The Argument: Should Newton reduce its City Council to 13 members?
Should Newton reduce the size of its City Council to 13 members?
Chairman, Newton Charter Commission
The Newton Charter Commission concluded the initial evaluation of the City Council guided by goals established early in our process. Among them: expanding public participation in government, both in voter turnout and the number of contested elections; increasing civic understanding; and providing a more effective and responsive government. We sought community input, including testimony at regular commission meetings, public hearings, and a roundtable discussion with current and former city councilors.
The information we collected showed that Newton’s council meetings often run longer than comparable meetings across the state, and that some residents get frustrated listening to 24 councilors speak on a topic. We found that other city councils across Massachusetts are much smaller: Of the 20 largest cities not including Newton, only three have more than 11 members, and not one requires more than one person to come from a particular ward. We also learned that the job descriptions of a ward councilor and an at-large councilor are essentially the same.
The commission unanimously agreed to recommend a 13-member city council with one member elected from each of the eight wards, but voted on at large; and five councilors elected at large, without any ward residency requirement. A voter would go from having a voice in 70.8 percent of the council elections to 100 percent, and the seats for which a resident is eligible would increase from three out of 24 to six out of 13.
We hear from opponents of downsizing that the council ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it. However, government should constantly seek improvement, rather than perpetuate stagnation. Here are some other things that aren’t broken: the D line, Netflix, and my iPhone. But I welcome improvements in all of those — and anyone who regularly upgrades a cellphone probably agrees.
As Lincoln stated at Gettysburg, government here is “by the people, for the people.” Newton has twice voted to reduce the number of city councilors. The people will vote in November 2017 on our plan. I believe the proposed council composition would provide an improved body, enable greater participation in government, encourage more contested elections, and facilitate a greater understanding of our municipal government.
Newton city councilor at large, dean of the council
Cutting the size of the City Council from 24 to 13 members would reduce the level of service citizens receive from their city government without improving the quality of life in the city. The expression “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” is painfully relevant to the proposed charter change.
Proponents claim the council is “cumbersome,” “ineffective,” and “inefficient,” but offer no specific examples. What issues have not been solved because of the size of the council?
The proposal would eliminate the existing ward council seats, replacing them with ward seats filled through citywide voting. The new councilors, even if the same people, would be hard put to maintain the high productivity of the current group. Three councilors per ward now share the workload. If that were reduced to one councilor, the level of representation and responsiveness would inevitably decline.
Five at-large councilors would be less focused than the current two per ward. The existing at-large councilors work in a variety of ways to enhance the quality of life in the villages. Having fewer of them would mean less help for grassroots efforts.
The broad outlines of the council structure have been in effect for more than 100 years. The current council structure was adopted 25 years ago. What evidence exists to justify change?
Money Magazine recently found Newton to be the nation’s fourth-best place to live , and our high real estate prices appear to confirm it. Do we want to make changes to government that could put this high quality of life at risk?
The proponents of charter change need to specify how the proposed changes will make things better. They acknowledge the merits of many current councilors, but say that the current system needs to be replaced for future decades. I would suggest that the structure of the current charter has helped generate many excellent officials and will continue to do so long after those officials are gone.
If you can’t explain in what way our government structure is broken or how your changes would improve it, your position is probably wrong. Better to focus on the real specific problems in the city.
Last week’s poll: Should Brookline install a buffered bike lane on Beacon Street?
Yes: 54.2% (39 votes)
No: 45.8% (33 votes)