The LWVN Board sent the following letter to the Newton City Council:
Dear President Lennon and members of the Newton City Council:
The League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) is concerned that the Newton City Council’s actions relating to the upcoming vote on the Charter Commission proposal are veering away from processes designed to fulfill its ethical obligations to the electorate.
At all levels of government, there are laws, policies, procedures, and practices in place to ensure transparency and to allow citizens to engage in a productive way. We expect our elected officials to abide by these rules; however, in two recent instances, the City Council has fallen short.
First, on September 18, the City Council voted 14-8, with 2 absences, to not transfer $6400, as the Mayor requested, to cover the cost of printing and sending copies of the Charter Commission proposal to the voters and residents of Newton. With this vote, the City Council failed to accept their responsibility and allow the city and the Charter Commission to follow the state-established process for all charter commissions. The purpose was to educate and inform voters about the ballot question in November, including their rationale for the changes.
What could have been a very simple vote turned into an hour-long emotional discussion of the graphic at the end of the proposal that showed a box, with a checkmark, marked “yes.” Fourteen City Councilors felt that that this was not appropriate for a city document and crossed the line into advocacy. It became clear in this meeting that for many of the 14 councilors, this vote was NOT just about a graphic, but was instead an opportunity to share their feelings and complain about some of the proposed Charter provisions. This is essentially a “process” issue that the City Council was allowed to turn into a political one. This discussion can be seen by going to NewTV City Council Meetings
It was very clear that these Councilors have a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the charter proposal. The very first line of the proposal states that the Charter Commission recommends this to the voters—advocacy is part of the process. Other charter commissions across the state recommend a yes vote for their work, and it was widely expected that the charter commission will advocate for their work here in Newton, too.
In pretty-much a political vote, the approval to transfer the funds was not approved. The Mayor will now find the funds elsewhere in the budget in order to meet the City’s legal responsibility. The Election Commission will soon be sending its own document to voters with both pro and con arguments and voters will be as informed as possible to make the choice that is best for them.
Second, fourteen councilors have recently docketed an item for discussion and vote by mid-October that would seek a home rule petition to change the City Council in a different configuration than that proposed by the Charter Commission, if the voters vote “no” in November. This council proposal will make it more difficult for voters to understand what their vote in November will mean, and was done without the thoughtful discussions, public input and respect for state law that voters should expect from our elected officials.
In 2015, voters of Newton voted to establish the Charter Commission, and to entrust it to research, discuss and propose changes over an 18-month long process. This was done by nine people that voters elected—and they did their work admirably, thoroughly and transparently. Now, however, in a matter of weeks, the City Council will rush through discussions, evaluations, and public input to support their own proposal.
Voters should know that the option presented by the City Council is not necessarily going to happen, even if the charter question fails in November. Twice before the City Council was presented with non-binding referenda to reduce the size of the Council, and twice they refused or failed to act on it. Home rule requires the City Council to approve the action, as well as approval from the Mayor. In addition, all home rule petitions need to be approved by the State, and could possibly require another election by Newton voters.
The League of Women Voters has always felt strongly about following process; it can be maddening to some that we are often slow to support or oppose issues because we do follow process. We believe the consistency this creates gives our work integrity and value. We expect nothing less than that from our elected officials, and feel they have fallen woefully short on issues related to the charter proposal.