On a night where the Town Council voted to approve the purchase of a new radios for the Fire Department and the BlueBike stations, the Council postponed discussions of a couple major items: the Town Charter review and proposed changes to the Noise Ordinance.
The Town Charter review occurs every 10 years in years ending in zero, while the Noise Ordinance has been debated and discussed for more than a year. Town Council President Mark Siders said he has concerns about holding such important meetings under the restrictions of the state’s COVID-19 rules which limit in-person gatherings to 25 people.
A subcommittee report on the Aug. 11 Noise Ordinance was read by the Council Tuesday night. The proposed changes include limiting the level of noise, and the length of time a noise is allowed depending on the decibel level. It also sets a time that “Noises which disturb the reasonable quiet, comfort, repose, or health of others,” are not allowed between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. (see the draft recommendation by clicking here).
During Tuesday’s meeting, resident Russ Arico said that he believes contractors should be given 5 years to acquire new equipment or modify their current equipment to comply with the proposed ordinance requirements.
In the committee’s report, Recreation Director Peter Centola said he does not agree with the rule that no amplified music would be allowed without a permit from the town, and asked if that would apply to a someone playing music on a cell phone while their child plays at a playground.
Resident Elodia Thomas, who began working toward changing the noise ordinance in 2013, requested that the Town Council vote on the changes at the next Council meeting.
While the joint Human Services and Rules & Ordinances subcommittees voted 5-1 to recommend that the full Council approve the changes, the item was not brought up for a vote at Tuesday’s Council meeting. Sideris said he wants to have a meeting dedicated to the subject where people can give their comments on the changes.
“I do recognize this is a very important issue, worked on for a long time by a number of different councilors and many members of the community,” Sideris said. “It is extremely difficult to do an ordinance like this in a Zoom meeting.”
Sideris said the 25 person limit makes it tough to include everyone. He said they may do a meeting where some people attend in person and others by computer. He wants to allow everyone to have an opportunity to speak.
Town Charter Review
The Charter Review looks at the document that defines how Watertown’s government operates (see the Town Charter by clicking here). The Charter lays out the type of government — currently a strong Town Manager with a Town Council — how members of committees are elected or appointed, the length of terms and other details.
The Charter Review was not on Tuesday’s agenda, but it is supposed to be completed in 2020. Before the pandemic Sideris interviewed people interested in serving on the Charter Review Commission. He said that six community members would be on the commission along with the Town Councilors, and that the group would go through the charter line by line.
On Tuesday, Sideris said he hopes to appoint community members soon, and begin meeting in late-September or early-October.
“As I stated with the Noise Ordinance, with an important issue like the Charter I had serious concerns about all the Zoom meetings we’ve had, and I had serious concerns about starting the Charter Review process during the pandemic,” Sideris said.
Councilor John Gannon said that he read the Charter and saw that the review must take place in 2020. He asked what happens if it is not finished by the end of the year. Sideris said they will start discussions and see how it goes.
“I would intend to see how we go along,” Sideris said. “We do need to start the process. I would never put a time limit on it, but if it does come to the point I recognize (more time is needed) we can do that and it would require a vote of the Council.”
The Charter calls for the Charter Review as a periodic review of the document. Changes to the Charter can be “replaced, revised or amended in accordance with any procedure made available under the state constitution, or by statutes enacted in accordance with the state constitution,” the Charter reads.
Any amendments proposed by the Charter commission must be approved by two-thirds (2/3) of the Town Council and then must be approved by voters at the next town election.
Town Councilors and the Town Manager can also propose amendments. So can residents if they get 50 signatures of registered voters to support the petition for the amendment in the case of the town the size of Watertown (population between 12,000 and 50,000). In these cases, the amendments would also need approval from two-thirds of the Town Council to be put on the ballot for final approval from voters.
According to Mass. General Law, a town charter can be revised if a petition with signatures of 15 percent of the total registered voters in town (as of the last state election), is filed with the Town Clerk. The Clerk’s office provides the documents needed to file the petition.
If a sufficient number of signatures are certified, then the petition will go to the Council which will put the proposal on the ballot during a Town election. See the Home Rule section of Mass. General Law by clicking here.