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.