Andrew Martin, Newton Centre
In the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts communities with city councils, the councils consist of both ward and at-large councilors. In only 10 of the 351 communities in the state – under 3 percent – are there councils consisting entirely of at-large councilors; in less than a handful are there councils consisting entirely of ward councilors.
This reflects a clear consensus across the state that the combination of ward and at-large councilors assures that both community-wide and neighborhood perspectives enter into council deliberations. Councils consisting only of ward councilors are vulnerable to blockage of policies that might have been deemed beneficial to the city as whole by a majority of at-large and minority of ward councilors. Similarly, councils consisting only of at-large councilors are vulnerable to imposition of policies that might have been deemed damaging to neighborhoods by a majority of ward and minority of at-large councilors. In contrast, a mix of ward and at-large councilors encourages shifting coalitions across both likely to balance city-wide and ward concerns in positive-sum solutions. It also limits the ability of particular groups and interests concentrated in sections of the communities to dominate the legislative process.
Constitutional provisions such as those structuring representation don't guarantee any political outcomes. They only influence the likelihood of some outcomes more than others, while leaving scope for political action in diverse directions. The proposal for an exclusively at-large council in Newton leaves too much scope for political action that results in unequal representation and enables powerful interests to impose costs on neighborhoods that lack representation. A vote against the proposal makes that less likely by preserving the mix of ward and at-large councilors overwhelmingly prevalent in Massachusetts. It does so, at worst, by preserving the current 24 member council or, at best, by opening the way for the establishment of an 8 ward and 8 at-large council. This could be accomplished through a Home Rule Petition to which a majority of the present Council is already committed.
See the chart below for a comparison of the all at-large council proposed for Newton with a sample of councils in Massachusetts cities of varying size.