By most accounts, the crowded city council race in Newton is shaping up to be one of the most consequential contests for the city in more than a decade. The balance between the need to build more housing, including affordable housing, and managing the impact of major development proposals is the biggest debate in town. There are 35 people running for the 24-member council, including 24 candidates in nine contested races.
Yet Newton residents are being prevented from forming a full opinion on some of the candidates — all because of debatable counsel from the city solicitor.
As the Nov. 5 municipal election nears, Globe correspondent John Hilliard sought out the candidates’ positions for a voters guide on two of the most controversial mixed-used proposals in Newton — a development with 524 housing units at the Riverside MBTA station and a 14-building project in Upper Falls. Both developments are currently in review before the city council.
Hilliard reported that only four of the 33 candidates who responded to his inquiry directly stated their position on whether they supported or opposed the projects. Ten gave partial answers, while 19 others didn’t reveal their positions at all.
One possible reason behind their silence? Guidance from Alissa Ocasio Giuliani, Newton’s city solicitor, who in a letter cautioned current city councilors running for reelection against saying whether they support or oppose the projects because “they are the subject of special permits pending before you for approval.”
Many of the challengers decided to follow Ocasio Giuliani’s legal advice as well. The city solicitor argued it would be inappropriate for councilors to express their “political position on development projects” currently before the council because, she wrote, they “serve broadly in a legislative/political role but also act in a quasi-judicial manner when deciding special permit/site plan approval petitions. When acting as the special permit granting authority and reviewing proposed projects, the City Council is acting in a judicial role and not voting on behalf of their constituents.”
Note that all Ocasio Giuliani is saying is that in her view it would be inappropriate to comment on the two developments, not illegal, since there is no case law or statute behind her opinion. Still, incumbents and challengers alike are treating her opinion like the 11th Commandment, while overstating what she actually said. One candidate answered the Globe’s questions about the developments: “It would not be legally appropriate to comment.” Others quoted directly from Ocasio Giuliani’s letter, while another simply said “I can’t answer, I may be voting on it next session.”
What happened to transparency in campaigning? It’s hard not to see these answers as just avoiding an important question, one that serves to shape voters’ view of candidacies, with a flimsy legal pretext. And the notion that a candidate can’t express a view on a question they’ll vote on defeats the purpose of having elections.
“Anything that prevents voters from learning where candidates stand on issues is detrimental to democracy,” said Costas Panagopoulos, professor and interim chair of the department of political science at Northeastern University. “If [candidates] have a view before the election, they shouldn’t be prevented from sharing it.”
By not being transparent, these Newton candidates are actually saying something about themselves to voters when they refuse to state their positions. Voters shouldn’t accept silence, and candidates this desperate to avoid weighing in on a controversial issue deserve to be judged accordingly.