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As the Nov. 5 municipal election approaches, many candidates running for Newton City Council are keeping their opinions to themselves on two major mixed-use developments that will need council approval.
A city attorney argues that councilors must not say whether they support or oppose those proposals in order to maintain the fairness of the city’s formal review process.
Many challengers are following suit — they, too, have remained silent in case they are elected and asked to deliberate on the projects.
Alissa Ocasio Giuliani, Newton’s city solicitor, sent an opinion to councilors last month advising them not to answer a Globe reporter’s questions about their opinions on two projects now under review.
One is a mixed-use development with 524 housing units at the Riverside MBTA station proposed by Normandy Real Estate Partners and Robert Korff’s Mark Development. The other is a 14-building mixed-use project with 800 apartments proposed by Northland Investment Corp. at the corner of Needham and Oak streets in Upper Falls.
Developers are seeking City Council approval for special permits and zoning amendments for the proposals to move forward.
That special permit process falls under a “quasi-judicial” status that requires councilors to serve in a judicial role, Ocasio Giuliani wrote in a Sept. 19 opinion sent to councilors.
“While you may share biographical information about yourselves, I caution against responding to questions seeking your opinion on the Riverside and Northland projects as they are the subject of special permits pending before you for approval,” Ocasio Giuliani said.
There’s no statute or case law behind Ocasio Giuliani’s opinion, but it serves as guidance to candidates for the City Council, according to Jonathan Yeo, the city’s chief operating officer.
“We hope that all persons who ran or run for [the] council are aware of the roles and responsibilities that they will assume if elected,” Yeo wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.
Jim McKenna, a senior fellow on law and policy at the Pioneer Institute, said the Newton City Council’s role in reviewing projects creates a conflict when voters are trying to learn about those who seek local elected office.
“The conflict between the rights of voters to know what the candidate will do and the need to maintain the integrity of the system is unavoidable with this setup in Newton,” McKenna said. “Voters lose out. [Candidates] should be able to answer the questions fully and completely.”
But voters have many opportunities to learn about candidates, particularly those with track records from their service as elected officials, said Marc Laredo, president of the Newton City Council.
“We are elected to use our best individual judgment,” Laredo said. “And I think the voters can and do look at the character, experience, and disposition of a candidate, and make a decision on whether that person will exercise sound judgment on a regular basis.”
Review of zoning changes is a legislative process, but the special permits are specific to particular projects that aren’t allowed by right to be built. In Newton, multifamily housing and larger commercial projects require special permit approval, according to the city.
Ocasio Giuliani’s opinion was sent after the Globe sent a questionnaire to all 35 candidates running for City Council. The candidates were asked to say whether they supported or opposed two proposed mixed-use projects at Riverside and in Upper Falls.
Nineteen of the 33 respondents declined to give their opinions or offered no position on the proposed developments. Ten others offered partial answers, which included opinions on specific aspects of the projects.
Four candidates — all challengers — directly said whether they supported or opposed the projects.
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said elected officials have an obligation to keep people informed about what is happening in local communities.
As election day approaches, “we also rely on these officials to provide their perspective and political positions to help us make informed decisions as voters,” he said. “Any policy that detracts from these fundamental obligations should probably be reconsidered.”
McKenna, of the Pioneer Institute, said Ocasio Giuliani’s reasoning is sound, and city councilors must respect the special permit process and not appear biased during deliberations. But it’s not necessary that Newton’s top elected board — the City Council — take on this role.
“It would make a great deal of sense to have that function in a non-elective board,” he said. “If it were a separate board, it would not be an issue of candidates not answering questions.”
Laredo, who has served on the board since 2012, said it is critically important that decisions over land use remain with the City Council — an elected board accountable to the voters — rather than an appointed body.
“These developments have a significant impact on the city... I hope that people elect candidates because they think those [individuals] will work hard and exercise their best possible judgment for the benefit of the city,” Laredo said.
Livable Newton, which advocates for sustainable development and affordable housing, provides information collected from candidates to voters, said Nancy Zollers, a member of the group. Engine 6, which is part of Livable Newton, issues endorsements based on the results of Livable Newton’s survey.
It’s not a simple “yay” or “nay” on projects that voters are looking for, Zollers said, but an overall picture of how each councilor approaches issues in Newton.
“I think any controversy about councilors not being able to say how they will vote on any specific development pales in relation to the councilors’ positioning on housing in general,” Zollers said.
Peter Bruce, president of the Newtonville Area Council, said he supports the City Council’s role in the special permit process. But he believes elected officials should be more forthcoming with their opinions on projects.
Newton’s voters face other challenges in gathering information, he said, including limited local media coverage and city development proposals that lack sufficient detail. Councilors should be more transparent so voters are better informed before Election Day.
“The lack of news, the tendency [of] these visioning efforts to get bigger and vaguer, and this quasi-judicial mode makes it hard for voters to get a grasp on what our elected officials are going to do, and hold them accountable,” Bruce said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.