- An Overview of the Charter Review Process
- Newton’s Last Charter Commission
- What are the Risks of a Charter Review?
- Opportunities for Change (League Positions)
- Who Should Serve on the Charter Commission?
- Recent Charter Commissions in Massachusetts
- A Recent Example: Everett, Massachusetts
- More Information
A city’s charter is like its constitution—the charter determines our form of government. It specifies such things as the size and composition of our Board of Aldermen and School Committee, the form of our executive branch (mayor vs. city manager), the powers and duties of elected officials, term lengths, term limits, and checks and balances.
On Election Day in November of 2015, Newton voters will have a question on the ballot that asks: “Shall a commission be elected to revise the charter of Newton?”
On that same ballot, voters will be able to vote for up to 9 people to serve on the charter commission. If the yes vote prevails, the nine candidates with the most votes will become the commission. (Voters who vote “no” on the charter question can still vote for up to 9 commissioners.)
This charter commission will serve for two years, and it will have the power to propose changes to Newton’s charter. By May of 2017, the charter commission will submit the proposed charter to be included on the ballot at the November 2017 election. A voter can only vote “yes” or “no” on the entire proposed charter—there is no voting on individual changes. The Mayor and the Board of Aldermen do not approve the proposed charter—it goes straight from the commission to the voters.
The commission must hold a series of public hearings and prepare both a preliminary and final report on the proposed revision. Charter commissioners are not paid, and the City may not use public funds to solicit a “yes” or “no” vote on the charter revision.
Under Massachusetts law, a charter can be revised in two ways. The first method requires a majority vote of the Board of Aldermen and approval by the mayor, and then must pass both houses of the state legislature. The other method, the election of a charter commission, does not require approval of the Aldermen or mayor, but does require the approval of a majority of voters. A petition signed by 15% of registered voters is required to get the question of a charter commission on the ballot.
More information on charter reform can be found here:
Here are two Op-Eds from the LWVN about the Charter process in the Newton Tab:
- League of Women Voters: Time to review Newton’s charter (December 2014)
- Charter Commission is a ‘proven process’ (December 2012)
Newton’s last charter commission served from 1969 to 1971. The charter proposed by that commission was approved by voters and brought significant improvements to our government structure, including:
- A Four-Year Term for Mayor—prior to 1971, Newton’s mayor served a two-year term; this change brought more strength and stability to the executive branch
- An Override of the Mayor’s Veto—prior to 1971, the Board of Aldermen could not override a veto from the mayor. The BoA can now override a veto by a two-thirds vote, providing better checks and balances between the two branches
- Elections to Fill Vacancies—prior to 1971, any vacancy in an elected office, regardless of the length of term remaining, was filled by the Board of Aldermen (or in the case of a School Committee vacancy, and vote by a joint session of the SC and the BoA); an alderman could run for re-election and then resign after being inaugurated, allowing the BoA to fill the vacancy and control its membership. The charter adopted in 1971 provides for special elections in the event of a vacancy.
Newton’s last charter commission had one significant flaw…and a great opportunity for improvement in our charter. Five of the nine commissioners elected in 1969 were sitting elected officials (two state representatives, two School Committee representatives, and one Alderman) and were therefore heavily invested in the status quo. According to the commission’s chair, Florence Rubin, even the State Representatives would not support downsizing the Board of Aldermen because they felt they needed endorsement from the Aldermen in order to gain re-election. And therein lies the opportunity… many city charters explicitly forbid elected officials from holding more than one elected office.
The 1971 charter commission was chaired by League member Florence Rubin. Our website carries a transcript of a fascinating interview with Florence conducted by former Alderman John Stewart:
More information on the history of Newton’s legislative body and the city’s charter can be found in this fascinating ‘research paper/historical compendium” by Robert Capeless:
This is a well-tested and proven process. The charter commission process has been used successfully in many cities and towns in Massachusetts since the home rule legislation was adopted in 1966—180 charter commissions have been elected since then. 37 charter commissions have been elected in Massachusetts in the last 15 years.
The process brought significant positive change to Newton the last time we elected a charter commission, which was in 1969 (see LWVN 2010 Charter Study).
The charter commission process is governed by Massachusetts law, so the process works the same in all cities and towns. Newton does not have discretion to make changes to the process.
Voters must approve any changes proposed through the process. Voters must approve the charter in an up or down vote—we do not vote on individual changes. This limits the likelihood of controversial changes being proposed.
The League supports specific changes to Newton’s charter. But we like to emphasize that this is an open process governed by Massachusetts law, with input and participation from all voters encouraged, and the changes we support are by no means guaranteed.
Our present-day charter commission initiative began in 2009, when we undertook the standard League discipline of a study of Newton’s charter. 34 League members spent nine months on the study, and compared Newton’s charter to the charters of 11 benchmark communities as well as to the Model City Charter, published by the National Civic League. Study members interviewed officials from the benchmark towns, met with a charter expert employed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and researched charter commissions from ten Massachusetts towns dating back to 1999. The study concluded at the 2010 annual meeting with the adoption of 14 new positions, five of which can only be effected by a charter commission.
League positions related to a charter commission include:
We support a reduction of the size of the Board of Aldermen, with a mix of at-large and district representation or with at-large representatives with residency requirements.
LWVN has held a position to downsize the BoA since 1966. This position was affirmed and amended in 2010.
- Newton has 24 aldermen, or 3 per ward (we have 8 wards).
- Newton has one alderman for every 3,470 residents. Cities in Massachusetts with a population greater than 50,000 (excluding Boston) have an average of one city councilor for every 7,825 residents. Cities with a population of greater than 70,000 (excluding Boston) have an average of one city councilor for every 9,971 residents.
- In Massachusetts, cities larger than 50,000 residents have an average of 11 city councilors. A typical 11-member council would be comprised of one representative from each ward and three “at-large” representatives who could live in any ward.
- In Massachusetts, there are no other cities or towns with more than one representative per district, while most have a mix of one representative per district and anywhere from 2 to 5 of “at-large” representatives who can live in any district.
- The Model City Charter, published by the National Civic League, recommends a small (5-9 member) council for reasons of effectiveness.
- The current size of the BoA leads to voter apathy and confusion. Newton voters must vote in 25 contests (up to 50 candidates) every two years; voter turnout in local elections is ½ to 1/3 of voter turnout in state / national elections.
- 3 representatives per ward may lead to low accountability, diffusion of responsibility, and may cause fewer candidates to compete per election cycle.
- In 2000, a non-binding resolution was passed by Newton voters by a 2-1 margin, calling for a reduction in the size of the BOA.
- The quality of candidates may suffer with current size.
- A smaller Board could focus on policy and delegate administrative details to city’s professionals.
- A smaller BoA would necessarily reduce the role of aldermen as providers of constituent services, which should not be their focus; residents should be able to rely on paid city staff to resolve issues with things such as potholes.
- A smaller board would bring cost savings: each alderman receives a stipend of roughly $10,000 plus the option to receive benefits, and some administrative support.
We support 4-year staggered terms for both Board of Aldermen and School Committee
This position was amended in 2010 to include the BoA.
- Presently, Newton voters must vote in 25 contests every two years, not including the Mayor’s race. This leads to “voter fatigue”, poorly informed voters, and low accountability from those who get elected.
- 4-year, staggered terms would reduce the number 25 to 13, (or more if the size of the BoA were reduced), which would allow voters to be more informed.
- Better informed voters can lead to greater accountability from those who are elected.
- This measure would prevent the risk of drastic levels of turnover in one election, which ensures that some continuity and institutional knowledge are maintained.
- Elected office has a steep learning curve and leading a legislative initiative can take longer than two years.
- This measure would limit candidates to those willing to make a longer time commitment.
- Rarely does an elected official not seek re-election after serving only one term.
We support the elimination of the 2% charter maintenance provision for schools.
This position was adopted in 2010.
- This provision is no longer relevant.
We support abolishing School Committee term limits.
This position was adopted in 2010.
- There is no logic for the inconsistency in term limits between the School Committee and the Board of Aldermen.
- Having term limits on one body and not the other creates an imbalance between the two.
- The League of Women Voters of the US opposes term limits, based on the idea that term limits take rights away from voters.
Other Charter Positions
LWVN also maintains positions adopted after our 1966 charter study that are presently incorporated into Newton’s charter. We support maintaining these facets of our charter.
These positions include:
- Support of an adequately paid mayor who shall, by Charter provision, devote full time to his office.
- Support of a four-year term for mayor.
- Support of a strong mayoral form of government.
- Support the practice of allowing the Mayor’s appointment of department heads and members of multiple-member bodies to become effective unless rejected by the Board of Aldermen.
- Support the present practice of allowing the Mayor to dismiss department heads without the approval of the Board of Aldermen.
- Support the formal creation of the position of Citizen Assistance Officer.
- Support of a special election to fill a vacancy in the office of Mayor unless the vacancy occurs within the last nine months of his or her term.
- Support of nine-member School Committee, with eight members elected at large, one to reside in each ward, with the Mayor serving ex-officio.
- Support of special elections to fill vacancies in the Board of Aldermen and School Committee unless the vacancy occurs in the last nine months of the term, in which case it should be left vacant.
The League of Women Voters is non-partisan, and never supports individual candidates. In that spirit, we would not sponsor or promote a slate of officers to serve on a charter commission. We understand the importance of Newton electing individuals with the necessary characteristics of leadership, character, and dedication to the task of improving Newton’s governance.
Our website has more information on our non-partisan policy:
Some argue that we should aim to take all of the uncertainty out of the charter commission process by voting for slates of candidates committed to specific positions. The problems inherent in this strategy are easy to see. It is highly unlikely that any slate will be elected intact, and if we elect 9 commissioners who are committed to opposing positions, we may see no change at all. Furthermore, any elected commissioner may change his or her position once in office, nullifying the value of the slate.
As in any election, balancing out personal characteristics with positions on issues is crucial.
Our website offers tips for choosing candidates effectively:
(Compiled by the Mass. Department of Housing and Community Development)
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In 2011, residents of Everett, Massachusetts voted to approve significant changes to the city’s 120-year-old charter. The changes were approved by a charter commission elected in 2009.
The new charter reduced Everett’s 25-member, bicameral legislature to a single 11-member council. The council will consist of 6 ward councilors and 5 at-large councilors, all serving two-year terms. The new charter also changed the term of office of the mayor from two years to four.
The new charter took effect in part at the citywide election of November, 2013. The new charter was fully implemented in January of 2014 when the first 11-member council and 4-year mayor were sworn in.
- Several Options Exist for Changing Local Government Structures, by Marilyn Contreas, from the MMA’s Municipal Advocate, Vol. 22, Issue
- Charting a Route for Charter Change, under Local Officials on mass.gov
- What is Home Rule? City and Town, Vol. 22, No. 7, Nov. 2009
- A Time for Change El Paso Adopts the Council-Manager Form, National Civic Review, Fall 2005
- Dispelling the Myth of Home Rule: Local Power in Greater Boston, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, Cambridge, MA
From Marilyn Contreas, formerly senior program and policy analyst at the Department of Housing and Community Development
- MA City charters available online
- Charter Summaries of Home Rule Charter Cities
- City Council Composition Summary