Charter Commission Roundtable Discussion on City Council
March 31, 2016
Attending: Josh Krintzman, Rhanna Kidwell, Anne Larner, Chris Steele, Howard Haywood, Brooke Lipsitt, Karen Manning, Bryan Barash, Jane Frantz
Panel criteria: diversed and experienced, representing 5 different wards, split between ward aldermen and aldermen-at-large, represented different committees, and various opinions on city charter.
Cheryl Lappin: supporter of charter reform for a long time; the board should be smaller—how small is the issue. Lot of work that the city council does—other communities have councils that spend a lot less time with same responsibilities. Have worked to streamline the work the board does, but still has work to do. Thinks two reps from each ward would suffice. If reduced size, definitely get rid of land use/special process—way to retain control over larger projects, but other towns have appointed or elected board to deal with this—less politics involved. Several items that come before multiple committees—way to make it more streamlined. Right now rep from every ward on every committee—important, but can consolidate committees.
Scott Lennon: all about serving the city and making it the best for everyone. Supports the work of the charter commission—important to look at how all things operate.
George Mansfield reading Lisle Baker’s statement: Board’s judgement has been good for Newton. 24 is good for Newton. People are honorable who serve. Board is democratic—no single person or group controls what they do. Board adds value to community—made Austin Street better, saved Commonwealth Golf Course, for example. Large number means all points of view are represented. Smaller Board could shift balance of power to the Mayor if the Board becomes dysfunctional—people jockeying for power or position.
Brian Yates: Biggest issue facing commission is the size of the Board. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Agree with that concerning the size of the Board. Newton is the 4th best place to live, so it’s not broken. [Same comments as last night’s meeting.] People value accountability.
John Stewart: discussion in 1980s to cut the Board from 24 to 16; felt it would not work unless accompanied by other changes in the structure in city government—city manager with Mayor as Council President. Fan of charter reform, but the study that would show how a smaller board would be more effective hasn’t ever been done. Requires a very detailed study with in-depth case studies. Should look at who serves on the BoA and why. A few people who don’t contribute as much as other people—some coast along and don’t contribute a lot. Challenges of serving on the BoA—interfered with his full-time job and so gave it up. Constituent services—should be looked at . Some aldermen spend a lot more time at it than others—is this a proper function? There are people in the Executive branch—citizen’s assistance office, etc.
George Mansfield: comparison with communities of similar size—not much in common with those communities. Size of BoA helps keep Newton a special place. Can solve problems without changing the basic structure of the city government. Keep the city Council with same structure. Ward Councilors—2 year terms; Councilor at Large—4-year staggered terms (not run in tandem and can run against one person in particular); Mayor—6-year term with 2-term limit. Bring new blood and ideas. Term limits are unnecessary for City Council. Comments on filling vacancies as well.
Ruth Balser (arrived late): comment about executive branch: read about an incident in Cambridge when running for Mayor in 2009—feels that city manager is not right for Newton—we should elect our executives—electing a leader who expresses the values of the community. In Cambridge, with city manager, no outcry about incident. Electing leader, spokesperson, representative of our values, as well as someone who can manage the city. Important to maintain strong mayor form of government.
About size of City Council—in favor of a smaller Board. Pushed for this in her elected capacity as an alderman—not so much about efficiency. More concerned with accountability and representation—only people on City Council can remember the names of all 24; hard to hold people accountable. Confusing ballot—hard to hold reps accountable for their actions. For example, if you wanted to run against someone or vote against someone because of the way they voted, it is difficult to do.
- How did role/focus/approach change when going form a Ward Councilor to an at-large Councilor?
- Lennon: didn’t change at all. Constituent service is a big part of the job—tried to take the same focus and bring that citywide. Residents don’t feel that they are getting the responses/answers from City Hall, so turn to councilors to get action.
- Yates: respond to people in “base” ward but responsive to anyone in city. At-large with the soul of a Ward Councilor.
- Lappin: is a Ward Aldermen—never puts the interest of the ward ahead of the city. Swears oath to the people of Newton, not to the people in Ward 8. Look at what’s best for the city, even if not best for her ward. Thinks most of her colleagues do the same.
- Stewart: no written distinction between aldermen—only the manner by which they are elected. Differences were a matter of style and attitude in his ward when he served. Problem not knowing people at large from other wards.
- Mansfield: no difference in responsibilities. In recent years, the leadership of the board has been predominantly from Ward Aldermen seats. Difference comes for familiarity with people, neighborhoods in your ward. Three aldermen from any ward tend to work together and try to very hard.
- If all have the same responsibility and same job, why elect some by ward? What is the purpose? At large live in same ward.
- Stewart: some members should be well-known within each ward. But communication is so easy, it doesn’t make much difference.
- Lennon: on board with suggestion that would prefer it to be two ward councilors from each ward. Not true representation if lose ward but win citywide—residents aren’t represented by the person they choose. Is helpful with intimate knowledge of particular plans—more citywide might mean less knowledge.
- Yates: connections of ward aldermen with their villages (i.e. John Rice)
- Why 24? George said can last a long time with vacancies. Why is 24 perfect?
- Mansfield: 24 since 1897—real question is why three from each ward. Based on getting the work done. Isn’t work left on the table when they go home—is done as efficiently as possible. Is effective. Don’t need more, but don’t need less.
- Lennon: nice to have benefit of colleagues from ward who can attend a variety of different meetings. Share notes, etc. Works when they all work full-time jobs. Having multiple people helps with coverage—stuff goes on outside chamber. Sometimes required to have other obligations.
- Yates: works well with committee structure that has evolved. 3 major committees—finance, land use, and zoning and planning. Then the other 3—the 3 ps—meet on the same night. Can choose to attend meeting of other committees.
- Stewart: appeal to look beyond Massachusetts. Lots of other city councils that are structured in other ways—can get some ideas. Whole idea of a bicameral legislature? More legislators know more people—have some personal connection. Inefficiencies related to 24 members—some things that could get done faster and better by a smaller number. Some decisions made by 8 people, others by 16, others by 24—can meet less frequently for some decisions.
- If people think Newton is broken, does that mean it is?
- Yates: No. Strongly for accountability—not related to the number of people. A valid charter change would be to have staggered four-year terms so people can run against particular people. If at-large, no accountability—focus on visibility.
- Lennon: complaint was that things take so long. So took a look to see what was inefficient. Eliminated three committees of the council. Special permits went from 9 months to 6. Due diligence leads to good decisions.
- Mansfield: Not size of board or staff—nature of petition and the available info to evaluate the petition. Can be changed by better rules and regulations and holding people accountable. But size of City Council doesn’t have anything to do with it.
- Have any of you been inspired by other communities and the special permitting process?
- Yates: worked in city of Lowell. Got send of Council Manager type of government. Generally not a bureaucrat—most were state reps, state senators, former Mayors who brought their experience from other municipalities.
- Lennon: difficult since don’t know what other communities have as their responsibilities
- Mansfield: can’t come up with a community better than Newton
- Thoughts on reducing the number of wards? What if keep 3 reps per ward, but reduce the number of wards?
- Lappin: if were to change the number or area of wards, would have to take into consideration the villages. They are very distinct—would have to encompass what already exists.
- Lennon: haven’t given it a lot of through. Echo Cheryl Lappin.
- Balser: issue is about representation and how democracy works. That suggestion doesn’t help. Should have a system where someone can be voted out of office. Suggstion to reduce wards seems to go in the opposite direction of accountability. Want to elect people who share your values—so you will trust their judgement. Maybe total number is not the point, but instead who is running against each other.
- Mansfield: does charter establish the number of wards? [Rhanna—yes it does, just not the boundaries. Based on census, need to wait to make change.]
- If had magic wand to change special permitting system to work for citizens yet be efficient, what would you do? Also thinking of large v. complex…
- Lennon: be extremely clear where delineation should be if divide up into small and large projects. Not City Council slowing things down—is executive branch process that is slow. Then council gets same review regardless of size. Prefer to see larger projects stay with City Council. Smaller projects could be done administratively. Need to have clear threshold in criteria between small and large (or complex).
- Mansfield: distinction between complex and less complex—should be made in ordinances, not in city charter. If taken away from Council, special permitting body should be elected body. Planning staff should report to permitting body—now reports to the Mayor and advises to the permitting body.
- Can you help with the definition? How would you distinguish between simpler and more complex projects?
- Yates: can’t really draw a line around this. Somerville uses something more fine-grained with a pattern book.
- Lappin: not clear that could be a dollar amount. Complex is a relative term. Must be lots of examples of good ways to do it.
- Lennon: depends on whether leave the responsibility with the Council. Council has definitions and approaches spelled out.
- How do you handle special permits in Carlisle?
- Mansfield: works for a 7-member planning board. Some process is controlled by state law. Most of the time is done efficiently, hope fairly all the time.
- City Council role is different from SC in terms of constituent services. Is that role appropriate for City Council?
- Yates: It damn well is appropriate. Why is a pothole falling apart? Advocating for constituents that they have paid for is a big part of their role.
- Lappin: why they are elected to represent citizens. Supposed to be the voice of the citizens. Deals with more than potholes—things like problems at major intersections. City couldn’t handle all those calls. Think that the School Committee should have the same role—should be a conduit for residents.
- Lennon: One of the biggest reasons why got involved.
- Balser: theoretically—should respond to people’s needs. If something breaks down, elected official can facilitate communication. Why would this be different for School Committee?
- Mansfield: don’t run unless interested in constituent services, otherwise won’t last very long. City Hall is a faceless place; councilors have faces and can provide the services.
- Stewart: agree with Ruth Balser. Problem is that operating departments should be handling these things. If they are not set up to do so, they should be made to. In the charter is the citizen’s assistance officer. That office over the years has become just another staff person for the Mayor. Look at that again—should produce a report every year according to the charter.
- Lennon: average citizen looks at the city as under one umbrella. Wouldn’t tell someone that it wasn’t their job. Average citizen doesn’t care which role you have—they see them as a part of the city.
- With combined experience, how many contested races have you run in?
- Balser; ran four times, contested once. 9 times for legislator, contested 2
- Mansfield: 3 out of 13
- Lennon: lost first time; ran again
- Lappin: contested 4 times out of 7 (includes first time)
- Yates: 5 out of 10
- Stewart: ran 6 times; had opponent 5 times. 1975 was probably the last time where there were contests in every ward every race (including School Committee.)