When I hear the argument that the Charter Commission's proposal for a new structure for Newton's City Council would make us more "efficient", I encourage us to think more deeply about that. I don't think we want democracy to be too efficient. Dictatorships are efficient.
With 24 councilors we do not suffer from groupthink, where people feel pressured to go along with the popular opinion. With 24 people we have a diversity of opinion, which helps lead to better decisionmaking. With 24 people there are many entry points for a citizen to contact his or her elected officials.
I will also note that the decisions that take longer to be voted in are those that are more contentious, and that’s a good thing – it means we really wrestled with it. I will give 2 examples.
It took seven years for us to place additional restrictions on the use of leafblowers. Why? Because there are very strong opinions on both sides around the city, and so when it was first brought up, there was not the support for additional restrictions, but over time support grew for them, enough so that last spring we did vote to shorten the season they could be used, decrease the allowed decibel level, and so on. No one can claim we did not hear their opinion on it, or that we didn’t consider all sides of the issue. That doesn’t mean everyone is happy with the outcome of course, but we did act.
I will contrast that with our vote to pass a “Welcoming City” ordinance. There was strong and vocal support from many many citizens, including many that were reaching out to their city councilors for the first time ever. As there was much more consensus among residents and councilors that we act, that ordinance was voted in relatively quickly over the course of a few months, with adjustments, such as giving the police chief the discretion to act when public safety at risk, that enabled nearly all involved to support it.
I will give one last example for your consideration. I was one of three councilors who filed legislation to put limitations on the use of drones, at the request of several constituents who were concerned about privacy and safety from improper use. The draft bill was sent to the Public Safety Committee where it was discussed several times over the course of several months. During that time it was covered in the Tab and I also wrote about it in my newsletter, but it wasn’t until well into the process that I was contacted by a constituent who had only recently heard about it, and he was very opposed and wanted to discuss it with me. I said of course. He asked if he could bring some drones to my house for me to see in action. I said of course. It turns out this constituent leads a Newton North High School drone enthusiast club. So he brings several drones over to my house and flies them around my front yard. When I saw how excited my three boys were to see the drones in action, and as the constituent told me about how much students learn about engineering and mechanics from the drones, I began to see the “positive” side of them, i.e. have a fuller picture of them. Then I listened as this individual told me about the existing federal law already governing drones, and other data points I hadn’t heard even in all our prior Committee meeting discussions, I actually ended up changing my mind and voting against this legislation that I had filed! (That is not a common occurrence.)
My point is that if we had moved more “efficiently”, we would have taken a vote before I had all the information I needed to make a fully informed decision, simply because it takes time for citizens to learn what we are doing – not everyone reads the Tab, not everyone attends our meetings, etc. It is a good thing that the governing body does not move at lightning speed. It allows us to be deliberative, to hear input from our thousands of citizens, to read letters in the Tab, and simply to mull things over.
Having said all that, do I think we absolutely have to have 24 councilors? While I do see the benefit, I have also heard from many citizens that would like to see a smaller body. For that reason 14 councilors, including myself, have filed legislation that would reduce the size of the City Council but do it in a different way – we would eliminate 8 at-large councilors which would leave us as a body of 16 councilors – 8 ward, and 8 at-large. I think 16 is large enough to avoid group think and still allow for a diversity of opinion and the other benefits I laid out above. But I don’t think it would make us more “efficient” - and that’s a good thing!
If you have followup questions I am happy to do my best to answer them.