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.