Vote No on Changing the City Charter

UPDATE:  The Boston Globe has an article on how developer money is backing the “Yes” side and hopes to reshape the city.  Read it here online or here as a pdf.

Last year Newton voted to create a commission to review and update the City Charter—which defines how the city is organized.

The Newton City Council currently has 24 members. Each of the eight wards has one ward-elected councilor (elected only by the ward to represent them and to be accountable to them), and two At-Large Councilors, elected city-wide, all required to live within the ward.

Among many minor changes, some good and some bad, the commission has proposed the complete elimination of the city’s ward-elected councilors and half of the at-large councilors.  In its place, they want to have twelve at-large councilors elected by all voters city-wide, with one residing in each ward plus four residing anywhere in the city.

During last year’s election campaign for the charter commission, the elimination of ward councilors was never discussed.  Questions about the possibility of changing the ward structure were dismissed as alarmist.  Yet according to a member of the charter commission itself, it was one of the first decisions made.

Villages vs. City

Newton is a collection of 13 villages.  The ward structure, while not following the boundaries of the villages completely, retains the tradition of power distributed to the neighborhoods.  It is unique.

It makes a clear statement that what goes on in your neighborhood is most important to you.  People want to move to Newton, and Newton residents want to remain here, because of the character of our neighborhoods.

The charter commission has repeatedly stated that they looked to comparably sized cities when they decided on the best way to change the way Newton is governed.

They were looking for a way to centralize government and make it more “efficient.”

Yet even the largest cities in Massachusetts have more ward councilors than the charter commission has planned.


Practical Effects

1. Concentrates Political Power

With a large number of councilors distributed throughout the city, eight of whom are only elected by their neighbors, diverse voices are heard from.  Each area of the city has the same weight of political power as the others, despite different socio-economic demographics.

Under the charter commission’s proposal, five of the twelve councilors could be elected from just one small section of Newton—Chestnut Hill, for instance—giving those councilors a near majority for any legislation they propose.

2. Reduces Accountability

By eliminating the eight ward-elected councilors who provide village-level consitutent service and advocacy, no ward will have a councilor directly accountable to its residents.

Under the charter commission’s proposal, a councilor could live in ward 5…completely disregard the wishes of the majority of ward 5 residents…and still be elected by the remaining 7 wards of the city.

3. Increased influence from special interests

With a ward councilor in place, ultimately responsible only to the ward itself, the ward interests are primary.  While all councilors listen to their constituents, ward councilors in particular must be highly attuned to their neighborhoods’ wishes.  In the case of large development projects for example, recent history has shown that the ward councilors are a neighborhood’s first line of defense in making sure that the concerns of those most effected are carefully considered and development projects are often significantly improved with neighborhood feedback.

Under the charter commission’s proposal, the wishes of any neighborhood is diluted.  With only city-wide seats, a councilor can be unresponsive to the ward, even lose the ward vote, but still easily win re-election simply because the city is so large.

That may be why some of the biggest contributors to the “yes” to charter change campaign have been developers.  (see the Boston Globe article here).

4. Limiting New Candidates

Wards are by design relatively small.  Someone who wants to run as a councilor can walk the ward, knocking on every door, meeting residents and making their case personally.  It’s an investment of time, not money.  A city-wide race is different, requiring sufficient funds for mailers to every household, resulting in expensive costs.

Under the charter commission’s proposal, all races would be city-wide and for half as many seats.  The advantage would naturally fall to candidates with wealth or connections or seats at the “establishment” table and diverse and independent voices would be eliminated.

Please Vote No.

The view of the NRCC is simple—more independent voices and fewer Democrat Machine voices wherever possible.

And for once the Newton TAB agrees with us:  TAB:vote no on charter.