Newton Tab Commentary, 10/18/2017
Newton voters will face a stark choice this November — do we want to replace our current system of equal representation on our City Council with one that reduces diversity of opinion, is inherently unequal, limits accountability, and is more likely to lead to special interests dominating our city government? The answer to that question is NO, and I ask that you join me in voting against the proposed charter on Nov. 7.
The proposed city charter will result in a less effective, less accountable, and less responsive city government.
First, the proposal limits diversity of opinion and is inherently unequal. Currently, membership on the City Council is allocated evenly throughout the city (divided between councilors elected citywide and those elected solely by each ward). This allows for an array of voices to be heard on important city issues and fosters positive consensus outcomes. Under the proposed charter, nearly half of the councilors could reside in one small section of the city, increasing the likelihood that narrow perspectives or special interests will dominate Newton’s government.
Some argue that since all of the School Committee is elected at-large so should the City Council. As someone who has served on both bodies (and as the former Chair of the School Committee), the answer is easy — they are two different entities with very different purposes and responsibilities. The School Committee is a board of directors whose job is to oversee a single school system. In contrast, the City Council is a legislative body which is supposed to represent the diverse interests of the various parts of the city. The local concerns of residents of Nonantum are different than those of Newton Upper Falls, which, in turn, differ from those in Chestnut Hill.
Second, the proposal reduces access and accountability. We currently have eight ward councilors who provide village-level constituent service and advocacy on the Council for residents — the proposed system replaces all of them with four at-large councilors without any ties to any particular area of the city.
Under our current system, if you run from a ward, either as a ward councilor or a councilor at-large, you need to be responsive to the residents in your district. Ward councilors are the most directly accountable. If a ward councilor does not return his or her constituents’ telephone calls or ignores their views, he or she may well face an opponent in the next election. At–large councilors have less direct accountability, but still need to be accessible to and representative of those in their wards. The four at-large anywhere candidates with no residency requirements who would be elected under the proposed charter would have no such obligations or accountability.
Third, the proposal is anti-democratic. When candidates run only within their ward, they can knock on doors, and the cost of campaigning is moderate. In contrast, citywide races are much more expensive, which by necessity will limit the pool of applicants to those who can self-fund, are able to raise large amounts of money, or have access to established political networks. Moreover, the proposal to have four councilors elected from anywhere in the city (electing those with the top four total votes) will reduce the ability to vote up or down on a particular candidate.
Finally, this is not about the size of the City Council. A majority of the City Council has sponsored legislation to reduce the size of the council from 24 to 16. I back this legislation because it reduces the size of the City Council in a manner that preserves equal representation and diversity, allows voters to directly vote for or against a particular candidate, is not anti-democratic, and makes it less likely that special interests will dominate our city government.
The Charter Commission chose a system that will create unequal representation, decrease diversity, concentrate power, and increase the influence of special interests. I urge all Newton voters to vote NO on Nov. 7.
Marc Laredo is a city councilor.