By Nancy Tener (Letter to Newton Tab)
On Tuesday Nov. 7 Newton voted down the proposed Charter by a margin of 2,000 votes. 12,519 Newton voters decided they did not want to lose local ward representation—soundly rejecting the Charter Commission’s proposal to elect all city councilors at large. In fact, more people voted NO on the Charter than voted for Mayor-elect Fuller.
Over the summer and fall, I knocked on over 500 doors in Newton to educate voters about the Charter proposal and to make the case that Newton would be changed in ways we would regret forever if it went forward. Loud and clear was voter rejection of the at large council model at the ballot box. Voters do not want to lose their local voice. In my canvassing, some voters did say that they would favor a smaller council. That comes as no surprise. In 2000, in a non-binding referendum, Newton voters supported reducing the size of the Council two to one.
On Wednesday night, the Council began to discuss a home rule petition that would preserve local representation and also reduce the size of the council—an opportunity to follow the direction voters set on Tuesday. It proposes a Council with eight locally elected ward representatives and eight elected at-large with a residency requirement. It is referred to as the “eight and eight” proposal. This plan provides a way to satisfy voters’ desire for local representation and a smaller council. This model was favored by the League of Women Voters when they studied the issue in 1989 and continued to be the position of the LWV until 2010.
To my surprise, the Charter Commission showed up at City Hall in full force on Wednesday night to argue again for removing local representation. Speakers who had been in favor of the proposed charter argued that voters did not know what they were doing on Tuesday and that they did not understand the ballot. Essentially their argument is that the voters cannot be trusted.
This cynicism can only weaken our city and undermine democracy. Across the country, citizens are coming together to reinvigorate the electorate by making it easier to participate in public discourse and removing barriers to speaking through the ballot box. A group of people with a lot of money here in Newton is pushing hard to muffle local voices and to shrink accountability. That will move us in the opposite direction. Voters said NO.
There is another hearing on the eight and eight proposal at City Hall on Nov. 15 and a meeting of the entire Council on Dec. 4 to consider this proposal. I hope voters will come to City Hall to listen to the debate and will contact your Councilors to express support.
The 8 and 8 proposal has been studied. The voters have spoken. It’s time for the Council to act by supporting the eight and eight proposal. Elections have consequences.
By Barbara Darnell (Letter to Newton Tab)
Last Tuesday, Newton voters overwhelmingly voted against the proposed changes to Newton’s Charter, thus preserving our local ward councilors.
On Wednesday, the Home Rule petition to reduce the size of Newton’s City Council to 16 members (eight at-large from each Ward and eight ward-only) was brought before the Programs and Services committee. This petition had been submitted in September on behalf of 14 councilors: Brousal-Glaser, Blasar, Ciccone, Cote, Danberg, Harney, Kalis, Lappin, Laredo, Norton, Rice, Sangiolo and Schwartz.
As someone who opposed the proposed Charter due to the elimination of ward councilors, but nonetheless would prefer a smaller Board, I strongly support the 8+8 petition. It would reduce the size of the Council while preserving ward representation — a solution preferred by my friends and neighbors, as well as the hundreds of citizens that I heard from through the “Citizens for Local Representation” campaign.
I sincerely hope that the Programs and Services committee will vote the petition out of committee on Nov. 15 and allow the whole Council to consider it on Dec. 4. And I urge the MANY of you that prefer a smaller Council with local representation to let our representatives know just how you feel: call, write and email them. Let your voice be heard. Again.
Barbara Darnell, Lake Avenue
I’ve read the literature and spoken to advocates of the charter change. What I've observed is they focus on the benefits of reducing the size of the City Council -- it would make things more manageable and remove awkwardness. But with those good intentions, another awkwardness is being removed -- the “awkwardness" of local accountability. The "awkwardness" of having ward councilors who are accountable to their ward.
Currently, each voter has 33% of their city council representation directly accountable to their ward, that is having the ward as their constituency. The proposal would change that 33% to 0%, eliminating local accountability. So, when I hear proponents argue in favor of the charter change, it's all about reducing council size; killing local accountability is rarely mentioned. It is as if it is just collateral damage.
There is one place this is discussed -- in the introduction to the charter commission report where they discuss the idea of "Ward-based councilors" -- should they be elected by ward or by city-wide? They write: “A potential drawback of predominantly ward-elected bodies is that the councilors have incentive to put parochial problems before citywide concerns”.
Note the language of that sentence, and what a tremendously biased characterization it is. The "drawback" is what some people might call local accountability. The remedy to "predominantly ward-elected" is to eliminate any ward election at all. Local issues are “parochial problems” while citywide issues are “citywide concerns?”
The report goes on: “We concluded that Newton would be best served if ward-based councilors were accountable to all voters.” This sounds nice, but in other words: “We concluded that Newton would be best served if no ward-based councilor was accountable to the ward.”
What it ignores is that there ARE issues where there can be a conflict between overall city perspectives with local perspectives and where governance needs to find a balance. One of the obvious issues is development and development involves a lot of money, and a lot of opportunity for outside interests to apply pressure. At same time, all the councilors will be forced to run citywide campaigns, which are more expensive and makes candidate more susceptible to pressure. The normal way to deal with that is to have a balance of councilors; some whom are accountable locally and some more globally.
What we see happening now, is that the charter change advocates are trying to minimize concerns about local accountability. And they are conflating the issue of council size with the issue of council accountability and we need to keep the light focused on accountability. The fact is, if Newton misses the opportunity to shrink the council size this election, people can always raise it again next year. But once we kill off local accountability, it's gone forever.
126 Sumner St
Hal a 34-year Newton resident and the Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. He is a founding director of both Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation. He helped create Logo for the Apple II in 1981 and co-wrote MIT's introductory computer science text book, The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. Hal also spearheaded the MIT OpenCourseWare project and is a former director of the Center of Democracy and Technology.
I ask you to join me in saying “NO” to the changes proposed to the city’s charter that will be on the ballot this Tuesday, November 7th. A summary of the changes and the pro- and con- arguments are summarized concisely at the very bottom of the Newton election page.
Here’s my biggest concern: the charter proposal forces us to choose either “yes” or “no” on a “package” of changes that includes the loss of ward-elected councilors. While I agree wholeheartedly with two of the proposed changes—smaller council size and term limits—eliminating all ward-only councilor seats is a poison pill to democracy that we cannot stomach.
Here are three reasons why:
1. The loss of ward-only elected councilors robs Newton citizens of local voice, equal representation and the ability to hold locally-elected officials accountable. City government should balance both city-wide as well as ward-specific needs, which sometimes conflict. Under the proposed charter, all seats are elected at-large and nearly half of the council—up to 5 members of the proposed 12 seats—could reside in the same small section of Newton, depriving people in other sections of representation and removing checks and balances. This structure is unusual:
Charter proponents argue that eight of the seats have a residency requirement. But residency is not representation. “Eliminating the by-the-ward, for-the-ward aspect of local representation should be something that concerns residents, no matter where they stand on any number of issues,” said the Newton Tab as it endorsed the “NO” vote.
Today’s village/ward structure does not line up neatly. But practically speaking, our day-to-day lives tend to concentrate around a few villages, each connected to a few wards. In a bustling city of 87,000, the villages provide a smaller-scale touch-point for people to engage and take care of their community. I believe that this dynamic is Newton's special sauce and that it will be lost under the new charter.
2. The proposed charter will make it much harder for everyday people to be elected to city council. Ward-only campaigns typically cost $8,000. With only four precincts to canvass, candidates can knock on every door over a period of months. Under the proposed charter, all candidates are elected city-wide, even those who live in the ward. They must raise nearly four times the money and knock on more than 30,000 doors. Who has this kind of time and resources? This is unfair to the average citizen and doesn’t feel like democracy.
3. You can vote “No” and still reduce council size from 24 to 16 seats. City councilors have been listening to the lively debate. As a result, 14 councilors have initiated the process to reduce the council to 8 ward-only seats and 8 at-large seats under Home Rule petition if the “No” vote prevails.
Why care? It’s School House Rock. Citizen voice and accountability of elected officials are the building blocks of democracy.
Please know this: Had the charter commission put forward a proposal that focused solely on a smaller council size with term limits, I would have gladly joined my friends on the “yes” side. But we were not given that choice. For reasons I explain above, I hope you will join me in voting “NO” on Tuesday.
Want to know more? Jack Prior, my husband, has been researching the issue exhaustively and participated in live debates. Click here for his debate speech and here to watch the full debate.
Thanks for listening,
By Brenda M. Cotter
After much consideration and conversations with many people on both sides of this issue, I am voting no on the proposed changes to the Newton charter. I very much appreciate the work of the Charter Commission and support many aspects of the proposal, including reducing council size and imposing term limits, but I think eliminating ward representation is a serious mistake.
Under our present system, there are 24 councilors, 16 of whom are elected “at-large” (but with residency requirements in each of the 8 wards) and 8 of whom are elected from within and by each of the city’s 8 wards. The new charter proposes 12 councilors, all of whom are at-large (but with ward residency requirements for 8 of them). I oppose this change for these reasons.
1. Contrary to some of the campaign materials you may have seen, the new charter does not “retain” or “maintain” ward representation, it eliminates it. A ward residency requirement is not the same as, and is not equal to, ward representation. To put that most starkly, someone living in a ward could be defeated by their own ward voters but elected “at-large.”
2. Each ward of the city of Newton has its own demographics and character. I have requested purely ward based demographic data from each side of the campaign, but neither has been able to locate such data, nor have I. Even without it, though, it is not to hard to observe, even by visiting elementary schools throughout the city, that different parts of the city have different demographics. My biggest concern is that eliminating ward representatives on the council could have the effect of diminishing or impairing minority voices, whether those minorities are racial, ethnic, or economic, as well as the voices of newcomers to city politics.
3. On that point, it is worth noting that there has been a very substantial amount of litigation under the Voting Rights Act based on the claim that “at-large” versus “district” elections impairs minority representation. I am not saying that Newton would be subject to that claim as Newton is, indeed, more homogenous than other cities that have been sued. But it is important to understand that utilizing “at-large” systems versus ward or district systems, has, in some contexts, had the effect of suppressing minority voices and participation.
4. I am concerned that the requirement that every councilor mount a city wide campaign might discourage or impair those people who do not have the money, time, or political connections required to mount such a campaign. I note that the yes vote proponents argue that it is not more expensive to mount a city wide campaign citing some spending data from various city and ward-based races. I have no doubt that some people may have spent more on local races (although intuitively, bigger campaigns will cost more) but it is the other factors that concern me even more. It may be much easier to mount a citywide campaign for those that are already well connected to politics in Newton. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a political insider. Indeed, these are the folks that often drive the most important changes that affect our lives. But I don’t want to see our local government limited to insiders or those connected to insiders. Having ward elections mitigates that potential harm.
5. Finally, representative government is how both our federal and state system work. We don’t elect every representative or senator in either system. The reason for this is to give and reserve power to local voices. I don’t see a good reason to vary from that at the city level.
Make no mistake: there are great people who care deeply about this city on both sides of this issue. And the Charter Commission worked hard, motivated by a vision for a better government. For that reason, it has been important for me to listen carefully and learn as much as I can before casting a vote. Based on that, I must vote no.
See today's Boston Globe article on the proposed changes to Newton's constitution (the charter) and the special interest financing behind the campaign to get it approved.
By Howard Frandt
Does Newton have too many city councilors? Yes, but not because twenty-four is such a big number. The debate about council size has missed the main point, and needs to shift perspective. From the perspective of accountability, the Charter Commission proposal is only a slight improvement, not enough to be worth the costs of giving up ward representation. The “Plan B” proposed by some councilors actually goes further in the right direction, though not all the way. Voters should vote no on charter revision.
Newton’s City Council has twenty-for councilors: eight elected at large, another eight who are from particular wards but are elected at large, and one elected from each of the eight wards. This creates problems, but the main problem is not in the Council chambers. It’s in the voting booth,
Look at it from the perspective of a voter. For accountability to work, voters need to be able to make informed decisions about the people they’re voting for. But in Newton, that means each voter needs to know about the positions and actions of seventeen different people (eight at large plus eight citywide by ward plus one by ward), plus the people running against them. That’s an unreasonable expectation. Quick: How many of your seventeen councilors can you name? Contrast that to the U.S. Congress. Congress has 535 voting members, but citizens only need to make decisions about three of them, two senators and a representative. There are cities that have larger councils than Newton (larger cities, to be sure), but is there another city in the U.S. where voters have to make judgments about candidates for seventeen slots?
So our focus should be on reducing the number of councilors that each citizen has to hold accountable. The Commission proposal gets off to a good start by cutting the number of at-large councilors in half, from eight to four. Then the reasonable thing would be to get rid of the strange institution of the at-large ward councilor. That would leave us with a council of twelve, and each voter would have to make an informed decision about five councilors- -four at-large and one by ward. That’s a much more manageable problem.
Inexplicably, the Commission is proposing instead to keep the city-wide councilors and get rid of the ward councilors. So instead of five councilors, every voter will have twelve to hold accountable. Good luck.
Some of the councilors have proposed what they call Plan B, which first requires defeat of the Commission proposal. Under this plan, the city would keep eight at-large and eight ward councilors. At first glance this might seem to be a step backward from the Commission proposal, as it implies a council of sixteen rather than twelve. But paradoxically, it means that voters have to keep track of fewer councilors: nine instead of twelve, a reduction of almost half from the original seventeen. On this ground alone, Plan B is better—and that’s before we consider the costs of giving up ward representation.
The public discussion of the pros and cons of ward representation has shied away from what is generally considered one of the most important issues in neighborhood vs. at-large representation: fair representation of minorities. If there is a minority that tends to live in one neighborhood, an effective way to reduce their representation is to elect all councilors at large; then they are a numerical minority in every contest and may end up with no representation. That has been the basis for recent civil-rights lawsuits across the country, from Santa Clara, California to Lowell, Mass.
Newton does not have racial minorities that live in distinct neighborhoods. But it does have an ethnic and socioeconomic minority: the working-class families of mostly Italian and Irish ancestry that have lived in Newton for generations. Those families are entitled to a seat at the table when the city council meets. But they are less likely to get one under the Charter Commission’s plan; every one of the twelve councilors might end up reflecting the views of the upper-middle-class majority.
I don’t think for a minute that this was the intention of the Charter Commission, but that is the effect. The tilt toward upper-middle-class voters is strengthened by the fact that potential first-time candidates would face the daunting, and expensive, prospect of running citywide.
The Charter Commission undoubtedly worked hard and made a sincere effort. But their proposal creates more problems than it solves. That’s why I’ll be voting No in November.
Howard Frant graduated from Cabot School in Newton and later got a doctorate from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He taught public policy and public administration at the University of Arizona and the University of Haifa. His research focused on the connections between democracy and the structure of public organizations.