By Brenda M. Cotter
After much consideration and conversations with many people on both sides of this issue, I am voting no on the proposed changes to the Newton charter. I very much appreciate the work of the Charter Commission and support many aspects of the proposal, including reducing council size and imposing term limits, but I think eliminating ward representation is a serious mistake.
Under our present system, there are 24 councilors, 16 of whom are elected “at-large” (but with residency requirements in each of the 8 wards) and 8 of whom are elected from within and by each of the city’s 8 wards. The new charter proposes 12 councilors, all of whom are at-large (but with ward residency requirements for 8 of them). I oppose this change for these reasons.
1. Contrary to some of the campaign materials you may have seen, the new charter does not “retain” or “maintain” ward representation, it eliminates it. A ward residency requirement is not the same as, and is not equal to, ward representation. To put that most starkly, someone living in a ward could be defeated by their own ward voters but elected “at-large.”
2. Each ward of the city of Newton has its own demographics and character. I have requested purely ward based demographic data from each side of the campaign, but neither has been able to locate such data, nor have I. Even without it, though, it is not to hard to observe, even by visiting elementary schools throughout the city, that different parts of the city have different demographics. My biggest concern is that eliminating ward representatives on the council could have the effect of diminishing or impairing minority voices, whether those minorities are racial, ethnic, or economic, as well as the voices of newcomers to city politics.
3. On that point, it is worth noting that there has been a very substantial amount of litigation under the Voting Rights Act based on the claim that “at-large” versus “district” elections impairs minority representation. I am not saying that Newton would be subject to that claim as Newton is, indeed, more homogenous than other cities that have been sued. But it is important to understand that utilizing “at-large” systems versus ward or district systems, has, in some contexts, had the effect of suppressing minority voices and participation.
4. I am concerned that the requirement that every councilor mount a city wide campaign might discourage or impair those people who do not have the money, time, or political connections required to mount such a campaign. I note that the yes vote proponents argue that it is not more expensive to mount a city wide campaign citing some spending data from various city and ward-based races. I have no doubt that some people may have spent more on local races (although intuitively, bigger campaigns will cost more) but it is the other factors that concern me even more. It may be much easier to mount a citywide campaign for those that are already well connected to politics in Newton. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a political insider. Indeed, these are the folks that often drive the most important changes that affect our lives. But I don’t want to see our local government limited to insiders or those connected to insiders. Having ward elections mitigates that potential harm.
5. Finally, representative government is how both our federal and state system work. We don’t elect every representative or senator in either system. The reason for this is to give and reserve power to local voices. I don’t see a good reason to vary from that at the city level.
Make no mistake: there are great people who care deeply about this city on both sides of this issue. And the Charter Commission worked hard, motivated by a vision for a better government. For that reason, it has been important for me to listen carefully and learn as much as I can before casting a vote. Based on that, I must vote no.