Newton charter vote could shape city’s development for years to come
While Newton voters get set to pick their next mayor, another item on the ballot could have a much greater long-term impact on the city: a measure proposing a rewrite of the city’s charter.
The charter proposal, which would cut the size of the City Council in half, has drawn the support of developers and others in the business community who are frustrated by how long it takes to get projects and other decisions through the council’s 24 members.
Proponents say the change, approved by the city’s Charter Commission in the spring, would improve the way local government operates after it takes effect in 2020. “Issues that should take months sometimes take years,” said Rob Gifford, an investment consultant who gave $5,000 to the “yes” campaign and helped lead the fund-raising effort.
But critics say a smaller council might shift power from neighborhoods to business interests. One reason they cite: The charter change would require all 12 candidates to run citywide races, as opposed to the current structure, in which eight of the 24 councilors need to run only within their wards.
Significant development projects typically require the support of two-thirds of the council. Developers could find it easier to accomplish that with a smaller body completely elected by voters all across the city — not individual wards — critics say.
“It’s been a concern of mine and a lot of other people that this is really about development,” said Emily Norton, a Newtonville city councilor whose campaign committee has contributed $3,000 as well as more than $4,000 worth of in-kind services to oppose the charter change. “If you support a development that people close to it don’t want, it doesn’t really risk your reelection if you are running citywide.”
Norton, along with 13 other councilors, has proposed another option: scaling the council back to 16 members, split evenly between candidates who run in the wards and those who run citywide. The council would take up that option only if the charter change vote fails next week.
Newton has a bigger council than any of the other 50-plus municipalities in the state that use a city-government approach. But critics of the charter change say only 10 of those communities do not have ward-level races.
Much like the mayoral race, the charter issue has stoked longtime class divisions in the city. The more urban neighborhoods north of the Massachusetts Turmpike, particularly along Washington Street, are seen as more likely places for big multifamily developments than many pricier sections of the city. (Both mayoral candidates, Scott Lennon and Ruthanne Fuller, support the charter change.)
Documents filed at City Hall on Monday underscore which side has the business community’s support. The “yes” group raised $63,000 through Oct. 20, compared with opponents’ $26,000. Dan Fireman, a Wellesley resident and managing partner of a private equity firm, Fireman Capital Partners, was the biggest donor, giving $10,000 to the “yes” campaign.
Mark Development principal Robert Korff gave $1,000. His project, a complex with as many as 160 apartments known as Washington Place in Newtonville, has been slowed by litigation. A 68-unit project for nearby Austin Street is now moving ahead — a lead developer for that project, Scott Oran of Dinosaur Capital Partners, gave $500 to the pro-charter change campaign. A number of others in the real estate sector gave, too.
The Newton-Needham Regional Chamber’s board endorsed the charter change last month. President Greg Reibman said business leaders often are frustrated with how long it takes to get requests approved by the 24-member council. That frustration, he said, applies to developments, but also to other issues, such as permits for parking waivers and seating at restaurants.
“It’s not business-friendly in the way we think it should be,” Reibman said. “It’s earned Newton the reputation of being the city of ‘no.’ ”
Gifford, the charter change supporter, says the vast majority of donors are citizen activists who are interested in improving their city’s government, and aren’t driven by business interests.
Former state treasurer Steve Grossman, who gave $2,000 to the “yes” campaign, said reducing the council’s size could make the decision-making process simpler and more effective.
“I’ve seen debates on meaningful issues go on for hours and hours,” Grossman said.
But councilor Marc Laredo said the change could make it tougher for people with day jobs to run for the council, without the ward-only races as an option. And he said the change could make it easier for “special interests,” in his words, to dominate the council. “I am very comfortable with reducing the size of the council,” Laredo said. “But that is not what this is about.”