Newton Charter Commission Meeting
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Attending: Josh Krintzman, Rhanna Kidwell, Howard Haywood, Anne Larner, Chris Steele, Bryan Barash, Karen Manning, Jane Frantz, Brooke Lipsitt
Approval of Minutes: 4 sets of minutes (missing April 12) were approved with minor changes/clarifications
Jeff Sacks: term limits are very important to good governance—bring new energy and new perspective to Boards. Was on CPC committee and term limited out. Focus on accomplishing something within the term limits. [Q: how about term limits for the Mayor: still a good idea; can get entrenched; good to bring in new ideas.]
Sallee Lipshutz: retain 24 councilors and especially Ward representation. Page 5 of study guide for city council—misses certain points: some have a greater ward representation than at-large; Worcester found wealthier parts were overrepresented; 6766 residents per representative in Newton—67% more than Waltham; not be difficult for an unopposed platform to be elected;
Tom Phillips: served on city’s zoning board of appeals; have a well-run city already—nothing is perfect, but city council decisions represent best for the city; against term limits and four-year terms; not consistent with good representative government; against doing away with Ward Councilors—provide dedication and leadership to neighborhoods—cites examples from Ward 7. Reconsider the straw vote at appropriate time.
Rob Gifford: commend commission on straw vote to reduce the size of city council. It’s cumbersome, difficult to understand and out of step with peer group communities. Believe that Ward councilors are undemocratic—elected by 500-1000 votes, long tenure but move into city-wide leadership roles—undemocratic. Assumed to speak for ward—often don’t and can feel poorly represented. Alumni and current councilors—made clear didn’t see any difference in their approach to the job from at-large aldermen—if so, why need duplication? Local issues can be handle with equal effectiveness by at-large councilors—that is their political base and they live there. Consider term limits—total cap of 12 years including non-consecutive terms. Not everyone pays attention, so can become a permanent job.
Lynn Weissberg: agree with Rob. Saw straw vote on size of City Council—struck by the thoughtfulness that went into the vote; expressed that thinking had evolved over several months. Seeing backlash—urge you to NOT reconsider straw vote. Term limits? Simplicity and ease of understanding should be the watchwords. Staggering terms might not be necessary if it is a manageable number. Imperative to let voters vote in November 17 and have them take effect the next election cycle.
Terry Sarrow: disagree with comment on Ward Aldermen—disrespect to Board for all their hard work. Dedicated, diverse. Will vote no to any changes since feels so strongly about reducing representation to 1 person. No way to do the work.
George Mansfield: re: straw vote on Article 2—terrible recommendation. Former aldermen testified on the role of ward representatives—also described how ward councilors connect villages of Newton to their government. CC hasn’t heard this. The model would threaten the character of Newton. More like a town than cities that CC is comparing it to—are people moving to those communities? Need a majority of 7 to pass items. 5 floating members might all come from two most wealthy wards in the city where people have resources to run a citywide race and then benefit themselves and their neighborhoods.
Will set aside time later for more public comment.
Article II discussion: Working to be completely open and communicative with the public. Does not help when they are accused of conspiring and lying—voters have voted twice to reduce the size of the Board of Aldermen. Straw vote is a preliminary vote based on their consultation, research, discussion ALL in public. If kept 8 Ward Aldermen—have the majority of reps each elected by 1/8 of the electorate. And are the At-large Aldermen not worthy or reliable? People will call those with whom they have a relationship—doesn’t matter their role. Can’t put the importance of the villages in front of the entire city—the city comes first.
Anyone want to reconsider their vote in the straw vote? No one, but feel that there are so many moving pieces—until look at it overall, don’t know if there will be anymore changes. Need to be able to see the whole thing, and then decide if reconsider.
Term Lengths: Look at the scenario for city council term lengths—4 scenarios
One more point: 4 year staggered terms—could be running against Mayor—would need to quit position or run in elections with bigger turnout—found that not a huge jump in mayoral races, unless open seat for Mayor. Vote on contested city council races spike as well when contested Mayoral race.
- BB: 4 year terms make sense—time to get accustomed to office; different from SC, which have a specific time frame for change—city is slower to change; if stagger, go for simplicity and divide up war at-large and “pooled” at large;
- KM: 2-year terms are better—consistent with the School Committee, less confusion to the voters—scenario 1; not a lot of lobbying for a 4-year term
- JF: separate out SC and CC—different missions and decisions; less concerned about election and more about what they do and time it takes to get stuff done. 4 year term better, more able to get stuff done and not focus on election every 2 years
- JK: ease of which voters can follow and vote is important, but also in quality of city council; being able to pick who you challenge if you don’t like what they are doing; term limits will help, but not having all 5 “pool” candidates is interesting—Scenario 3 enables more targeting of a potential challenger, easily explainable and straightforward, limit contests; scenario 1 might be easier to take
- BL: not come to a conclusion on the issue—was big fan of staggered terms when talking about maintaining the structure we have now—more than 1 at-larger person per ward. Now that adopted in a straw vote only 1 at-large alderman per ward, so rationale for staggered terms goes away. Remaining rationale is to reduce the number of votes that voters cast—balance that against the argument of simplicity of having everyone run at the same time. Also have issues about who is running with Mayor: Term length—takes a councilor a couple of years to understand how things work balances against real concern about a radical change. Inclination is that, if stay with that change, make as few other changes as possible. Each change has a multiplier effect—“’too radical?” Should focus on size of city council—if don’t find other things terribly important, than leave it. Scenario 1
- CS: holding accountable of elected officials—2 years should be plenty of time to understand what is going on need regular accountability; scenario 1
- AL: Scenario 1 or 2—on the fence. 2 has a smaller ballot and keeps truly at-large together (entry for newcomers with a larger pool); pros and cons on 2 v. 4 year terms; 4 years have some positives, but 2 years allows accountability, especially if taking away Ward Councilors—leading toward 2 year terms and term limits.
- HH: so many cities and towns have 2-year terms. Started that way because serving was a volunteer job, expected/wanted turnover so had a broader view of constituents. If have to campaign the second year—half the seats in Newton are uncontested—keep doing councilors job and run for office. Is this a level playing ground? An incumbent, running unopposed, can raise money, but is a known quantity. 4 years—more experience, better track record (accomplish more?) present better for reelection. Scenario 3.
- RK: reducing size of the ballot is a big issue; if not informed, either don’t vote or vote uninformed. Means less accountability. 4-year term provides for a chance to move up the learning curve—keep job, family, etc. and run a campaign every two years? Longer time horizon is good. Scenario 2.
- JF: more time to think about points discussed—perhaps change way she is leaning.
- BB: persuasive points for scenario 1; need to put together a proposal that can explain easily. If think about term limits, having a 4-year lame duck term is difficult.
Does the Mayoral election into deliberations? Does it matter if run when Mayor runs? Discussion/comments: Is there a way to establish a Mayoral election when someone isn’t running? Need to address whether or not someone can run for more than one office simultaneously. Feels strange that certain wards will always run with Mayor. No sympathy for this problem.
Re-read the strategic goals to try to arrive at idea of priorities in making choice of term lengths. More discussion and group seems to move toward scenario 1.
Chris: motion to take a poll on the scenarios.
1: CS, AL, BB, KM, JF, JK, BL
2: HH, RK
3: none in favor
4: none in favor
Chris: motion to put scenario 1 to a vote. No discussion. Passes 7-2.
Term Limits: do other communities have term limits on city councils? Methuen—3 consecutive 2-year terms for CC and SC. Can take a pause and start again.
- CS: conflicted on this. Elections are their own term limits, probably still the best way. No term limits. Doesn’t ensure a better candidate will come to the table.
- AL: yes, for 12 years (6 consecutive terms); going through a lot of election materials in recent weeks; council job is more complex than SC, gives someone enough time to learn the ropes, be engaged, exercise leadership, and then move on.
- HH: agree with Anne; can become great activists in the community afterwards—good additions to general community; should have been able to accomplish all that wanted to do
- RK: take power away from voters with term limits, but so does power of incumbency; persuaded by Peter Harrington-sees both sides, but in the end forcing out a few is better, allows new ideas; favor terms limits but 12 or 14 years is preferable.
- BB: not a fan of term limits; less of a concern at the local level; state and national—lobbyists have the power and knowledge. At local level, less lobbying and staff; complexity isn’t like at the state level. Balance this against info that voters have—can see entrenchment, but also get fresh ideas. Seen appeal at the city level. No SC members are against term limits. For them, but give time to get knowledge. 12-16 is the right range.
- KM: term limits are beneficial; no shortage of people who would step up; 12 years
- JF: 12 years—long enough to be effective; then become informal leaders in city—as important as being an elected member of the council.
- JK: feel similarly; not a fan of term limits, but at municipal level find them persuasive; allow fresh faces, especially if not a lifetime limit; issues before CC take longer than SC, but 12-14 makes sense for city council.
- BL: don’t favor term limits. Was on CC for 12 years-felt that she contributed most of what she was going to, and it was time to move on. No one ran against her. Did consider this at the 10 year mark—could have gone on. Would have been unhappy if an arbitrary number forced her out. Believe ballot box is the best term limit—encourage competition. New structure will encourage much more candidate response.
Why term limits for SC and not for CC? SC is in favor of them.
Intimidation factor—some won’t run against someone they know. Term limits make that easier.
JF: Motion to have 6 consecutive terms as limit for City Council—consecutive terms, for all councilors. Anne seconded. Anne: since last charter went into effect, have 22 elections. 528 aldermanic seats. Only 63 open seats; 17 times have a seated aldermen been defeated in election. When it happened for SC, will have to reset clock. Can do transitions, so not turning out whole council at once. Vote: 7 in favor, 2 against
In Newton: comptroller reports to City Council. Collins Center—usually reports to Mayor. Under strong Mayor, Mayor has enormous power over finances. Having a comptroller who is responsible to the council offers a certain check and balance. This leaves some measure of power with City Council. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It works well for Newton, no need to change the balance.
Independent legal support for the Council? Collins Center—legally the municipality needs to speak with one voice. Actual legal opinion would be the City law office. Are times when Mayor and Council are at odds over major policy issues—Mayor controls the law department. Find a way for the CC and SC to hire independent counsel to advise those bodies independently—put the authority explicitly in the charter. Question is how it gets paid for—in the CC budget or somewhere else? Needs to be expendable at the demand of the City Council. Brooke will work on this.
Section II-9: Everett prohibited their elected officials from getting health benefits. Some people can only justify their contribution by getting health care. Was concern about tenure and getting it for life. SC never has the opportunity, but City Council does. Benefit has value to some and not others (those who already have healthcare). Would it be better to have a benefits package that is equally beneficial to all?
JF: conflicted because some employees are kept to 19 hours to deny health insurance to some; is this fair to then give it to the CC members. What does this mean to the city financially?
Do we want to address pay and benefits in the charter? Trend—starting to appear. No elected officials are eligible for health insurance. Table this—revisit at a later time.
Charter Objection: Collins Center says fairly standard in city charter.
Marilyn will help with drafting some material.
Commission Schedule: nothing to change; May 4th public hearing at City Hall.
Ted Hess-Mahan: agree with Brooke on most issues discussed; understand can’t serve as Mayor and hold another office, but someone should be able to run for office without having to give up their seat. Term limits—if want the best people and best democracy, don’t have term limits. No hangers’ on—maybe people you don’t like, but everyone works hard. Find someone to run. New people—almost guarantee two years of mediocrity. Came in to do zoning reform—13 years later am now just working on it—not because hasn’t been effective.
Shawn Fitzgibbons: really lucky, doing a fantastic job and thanks. Support for vote to reduce the size of the City Council; support the city-focused approach; nervous about term limits, but be prepared for public to have opinions on that. No perfect size of Board—no magic number. Support healthcare for elected officials—consider how long to provide that benefit. Should have access to healthcare.
Andrea Kelley: echo Shawn’s thanks. The best organization and group in terms of responsibility and transparency. Talk about representation by Ward Aldermen—lived here since 1979. Never felt that the councilors at large from the ward were not representing her. The balance the new plan achieves a balance—would be well represented. Deliberations have been really thoughtful.
Kathleen Hobson: defended vote in the TAB today. Thought wanted four-year terms—probably still do, but doesn’t feel that there is a simple right answer. Happy to hear what the CC decides. Persuaded by the arguments about term limits. Don’t have zoning reform because have 24 aldermen—different structure might move things along faster.
Rena Getz: best served by independence of comptroller and clerk. Support independent council. Better served if other departments have impartiality. Term limits—best if voters decide. Best to define scope of work and then figure out the number of people required. Current construct of CC is excellent. Ward representation is critical—most accountable. Public outreach is critical for charter review. Need more robust outreach.
Susan Mirsky: pleased about commission; against reducing the size of the City Council; limiting the amount of representation limits the idea of democracy. Not too big—other ways of getting accountability; can others do more to report on our city government; lots of work done in committees—cutting size cuts voice to the committee. As issues become more complex, need more voices. Can get Board more accountable without reducing representation.
Ernest Lowenstein: Doesn’t like the idea of cutting the size of the Board. Fascinated with discussion tonight—length of term. Encouraged, but came to the wrong conclusion.