Chair, Newton Charter Commission
Last spring, the Newton Charter Commission completed an exhaustive review of Newton’s existing city charter. We researched and studied different charters, held numerous meetings and panel discussions, heard expert testimony, and received public comment. The result of that review was a unanimous decision to recommend to the voters of Newton a comprehensive set of coherent changes to our charter, including reducing the city council from 24 to 12 members, imposing term limits on all elected officials, updating the city’s financial reporting requirements, setting in motion a 10-year review of the charter, and other important upgrades.
The change to the size and composition of the City Council is one of the more significant changes. Newton residents have wanted a smaller City Council for over 50 years. The average council size of the 20 largest cities in Massachusetts is 10; across the country it is six. With 24 members, Newton’s City Council can take years to accomplish its legislative goals, and residents have a hard time knowing which of the many councilors to contact.
The commission spent months researching and deliberating this particular aspect of Newton’s government. After considering different council models and the tradeoffs inherent in each, we quickly agreed on the need to retain ward representation so as to ensure economic and geographic diversity. We believe every ward needs a single local voice advocating for ward-specific issues. As a result, the new charter would require that voters citywide elect one councilor from each of Newton’s eight wards. Having councilors from the wards elected citywide avoids the potential narrow focus and gridlock that can occur when a majority of councilors answer only to one ward.
Adding four at-large councilors who can live anywhere in the city offers additional access to a council seat to someone unwilling to challenge a strong ward incumbent or whose issues may not be ward-specific. These seats are more likely to be contested in every city election.
Alternative proposals for changing the size and composition of the council were debated and ultimately rejected. This is the best option for Newton because all councilors are accountable to every voter.
Newton Ward 2 City Councilor
Voters should vote “No” on Nov. 7 because the proposed changes to the composition of the City Council are extreme and would make Newton’s government less effective, less accountable, and more easily dominated by special interests.
The Charter Commission proposal would downsize the City Council by eliminating all eight ward councilors, who are elected by voters in each ward, and instead provide for 12 at-large councilors elected by all voters citywide — one residing in each ward plus four residing anywhere in the city.
One effect of this change would be to make it easier for influential private developers to get projects approved. Why? Because unlike a ward councilor elected by voters of that ward, a ward councilor elected citywide could ignore concerns of abutters and still easily win re-election, simply because the city is so big. Regardless of one’s position about development, it is valuable to ensure the concerns of those most affected are at least considered; projects are often improved with neighborhood feedback.
This change will also limit who can run and win council seats. Citywide campaigns are much more expensive, so they benefit those who can self-fund or raise large amounts of money. They also benefit those connected to established political networks.
Lastly, four at-large councilors from anywhere means one ward could have five of the 12 councilors. In contrast, our current system ensures equitable representation.
As I have knocked on hundreds of doors throughout Newton the last few months, I have found that while some voters do support downsizing, they don’t support doing it by eliminating ward representation. For that reason I am one of 14 councilors proposing an alternative downsizing option — a “Plan B,” that is — reducing the City Council to sixteen members: eight ward and eight at-large. This Plan B is written in such a way that it only moves forward if the Charter Commission proposal is defeated.
So if you like the idea of downsizing but want to maintain ward councilors, vote “No” on Nov. 7. With 14 co-sponsors, a majority of the City Council, Plan B will move ahead — but only if the Charter Commission’s version is voted down Nov. 7. For more information on the campaign against the charter change, visit newtondemocracy.org.
Last week’s argument: Was the Trump administration right to order an end to the Dreamers’ program?
Yes: 72.22% (13 votes)
No: 27.78% (5 votes)
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.