the preponderance of citywide over ward. Preference for combo of true at large and at-large-by-ward – scenario D. Not sure of number truly at large. Has thought one approach is to reduce number of wards, say to 5, but just gets too complicated, don’t want to change wards. Thinking more, some portion, not a majority, truly at large is the way to go. Last night, there was a question re truly at-large people: did it get focused on one location – did one geographic area get too much power? Doesn’t seem to be the case.
Barash: feeling similarly – scenario D. Clearly not A; a number originally though B maybe, but it seems no longer right. With 8 wards, a proper balance will require a larger number of at-large, should be at least 4 or 5.
Manning: scenario D, with 13 total.
Krintzman: prefers truly at-large for whole council, but in the end, leans most toward D. Has come to point where 1 per ward at large is great, but not whole council – add others truly at large.
Steele: also scenario D.
Kidwell: scenario D. Willing to consider E, but the downside but somehow that adds layer of confusion, just not great.
Larner: exactly. Parts of E nice, but too complex, and point is to reduce complexity. Wants D.
Haywood: Scenario D.
Frantz: leans to D. questioning effect of 3-5 at large – 3 vs 5.
Barash: have been thinking something specifically bad about the 2 at large, when a 3rd person runs – more poisonous. Not as much an issue with a larger pool. Much better understanding of how it works, that it is a pool – than way it currently works.
Lipsett: delighted to see coming to consensus so easily.
Kidwell: before making a motion, let’s go ahead and spell out the specifics re: number of at-large.
Frantz: concerned about 3: might favor certain wards. Just a supposition. Larner conflicted. 13 feels right. But concerned that a larger number increases risk there could be a geographic cluster. What tends to happen with pools is a challenger will ask voters to bullet vote. Much easier for a challenger to actually get elected when in group of 5, not 3.
Krintzman: if 3, even if all 3 from one ward, still aren’t in the majority. If we have more than 5, that does become a possibility.
Lipsett: likes 7. Larger number would improve frequency of turnover – more opportunity to break in. But sees issue of unlikely but possible geographic cluster coming to dominate means leans back to 5.
Haywood: moves to adopt D, with 5 at large. Lipsett seconds. Krintzman caveat: this is based on assumption we keep 8 wards.
Lipsett: only reason we looked at changing # of wards was if going all by wards, to get to the right numbers. And would push any change out to 2020 census. Let’s leave the wards alone. General agreement.
Barash: 5 people at large, risk of clustering: doesn’t think necessarily a bad thing, an ill-intended cluster just isn’t going to last for long. And fine if happen to have cluster of people who voters like… self-correcting.
Vote: 9 in favor, 0 against.
Move on to Eligibility, length of term, term limits.
Go around table again.
Barash: typically inclined against term limits, but thru these conversations and talking w voters, is a strong appeal at local level. Lot of people aren’t as engaged. Clear consensus we want to keep term limits for school committee, which plays into it. Don’t think they should be wildly different. Council could have a somewhat longer terms perhaps, but similar. Something along lines of last meeting’s vote, ie. 12 years total.
Krintzman: staggering terms helps with ballot. If stagger, probably want 4-year terms. Can see wisdom in 4-yr staggered terms, allowing more directed opportunity to vote for fewer positions. Definitely argument for imposing term limits: have heard a lot of good info. If went for 4 years, 12 seems about right. Acknowledges if we do alter or impose new term limits, need to discuss transition, how to deal with incumbents. But not a huge problem. Surprised to say wants term limits on city council
Steele – unsure about term limits.
Kidwell – [observer had to leave room]. Supports 4 years staggered terms.
Larner – leans toward term limits, 4-year staggered.
Haywood: 5, 4-year terms, 20 years total.
Frantz: definitely term limits. This day and age, only time we see contested elections and strong candidates is when seats are open. Don’t have a number, open to suggestions. If do staggered, it’s a concept, wants to see models, test things out.
Lipsett: dislikes term limits intensely. Staggered terms: strong proponent of 4-yr staggered terms if we maintained 24. With new structure, needs to rethink. 4-year terms fine. Wants to hear from members of council – some have said that first year or 2 is a steep learning curve, and then having to mount a campaign so soon, really tough. Likes competition. Spent time today on city website looking at last 8 municipal elections (that’s what’s available). To surprise, turnover on school committee no greater than for council, which has no term limits. Not sure term limits really help. Did quickly, not a deep analysis, but expected much greater turnover as percentage of school committee vs council. Not sure if goal is to promote turnover that this is the way to go.
Barash: in terms of staggering, makes sense that it would just be the pool of 5; the 8 wouldn’t run in the same election. Mayor + 5; other year, council and school committee, one per each ward. Much interest from whole commission in idea of separating truly at-large from ward-based. Also, given they have such strong consensus on this issue, it changes some other conversations; incumbent upon us to reach out again to community, experts and ask again, given this current context.
Krintzman: Takes Kidwell’s point re term limits taking power away from voters, limiting pool of candidates. Currently school committee limits only consecutive term– not lifetime. Happens to like that – gives more power back to voters. Wants to add that to council, too. Many councilors concurred.
Lipsett – concerned about making it too difficult to move between the two bodies and/or between ward-based and at-large.
Krintzman: asks Kidwell, Haywood to put together set of options re staggered terms/length of terms/overlap of offices.
Haywood wants to discourage people flopping back and forth between at large/ward-based.
General agreement that we don’t want incumbents to have a favored position… Everyone wants to see and think about scenarios.
May 4 – re: planning, testimony from officials from other communities. Public comment/hearing too?
Add’l meeting: May 18th: wrap up article 3 & 4, Rm 205, 7pm. Also discuss city manager form of gov’t, and term limits.
Respectfully submitted by Lisa Mirabile