Charter Commission Public Hearing: 3-15-17

Newton Charter Commission Public Hearing

March 15, 2017

Attending:  Josh Krintzman (Chair), Rhanna Kidwell (Vice-Chair), Bryan Barash, Jane Frantz, Howard Haywood, Anne Larner, Brooke Lipsitt, Karen Manning, Chris Steele

Meeting Minutes:  Minutes from the past two meetings were approved with minor corrections.

Public Comments:

Marc Laredo:  appreciate the hard work the charter commission put into the project; can go either way on term limits, not quarrel on size of the city council, but fundamental objection is on how chosen to elect members of city council in new form.  One member at large for 8 wards, similar to what have now, wonderful that voter can choose up or down for Ward 7 at-large seat.  Vote for a candidate…but problem with other 4 seats.  Rather than having a direct, simple, accessible model, have a different model.  Not aware of single other city or town in MA that has same system.  Like current ward representation because:  accessibility for average voter—someone represents him or her and whom they can contact; running for office—harder to run citywide—different types of elections, more expensive at large; accountability—are not voting one person up or down, instead of slate of people.  Urge simple change—go to district model combining wards and let people run from a district.  Accomplish same thing.

Jack Pryor:  advocating for retaining ward councilors; current proposal makes public office less accessible with all at-large, citywide; Scott Lennon started as a ward councilor;  dilute accountability of councilors—to have th whole city aware of what each councilor is doing is difficult; want board to represent diverse interests of city; want people to be challenged head-to-head; allows a significant amount of imbalance in terms of geographic representation—one ward could have 5 people and the rest have 1.  Who knows who will dominate that.  Want to retain direct representation.  Feels like determined by the issues of the day…hope they will reconsider and have time to change/revise.

Ed Craddock:  wasn’t happy that had 7 other wards that could vote for his representation; doesn’t want seven other wards to vote for someone to represent them.

Ernest Lowenstein:  careful leadership and direction of Charter Commission, principal disagreement is the reduction of the board and the removal of the Board aldermen.  Argument that 24 is too much—why is that too much?  It’s a lot—people don’t know how many members there are or where they live.  Feeling that we don’t like 24, disagree with chairman.  Nothing wrong with 24.  Something wrong with way elected—not going head to head.  Mr. Laredo addressed that point—elections should be head-to-head.  Only discussion was the size of the Board—no more ward aldermen.  All are running at large—all have to run city-wide.  Removes the local aspect—reduction of the Board and the removal of ward aldermen strikes him as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Ward aldermen are local representatives and are important—removal puts power into the hands of those who can raise enough money.  Played out against background of housing issue in the city—developers are going to have a whole lot more influence than anyone else will.

Jay Harney: experience as ward councilor—hadn’t run for anything, but there was interest in community to get someone to run against a 16-year incumbent.  Was able to go knock on doors—lost but lost in a close race.  Low budget campaign; daunting task to run, as a ward councilor, feels that knows everyone in his ward.  Learned most that hardly anyone knew who their local representatives were –take away opportunity for “normal” citizens to run because need less money and is easier.  Ward Councilor is a critically important role.  Two fundamental flaws—truly no ward representation and council will be wholly elected at large—is that what people really want.  Heard complaints that meetings go on too long and too late—only go long when there are important issues.  Have effective system of government now—why change it?  Has two great partners in his ward—work together well; Jay handles stuff within ward.  Doesn’t make sense and hope will revisit.

Andrea Steenstrup:  part of campaign supporting proposal, speaking on own behalf; need to update the city’s government; not a reflection of current elected officials—a lot has changed since the last charter was changed; biggest thing broken is how few people run for office—no term limits and confusing ballot.  Need fresh ideas, need to groom people for bigger roles; most contested elections are empty seats; change will make elections easier to understand and to follow what councilors do; makes them much more accountable to voters; excited to vote for every city councilors; some are currently elected by 500 votes and hold a lot of influence—relish the opportunity to vote for them or against them.

Marlyn Victor:  having just read recently about proposal, losing ward representatives is a real loss for people in community; you feel that much more distanced from representative and less likely to talk to them; seems very problematic; rationale for doing this is that councilors have an incentive to put parochial problems before the city—understand that perspective, but the other side is just as valid and probably more important to have a representative accountable to the ward.  Otherwise feels diminished.  Have 4 at-large to represent broader city-side perspective.

Marcia Johnson:  thank all charter commission—elected at-large.  Thanks for all their work.  Fully support all aspects of revised charter; after 16 years on BoA, knows strengths and weaknesses.  Wants to talk about two things:  structure is #1.  Principal of equal representation that all members of a chosen body are elected in the same manner and represent an equal constituency.  Example is statewide office.  Newton gives equal vote to at-large and ward-only.  Business conducted by council impacts everyone—taxation, spending, land use; ward-only councilors cannot be held accountable by all people in 7 other wards.  Need to remove it.  #2—need to review that working efficiently and effectively.  No way to study or implement changes—practices that see in business or in other non-profit organizations, where improvements are made.  Ask citizens of Newton to look at work of City Councilors and the value that they are creating as a citizen.

Deb Crossley:  done great work and well-organized; well-researched and thorough; viewpoint:  smaller is better—has been sitting on council for 7 years.  Prior to that spent decades very active.  A lot of people voted to reduce the size in the past—now that she has sat on the city council, feels that could be more effective.  More competition would be healthier in election process; smaller body will prove to be more accessible to more citizens; with a smaller body would be more likely to meet as a whole and more likely that will be more thoroughly and uniformly informed by the time ready to take a vote—less sending it back to committee, less iteration.  Regarding doing away with ward councilors; from her own experience—not true that at-large councilors spend less time responding to citizen’s complaints or concerns than ward councilors.  Feels she has been a very hard-working city councilor in this regard.  Can tell for sure that this is not the case that a ward councilor is more responsive.  If more equally informed, might be more willing to respond to issue across the city.  Running for office is hard, a lot of work…have had three contested elections so far.  Accountability—would rather have all councilors accountable to entire city that to one ward—agree that there shouldn’t be 7 people on a body that others can’t weigh in on.  Workload can be re-organized and reduced.

Barbara Brousal-Glaser:  second term as Ward 3 ward councilor; agree with Marc Laredo—think doing away with ward councilors is a terrible idea; recognize that this was a lot of work; if have to run at-large, that would not be encouraging more people to run for city council.  From her perspective, the idea that ward councilors are more parochial and might do things like trading votes—find that really troubling.  Hasn’t seen anything like that—neither had Lisle Baker.  Find it offensive that without any substance it was being thrown around.  Parochial idea—feels her job is to look at the whole city; can look at any other of the ward councilors, see concern for entire city.

Lawrence Glaser:  Barbara’s husband;  so respect and admire efforts on city’s behalf; support ward councilors; family got involved was hyper-local—saw what was going on in neighborhoods and decided there was an opportunity to bring good judgement and make a difference.  Have direct representation at the ward level; change for the sake of change is what he hopes the don’t feel they have to do; haven’t heard justification for the changes that they are trying to make—especially direct representation.  If get rid of ward councilors and have a unicameral body, decrease competition.  Haven’t seen anything about what is broken that is trying to fix; when signed petition, thought would be very progressive.

Ramona Hamlin:  comments are naïve and overly emotional; feel that living in a time of unprecedented attacks on democracy; feel that local community is doing the same.  Only twice had to contact ward councilors, found them very responsive.  Feeling after sitting through a couple of hearing, was that there would be a comment period where we would be listened to, but the decision had already been made.  This feels the same—really sad about it.

Connie Kantar:  long been against reducing the size of the city council; recommendation to reduce it and eliminate ward representation would drastically reduce representation.  When original charter was formed, a bicameral system was established.  Charter of 1897 abolished system and combined into one and reversed the ratio of ward and at-large aldermen.  Various and serious issues in the latter part of 19th century were far less complex, but there was a clear understanding and belief that representation from distinct areas was important, even if it meant time-consuming discussion.  Now, much bigger population, more diverse, complex issues; often require considerable time to research and understand.  Smaller council means fewer people to shoulder responsibility and less understanding before making decisions.  Not wise to eliminate ward councilor position—first person citizen turns to; local in Newton means in the ward; would be lost if run citywide.  Propose keeping 16, plus 8, as currently is.  Term limits—already have them—called elections every two years.  Person can be voted out of office—takes a while to become knowledgeable on issues—seems unfair to limit those years.

Lynn Weissberg:  done amazing work; would like to point out that research that has been done to support work has been beyond compare.  One of purposes that commission took on was to simplify our voting process in Newton.  Other than people who have testified, challenge them to randomly contact 10 voters in city and explain basic facts of city government.  Predicts that at most 2/10 could answer all the questions correctly.  One of the main issues raised is that people would lose representation that wards need to represent particular interests in city.  Believe that based on argument that is not true—notion that constituents will only reach out to ward councilor is not correct.  In her experience, if contacting city council, usually contact all councilors with email or you contact all three who live in your ward.  When she’s done it, least responsive has been ward councilors.  To say that the new proposal is less democratic is simply incorrect.  The ward councilors can be elected with 6-700 votes, but has equal voting power.  That is undemocratic.  For those supporting 12 member size, but objecting to 4 at large but would prefer district model—challenge anyone to explain to the average voter what this new system would be like.

Alicia Bowman:  thanks to commission for outstanding job they have done; commend for rising above the emotion and applying immense research;  agree with all recommendations;  A smaller board would be able to think more strategically.  Lived in Newton for 20 years and sat through many meetings—heard discussions by councilors that should have been done by staff people—should not be political decisions.  Her experience is that her ward councilor has been far less accessible and responsible than councilors from other wards.  Easy for a sitting ward councilor to get a group to vote—they don’t need to work too hard to run.  Our need for representative is driven by who we are, and not by where we live.  For that reason feel that every representative should be voted on by the city.  There will be at least one councilor from each ward—if not responsive, then can run against them.

James Pacheco:  thankful for ward councilors, more representation is what we need and not less; feel the ward councilors are underpaid—wants to keep them.

Susan Albright:  thanks for all the work they’ve done; was agnostic—wasn’t sure about changes; did own research—found some that said that change in type of representation made almost no difference in responsiveness.  Seems that council doesn’t respect the committee work—argues for a smaller council.  Hard to be a ward councilor—thinking that on issues where loudest voices are in your own ward that are arguing against something that would be good for the city…difficult situation.  Supporting work of charter commission—could have had 4 district reps instead of at-large.  Wished had dealt with 4 years staggered instead of keeping with 2 year terms.  Work overall is terrific and she supports it.

Lisa Monahan:  thanks to commission—impressive piece of work; very much in support of proposal—interest is in issues not ward-related, but rather city as a whole.  Proposed structure is more appropriate—council people will inevitably come up with issues that are applicable city-wide rather than ward focused…never had a ward councilor knock on her door—old fashioned notion.  Some city council meetings go on way too late, so all can speak (sometimes off topic), feel this will be more understandable; for those who feel fewer opps to be involved and less opps to run for office—no shortage for people to get involved in their community—plenty of ways to do that other than being a councilor.  Great to embrace change—it can be hard and people can resist it.  Along time since 1971, change is good and bring great new things.

George Mansfield:  served as a ward aldermen for a number of years—not in that position now; cannot support recommendations; has had opportunities to be heard; many proposed changes not been mentioned tonight that he can support:  revised financial procedures, reaffirmation of NAC; provision for participation in city meetings; could support term limits; but…structure of city council cannot support.  Believes that in time will fundamentally change way business is conducted but the city itself.  Developed proposal based on two facts—two non-binding referenda, and size if an anomaly.  Both are true, but why?  Was the context of ballot questions researched—who else was on the ballot?  One was on a state election ballot—quite far removed from local issues. Some people feel that smaller government will mean more money in their pockets.  Newton is an anomaly itself—more like a suburban town and not a city.  Structure of government suits it—change the structure and change the city.  A large plurality of councilors could come from one section of the city.  Question discussed in past commission meeting—concern about one geographic area dominating.  Response from consultant—could happen, no study has researched that.

Fred Arnstein:  concerned about ward representation; can’t imagine why have recommendation to not have ward representation; be as if we all voted from reps from Wyoming; no one who represented that particular place; looked at data on website—19 cities—how many at-large or ward councilors at each city.  Sees this type of representation in data.  Have completely different balance that other cities; 6 out of 19 who don’t have ward representation.  Doing away with representation is not common practice.

Peter Harrington:  district representation is one of founding blocks of our republic; the issue that was settled when country was founded; having a large legislative body has served city well; our city government is one of the most honest governments in Massachusetts; dedicated, hard-working municipal workers; believe that have so many councilors in all city’s business; efficiency is not hallmark of city government; without district representation, minority ideas would never have a seat at the table; form is unique, works very well, serves very well.  Urge to scrap proposal and keep things as they are.

Janet Taylor:  lived in Newton for 40 years, worked as a volunteer, found as reached out to all councilors in all wards—councilors in two wards for whom this is an issue have gone above and beyond.  Found them to be responsive.  Would hate to lose that…

Nathaniel Lichten:  address the use of the word “citizen”; thinks there are two places where used “citizens” and shouldn’t—should change to residents.  Gave specifics on two places.  About city council size and representation:  was moved by Peter Harrington and won’t repeat them.  Comments on resident-to-councilor ration—proposal puts us at the lower level when people are connected.  At-large pool doesn’t allow for 1-to-1 elections—can’t challenge one person; risk that could have imbalance in terms of geographic representation; notes that size doesn’t mean length of meetings—Boston School Committee is case in point.

Jen Abbot:  applaud effort so charter commission; strongly agree with recommendations; focus on changes to city council—only a limited number of ways that could be reasonably structured.  Found that each had pros and cons.  Downside to current system—voters from each ward have no say in 7 of races; votes all have equal weight, including those who have run city-wide; turnover is down, open seats are declining; fewer people are running; 74% of races are uncontested; 80% of ward seats are uncontested; challenging myths—more run at-large by choice; helped inform them as talked with voters across the city; agree that system might not be broken, but is ailing.

David Stein:  too many chefs without the benefit of more and better more quality output; smaller doesn’t mean less deliberative; smaller would mean less bloated, less wasteful government.

Eunice ???:  opposition to elimination of ward councilors; wards with unique needs—do not eliminate ward councilors, don’t eliminate human touch in government.

Robert Gerst:  as we become smaller and more select lose diverse voices in city.  Newton is an exceptional city—large, messy, diverse, sustains this city.  Don’t want to stop that.  If you eliminate ward councilor, will make the council less diverse.  Make it ever harder (impossible) for those holding non-prevailing views to be elected; only those who hold majority view will serve.  We benefit from hearing minority voices with minority views—alternative is less democratic; did serve as aldermen from ward 1 for 10 years—should remain a part of city council; voters may reject charter without local voice

Sallee Lipshutz:  letter from Kathryn Winter (Waban Area Council)—at-large have been challenged in places with minority populations; admire adherence to open process; fatal blow to ideal of local representation that Newton voters cherish—directly elected ward councilor.  Could lead to a slate of people elected; lower the wall that change in development must scale; local voices will be stifled who would speak for mitigation; shown disregard for local representation—leave important details to a smaller city council; area councils are assets to communities—should be encouraged in charter; adding term limits takes away power of voter; equity of term limits if not in charter

Gerard Slattery:  in real estate in most wards in city of Newton; reduction in the size of the city council would be a real mistake; level of debate and engagement in city of Newton is one of the best—direct result of how the city council is constituted; Ward 1 is different from Ward 2. Unique local needs are dramatically different—each can focus on areas important to them; ward councilors haven’t been challenged is that they’ve done a pretty good job;

Susan Shepherd:  Emily Norton knocked on her door one day; was wonderful councilor—felt she knew what the issues were and could engage.  Important to retain ability to speak with representatives.  Very much against limiting the council.

Helen Nyer:  this is a post-mortem; commission had the opportunity to make a number of changes that would have benefit the residents of Newton.  Without taking a survey of Newton residents, instead using to use expensive consulting service, commission decided to reduce number of city councilors.  Discuss how this was done—typically simplest approach is usually the best; Occam’s Razor—simpler is preferred to more complex one; simpler one is to eliminate one of the at=large councilors. Would reduce the size significantly..why eliminate the ward councilors.  Ward councilors are close to people in their wards—understand the needs of locals; trying to disempower the ward councilors—work against dense development.  Many people see positive connection and the drive toward dense development in Newton.  Will benefit developers and not the residents of the city.

Peter Bruce:  discuss what happened in Lowell.  Have all at-large system. 50% minority, but no minority representation.  Newton has bad voter turnout in municipal elections—if want more participation, should have thought about going back to system had before where Mayoral elections same as Aldermen elections.  Seems that didn’t care about turnout all that much; will see decline in turnout; discuss having recall of Mayor—no checks put on Mayor.

Jim Pacheco:  councilors can get jobs done—if go back to 12, they will be swamped and will want a raise.  Will want to have assistants—see big tax increase, we’ll pay big bucks for that.  Want more representation, want it to be local.

George Mansfield:  simplify election ballot and create one-on-one races in a general election; proposal as now stands would reduce ballot by 19%–suggest two other options:  one to retain current 24 members with staggered 4-year terms—in any two-year ballot, make 31% simpler; other option 16 council members with staggered 4-year terms—ballot is 46% simpler.  Urge that give these options some consideration; more costly city-wide campaigns would yield off-setting bonus.

March 29th is the next meeting.

Respectfully submitted by Sue Flicop

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