I ask you to join me in saying “NO” to the changes proposed to the city’s charter that will be on the ballot this Tuesday, November 7th. A summary of the changes and the pro- and con- arguments are summarized concisely at the very bottom of the Newton election page.
Here’s my biggest concern: the charter proposal forces us to choose either “yes” or “no” on a “package” of changes that includes the loss of ward-elected councilors. While I agree wholeheartedly with two of the proposed changes—smaller council size and term limits—eliminating all ward-only councilor seats is a poison pill to democracy that we cannot stomach.
Here are three reasons why:
1. The loss of ward-only elected councilors robs Newton citizens of local voice, equal representation and the ability to hold locally-elected officials accountable. City government should balance both city-wide as well as ward-specific needs, which sometimes conflict. Under the proposed charter, all seats are elected at-large and nearly half of the council—up to 5 members of the proposed 12 seats—could reside in the same small section of Newton, depriving people in other sections of representation and removing checks and balances. This structure is unusual:
Charter proponents argue that eight of the seats have a residency requirement. But residency is not representation. “Eliminating the by-the-ward, for-the-ward aspect of local representation should be something that concerns residents, no matter where they stand on any number of issues,” said the Newton Tab as it endorsed the “NO” vote.
Today’s village/ward structure does not line up neatly. But practically speaking, our day-to-day lives tend to concentrate around a few villages, each connected to a few wards. In a bustling city of 87,000, the villages provide a smaller-scale touch-point for people to engage and take care of their community. I believe that this dynamic is Newton's special sauce and that it will be lost under the new charter.
2. The proposed charter will make it much harder for everyday people to be elected to city council. Ward-only campaigns typically cost $8,000. With only four precincts to canvass, candidates can knock on every door over a period of months. Under the proposed charter, all candidates are elected city-wide, even those who live in the ward. They must raise nearly four times the money and knock on more than 30,000 doors. Who has this kind of time and resources? This is unfair to the average citizen and doesn’t feel like democracy.
3. You can vote “No” and still reduce council size from 24 to 16 seats. City councilors have been listening to the lively debate. As a result, 14 councilors have initiated the process to reduce the council to 8 ward-only seats and 8 at-large seats under Home Rule petition if the “No” vote prevails.
Why care? It’s School House Rock. Citizen voice and accountability of elected officials are the building blocks of democracy.
Please know this: Had the charter commission put forward a proposal that focused solely on a smaller council size with term limits, I would have gladly joined my friends on the “yes” side. But we were not given that choice. For reasons I explain above, I hope you will join me in voting “NO” on Tuesday.
Want to know more? Jack Prior, my husband, has been researching the issue exhaustively and participated in live debates. Click here for his debate speech and here to watch the full debate.
Thanks for listening,