Member Meeting on the City Charter Proposal
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Waban Library Center, Waban
After welcoming members and outlining the meeting, two speakers spoke on the arguments for and against supporting the proposed City Charter. The statements of Frieda Dweck (in favor) and Sallee Lipshutz (against) are at the end of the meeting minutes.
Members then asked clarifying questions, which were answered by a combination of the speakers and the Charter Commission members in the audience.
At this point, members were allowed to speak for 2 minutes to give their thoughts on the charter proposal. Twenty-eight people chose to speak.
At this point, members were asked to write “yes” or “no” in response to the motion made by the Board, which suggested a “yes” vote: for LWVN to support the proposed new charter for the City of Newton.
The vote was counted shortly afterwards. With 59 members voting, the vote was 52 in favor and 7 against.
Statement of Frieda Dweck:
We’d like to thank the League for giving us this opportunity to speak on behalf of the Yes for a New Charter campaign. More importantly, we’d like to thank the League for all the work it has done – including its 2010 charter study and its signature collection effort – to get the charter review initiative to where it is today, with proposals for a new city charter.
The most significant change being proposed by the Newton Charter Commission is the change in the size and composition of the city council. Before addressing that aspect of the proposal, however, we want to point out that the changes being proposed to the charter include much more than simply reconfiguring the City Council. Among the changes being proposed are:
- imposing term limits of 12 years for the mayor and 16 years for the city council;
- adopting financial procedures that ensure transparency with respect to the city’s financial condition, it’s capital assets, and its progress in executing a capital improvement plan; [Charter Commissioner and League member, Anne Larner, commented on this in the Special Newsletter]
- a periodic review of the city’s comprehensive planning document;
- updating the responsibilities of the School Committee to reflect substantive changes in law as well as to reflect current practice;
- an explicit conflict of interest statement for all city employees; and
- a requirement that the city charter be reviewed by a charter review committee every 10 years.
The sum of all the parts of the changes being proposed by the Charter Commission make this initiative a once in a generation opportunity to update, modernize, and improve our city government.
Now – more on the changes to the City Council…
The proposal provides for the reduction in the size of the city council from 24 members to 12 members, with 1 councilor from each of Newton’s 8 wards and 4 who can live anywhere in the city.
All 12 councilors would be elected city-wide so that every voter would have the opportunity to vote for 100% of Newton’s elected officials.
In its deliberations over how to restructure the composition of the city council, the Charter Commission examined model city council recommendations, interviewed officials from cities throughout the state with varying city council structures, and heard testimony from current and former Newton elected officials. After all that work, the commission determined that, although unique, the model being proposed best meets the goals set out by the commission at the outset of its deliberations – to provide Newton with a more effective and responsive government, one that creates greater public engagement in city government, and allows for better community understanding of our governmental structure.
Those goals are achieved through three features of the proposal relating to the composition of the City Council: 1) reducing the size of the council, 2) electing all councilors city-wide, and 3) providing voters with an opportunity to vote for 4 councilors from a pool of candidates that have no residency requirements.
Reducing the size of the council:
The Commissioners determined that Newton residents would be well-served by a smaller council. Having a 12 member council will make it easier for residents to understand the ballot and to learn about the candidates; create more competition among candidates, yet still provide the diversity of opinion that is important in any democracy; and reduce redundancy. The School Committee and the Charter Commission are good examples of how even an 8 or 9 member body can balance diversity of ideas with effective process.
Electing councilors city-wide:
The issues that affect residents most – traffic, safety, and economic development – are city-wide issues. So, when performing their jobs, councilors should be acting in the best interests of the city as a whole. Most Newton city councilors have testified that they do, in fact, take into account the best interests of the city as a whole, and that there is no real difference in the way ward councilors and at-large councilors approach their jobs. To insure that our councilors are most effective in protecting the best interests of the city, the commission determined that they should be accountable to every voter in the city.
Additionally, having all councilors elected at-large creates equity among the councilors. Currently, all councilors have equal voting power but are not elected by an equal proportion of voters. Under the new charter, all councilors will be elected in the same manner, reducing the discrepancy in the number of votes required to earn a seat on the Council.
Despite claims to the contrary, councilors elected city-wide will also still be responsive to the needs of the residents of Newton’s many neighborhoods and to the needs of the diverse ethnic, racial and economic groups in Newton. The 8 councilors that are elected with a ward residency requirement will continue to insure the interests of the ward. And all councilors will have an incentive to understand the specific concerns and interests of residents in all Newton’s neighborhoods and villages.
Focusing on the ward only, however, as a means to protect local interests, does not necessarily reflect the diversity of our city. While many have been painting Newton as a city of 8 wards, Newton is also a city of 13 villages. Those villages vary dramatically in population and size, and do not align with our voting wards or precincts. Our varying racial, ethnic and economic groups are spread throughout the city and also do not align with ward boundaries or live in defined neighborhood enclaves. At-large voting will allow minority candidates to garner support from voters city-wide who share their values and priorities.
Campaigning city-wide for office can be harder than campaigning in just one ward. Historical data from Newton elections, however, shows that candidates of all backgrounds, income levels, and neighborhoods can be successful in municipal races, especially candidates that have established track records from consistent involvement in city organizations or a strong network in Newton through extensive activism. A candidate’s willingness to connect with voters and that candidate’s costs of campaigning are often driven more by whether they are engaged in a contested or uncontested race, rather than by whether they are running by ward or at-large.
The pool of candidates:
The inclusion of 4 councilors elected from a pool of candidates who can live anywhere in the city further offers an opportunity for minority candidates or those representing minority points of view to be elected by receiving a plurality of votes, rather than a majority.
Electing councilors from a pool of candidates addresses another goal of the Charter Commission – increased participation in city government: competition for councilor seats is expected to increase, and the pool gives candidates another way to participate without directly competing with a candidate from their home ward whom they support, or is a popular incumbent.
We believe the smaller council, the composition of the council as structured by the proposal, and the method of electing that council, all serve the best interests of the residents of Newton.
The Charter Commission’s proposals are not perfect. The commissioners themselves grappled with various issues, and their straw votes often reflected differing opinions. Ultimately, however, the commission unanimously concluded that the proposals, when taken in their totality, best suited the needs of Newton.
We want to conclude with a note of appreciation for the work of the Charter Commission. Over the course of the last 17 months, the Charter Commission has approached their work with diligence, intelligence, introspection and transparency. They reviewed existing data, conducted additional research on their own, interviewed experts and officials, deliberated amongst themselves and debated their differing viewpoints, and heard extensive public comment. There is no doubt, regardless of the outcome of the vote in November, that this group of 9 individuals have performed an amazing service for the residents of Newton. They have made us reflect on our form of government, our city’s best interests, and made us talk about the topics that are key to keeping Newton a vibrant and engaged community. Thank you!
Statement of Sallee Lipshutz:
Nota Bene: A paper distributed at the League Meeting discussing the pros and cons of the Charter Proposal contained an argument that I made that the cost of running for an At-Large Councilor seat could be 6 times as expensive as running for a Ward Councilor seat, thus making entry for a newcomer much more difficult. At the April 30 meeting of the League, an audience member asked my source for the mentioned $5000 vs $30,000 figures. I have researched those numbers more closely and can report that in the 2015 Municipal Election, newcomer At-Large Councilor candidate Jake Auchincloss spent $40,000* vs. the ~$1990** expenditure in the 2013 Municipal election of newcomer Ward 1 Councilor candidate Alison Leary.
Conclusion: It can actually be 20 times more expensive for a newcomer to run for an At-Large Council seat as for a Ward Council seat. This is clear proof of economic barrier to entry!
*Source is MA Office of Campaign and Political Finance
**Source is City of Newton Election Campaign Finance
The Commission’s proposed charter violates fundamental League principles.
Two core values of the national League’s mission statement are: to build citizen participation in the democratic process and to empower grassroots in communities. The proposed charter fails to achieve either of these objectives. Worse, its results would be diametrically opposed to them:
- It would result in the reduction of equal citizen participation in the democratic process by creating an economic barrier to entry to candidacy by removing all the directly elected ward councilors. To run a candidacy for ward councilor within a single ward is vastly cheaper than running a citywide campaign. It costs up to five times more to run for an at-large council position than to run for a directly elected ward council seat. New candidates are able to walk the ward, speaking to a large proportion of the voters, introducing themselves and ascertaining information about the voters’ needs. In contrast, it is impossible for an at-large candidate to knock on every door in the city. To finance the expensive media-intensive campaign that must substitute for the face-to-face interactions appropriate for a ward candidacy, the at-large candidate must have a deep pocket organization or party to support the methods necessary for an at-large campaign. New entrants to the political process are highly unlikely to obtain such support.
- It would prevent the empowerment of grassroots in communities because it would isolate local voices from a remote more centralized city government. Advocacy for local issues would face the same burden that confronts an at-large candidate when compared to a ward candidate. The ward would lose its champion.
We know that change is coming to Newton and that well financed developers are waiting in the wings for our response this November. If the charter passes, residents of each ward will no longer have their ward councilor, elected by ward voters only, to be a defender of their rights. Grassroots participation will play a smaller role as a more centralized city council governs from a more remote City Hall. There will be no representative knowledgeable of the practical concerns of those citizens who are most affected by any proposal seen as supposedly “good for the city.” To hear the community’s voice through its local ward representative is to produce a better change and to prevent the tyranny of the majority. It might take more work and longer meetings, but the end result is invariably better than proposals developed without adequate local input.
The LWVN has a well-articulated position on the Newton city charter. Not only does the proposal fail to uphold the League’s central principles, but it also fails to adopt the technical remedies which the local League has repeatedly advocated. The proposed charter contradicts many of the League’s positions and ignores others. For example:
- They have not provided 4-year staggered terms for the School Committee.
- They have not created the position of Citizen Assist Officer.
- They have not required regular updated comprehensive plans by requiring them only when there is a new Mayor or when the Mayor chooses to modify or rewrite it.
- They have added term limits for the city council and Mayor. The League’s position did not include term limits for these positions. To the contrary, it eliminated all term limits by advocating for the removal of the only term limits existing in the current city charter, the term limits for school committee.
I would like to add here that requiring term limits removes the choice from the voter to keep a Mayor, Councilor or School Committee Member whose performance has been exemplary and who would be re-elected easily because of past performance in the job.
Besides, we all know that elections are term limits!
In its city council configuration the new Charter proposes eight at-large representatives elected with residency requirement and four councilors elected citywide with no residency requirement. That means that one ward could have five councilors who reside there, while the other seven wards each have only one councilor. The ward with five councilors would have five times the political power of any other ward.
Electing a councilor-at-large does not guarantee representativeness. The election of an at-large city councilor can be completely dominated by one or a few wards with high voter turnout. Minority voices or those of differing socio-economic groups can be completely shut out. However, voting in a set of eight different wards, by residents living only in those wards, DOES guarantee that everyone is truly represented. Boston has moved to district representation. Framingham has just adopted it to guarantee equitable representation in its new city form of government and we would be well advised to keep our current balance of at-large and directly elected ward representatives to maintain our genuine local democracy. We should not allow our city government to be centralized, with a smaller non-representative council, while losing the precious ward councilor advocate we have enjoyed for decades. We should vote NO on the proposed charter today and again in November.
People who spoke after the presentation:
- Jen Abbott
- Rhanna Kidwell
- Diana Fisher-Gomberg
- Susie Heyman
- Lisle Baker (N)
- Alicia Bowman
- Sallee Lipshutz (N)
- Linda Morrison
- Sarah Ecker
- Marcia Johnson ”be respectful”
- Sharyn Roberts
- Sue Rosenbaum
- Priscilla Leith (N)
- Bryan Barash
- ?? “disappointed”
- Chris Pitts (N)
- Andrea Steenstrup
- Kathleen Hobson
- AnnaMaria Abernathy
- Sandy Butzel
- Ann Morse Hartner
- Anne Larner
- Holly Gunner
- Bonnie Carter
- Jay Harney (N)
- Alison Leary
- Deb Crossley
- Margie Ross-Decter
Vote: 59 members