The charter commission has published its preliminary report and will seek public comment on March 15th at 7pm in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The primary proposed change is elimination of the eight ward-elected councilors and the addition of four at-large councilors with no residency requirement. The proposal also eliminates one at-large councilor in each ward to cut the council size in half.
The commission was given a daunting task and quickly organized their efforts. They worked with intensity, professionalism, and transparency, and are to be thanked for their public service.
They began with several problems to address including confusing ballots and uncontested seats. They also sought to reconsider the size of the council on the premise that this was not something the council would legislate itself. Unfortunately, in swiftly moving to a 9-0 straw vote on the council composition nearly a year ago (April 2016), the commission discounted options that would better meet their objectives.
Commissioners expressed second thoughts on this vote in August, but came under strong pressure from the Engine 6 special-interest group to not revisit it (minutes). The public comment audio portion of the meeting is well worth a listen for those interested in this issue.
In my opinion the current proposal would lead to four key adverse and unintended consequences:
- It will make public office less accessible to those seeking to run. It will be harder for non-incumbents to win without city-wide name recognition and for most eliminate the option of connecting with voters by “walking the ward”. It makes it harder for capable candidates well-known in their own ward through community service, but who lack city-wide name recognition. The pick-4 slate will tend to yield candidates with support of special-interest groups with city-wide mailing lists.
- It will dilute the accountability of councilors to voters. The notion that electing councilors city-wide creates more accountability is a fallacy. Ward residents can follow the performance of their councilors and can hold them accountable. No Pick-4 candidates will be challenged directly with an up or down vote. Long candidate lists in the pick-4 race will be overwhelming, with bullet voting and interest group slates confounding the process. We elect our representative and senators locally and should continue to do so for a portion of our councilors.
- It allows 42% of the council to represent one ward, neighborhood, or even household. The collaborative nature of the council will suffer as slate candidates vie to ensure they are not eliminated in next election. Wards that currently have equal geographical and socioeconomic representation by 3 councilors now may see another a ward with 5 times more voting power.
- It will not simplify the average voter’s understanding of the council. They will be faced with 8 at-large candidates and a separate category of slate candidates. Where now residents have three ward councilors to call upon, this will be reduce to as little as one, with the “Pick-4” slate candidates likely residing in other parts of the city.
While the current council of 24 members appears large to the average citizen, most of its activity involves work on eight committees that a smaller council might struggle to complete. Ward 7 councilor and Council President Emeritus Lisle Baker has produced a number of videos (Councilors at Work) that outline the activities of the council including that of the City Council Meeting along with the Program and Services, Finance, Public Safety and Transportation, Real Property Reuse, Public Facilities, Land Use, and Zoning and Planning committees. Most of these committees are unfamiliar to the average voter particularly BECAUSE they function well. Lisle also laid out a strong case for preservation of the council in his letter and statement to the charter commission last year.
If the commission feels it must reduce the size of the council, I believe the most appropriate option would be to reduce the council to 16 members; 8 ward-elected and 8 elected at-large. This proposal has the following advantages over the commission’s proposal:
The Advantages of a 16-member council with 8 ward-elected councilors
- Reduces council size from 24 to 16 and ballots from 17 to 9 races
- Maintains accountable ward-elected councilors
- Maintains geographical balance with 2 resident councilors in each ward.
- Allows non-incumbents to “walk the ward” to meet voters for ward-elected seats
- Ensures head to head match ups and reduces uncontested elections
- Minimizes unintended consequences.
- Compatible with existing committee structures
- Matches direct representation practices at state and national levels
- Matches direct representation practices of 341 of 351 Mass communities.
This option was discounted in April 2016 due to the assumption the board need an odd-number of councilors and the false supposition that ward-elected councilors tend toward parochialism, vote trading, and voting as a block. Please encourage them to reconsider it.
The charter should be durable and timeless. The current proposal and the advocacy developing around it suggest it is driven by contemporary debates around village density and development. While the creative tension and diverse opinions we face today are messy, does it make sense to engineer them out of the system in a charter that should last for decades? Newton can do better.
I hope the commission takes this opportunity to improve their final charter submission in June such that it preserves ward councilors and leaves a positive legacy for their efforts. If you agree, please email the charter commission members at email@example.com or speak at the public hearing on Wednesday March 15th at 7pm in City Hall.
A Ballot Measure Committee, “Newton Citizens for Local Representation“, has been formed to oppose the final charter if it continues to eliminate ward-elected representation. If you would like further information on how you can help in this effort, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or donate at this link. Checks can also be sent to Newton Citizens for Local Representation, PO Box 600540, Newton, MA 02460.