Come January, Newton’s 24-member Board of Aldermen will officially become the City Council. But that may not be the only change in the Garden City’s future.
Voters this fall will decide whether to form a commission to examine a raft of potential changes: from reducing the number of people on the city’s chief governing body, to increasing their terms, and changing the way land use issues are decided.
A variety of other changes, some major overhauls and some slight tinkers, could also be proposed if voters decide to form a Charter Commission to study the way business is done in the city.
“We’ve been working on this for years,” said Sue Flicop, president of the League of Women Voters Newton, the group responsible for putting the issue on the ballot.
Flicop said the large, cumbersome size of the Board of Aldermen, soon to be City Council, is the issue driving the League’s effort.
“We hope that issue will get a fair hearing,” she said.
Others see things differently.
Kathleen Kouril Grieser, a member of the Newton Village Alliance, said that after initially questioning what seemed to be a rushed process, the group is reviewing and has not yet taken a formal position on the issue.
But as someone who spends many hours at City Hall, Grieser, and many others on both sides of the issue, said the Charter Commission offers both opportunities and risks.
“For me, personally, I don’t want to see fewer aldermen, I don’t want to see power concentrated in fewer hands,” she said.
“And second, I would not like to see land-use decisions put into the hands of appointed boards that will almost certainly be made up of professionals from the development and real estate fields,” she said.
But the commission could also add recall provisions into the charter, something she thought many might welcome.
Flicop acknowledged that a smaller City Council would mean changes in the panel members’ responsibilities, but said the League wants all the possible scenarios studied by a Charter Commission.
If voters agree to form the commission, the members will be elected on the same ballot.
The commission would then work for 18 months and come up with a set of recommendations voters would then need to approve in totality, not change by change, in the citywide election in November of 2017.
This process is all dictated by state law, as is the procedure followed by the League in getting the 8,374 signatures representing 15 percent of the city’s registered voters, to put the question on the ballot for the first time in 44 years.
The last time a Charter Commission was formed in Newton, changes made to the charter included lengthening the mayor’s term from two to four years, and adding the ability of aldermen to override a mayoral veto.
For Alderwoman Marcia Johnson and others, the formation of a Charter Commission warrants careful consideration, especially the make-up of the commission.
“Who will be on the commission? Why are they running? What are their issues?” she asked.
As of noon on Wednesday, nine residents had taken out nomination papers to run for the position, including two current aldermen, Lisle Baker and Ted Hess-Mahan, and Brooke Lipsitt, chairwoman of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The deadline to file papers to be a candidate for the Charter Commission is Sept. 22, and 100 signatures from registered Newton voters, certified by the city, are needed for one’s name to appear on the ballot.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.