The Charter Review Committee gave a little insight into which way its members are leaning in the question of whether to keep the current form of government or change to one with a mayor.
The committee took a straw poll toward the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, in which six of the 15 members said they were leaning toward keeping the current government with a council and strong town manager. None said they were leaning toward a mayoral form, but nine abstained.
The vote was proposed by Town Councilor Ken Woodland, who said he wanted to help give the consultants from the Collins Center at UMass Boston an idea of what to work on for future meetings. Several members of the Committee said they did not think they had heard enough to make a decision, and suggested either not having a vote or waiting to a future meeting.
The members who said they were leaning toward the current form of government were: Council President Mark Sideris; Councilors Vincent Piccirilli, Angeline Kounelis and Woodland; and residents Jimmy Mello and Leo Martin. Woodland said he would make a motion at future meetings to have a straw poll.
Eventually, the Charter Review Committee will have to decide whether to stick with the current form of government or go with a mayoral form. If they decide to go with a mayor, Sideris said, the state law requires the Charter Review Committee to send a recommendation to the Town Council to call an election where voters would choose a nine member Charter Commission to write a new charter with a mayor.
Another option would be for the Town Council to draft special legislation to create a new charter and have it approved by the Legislature and Governor, said Michael Ward, from the Collins Center.
Which ever way it is done, getting a new charter with a mayoral form of government would ultimately need to be approved by Watertown voters. The process of drafting a new charter would take some time, Ward said.
“There is no way to do it by November,” Ward said. “You are probably looking at the next November (for an election) at the earliest.”
Most of the meeting was spent reviewing the current charter. The review got through the legislative section of the charter, the second of nine sections.
Michael Ward, from Collins Center, provided input on possible changes that could be made to address issues brought up at previous meetings. Some of the issues include the powers of the council, council’s work load, the number of councilors, a vision for the town and communication with the public.
He noted that the changes could bring up other challenges.
A preamble at the beginning of the charter could be added to express, concisely, the town’s vision and values, Ward said.
The Council Section
As far as how Watertown’s council has been set up, it is typical of communities in Massachusetts in some ways and unusual in others.
Watertown has nine members of the council, with four at-large councilors, four district councilors, and a separately elected Town Council President, who is also a full member of the School Committee. Each office has a two-year term.
Ward said the most common size for a council is nine, which is used by 26 of 59 communities with the city form of government in the Bay State. Next most common is an 11-member council (21) and then 13 (7). Two have seven and Newton has 24.
Watertown is one of only two communities with a separately elected Council President. The other is Winthrop. Other councils appoint the president. In Worcester, they have a mayor who is the candidate receiving the most votes. While it is called a mayor, the position is closer to a Council President because it does not have the does not have the power of an executive.
Some communities have two year terms, others four, and Framingham has two year terms for district councilors and four year terms for at-large ones, Ward said. Steve McGoldrick from the Collins Center said that most choose two years because many people do not want to commit to serving for four years.
One thing Ward hear from people in Watertown is that district councilors often run unopposed after being elected. The at-large seats, which are voted on by the entire town and the top four get elected, attract more candidates. Ward warned, however, that communities that have only at-large councilors have been forced by the U.S. Department of Justice to add district councilors because some areas of the community (often with large minority populations) not to have anyone representing them. He gave Lowell and Springfield as examples. McGoldrick said Medford also has only at-large councilors.
Council Staff & Powers
Some charters give the council the ability to hire people to help them conduct their business. The charters don’t usually specify what the positions will be, Ward said. Some have hired people to do research into topics, others have a financial advisor.
The staff can help take some of the workload off of the council, Ward said.
Former State Rep. Jonathan Hecht (a resident member of the committee) said he would like to see the powers of the council and manager spelled out more clearly.
Referring to the legislative brach, Watertown’s current charter says: “all powers of the town shall be vested in the town council which shall provide for their exercise and for the performance of all duties and obligations imposed upon the town by law.”
The charter goes on to say: “The Town Manager shall be the chief administrative officer of the town and shall be responsible to the Town Council for the proper administration of all town affairs placed under his or her charge by or under the charter.”
Ward said this is less specific than other charters.
“Relative to other charters, I do think that’s a pretty thin statement as to how the manger should be implementing the goals, directives and vision, of the council,” Ward said. “And there are certainly other charters that are more detailed in terms of how that is operationalized.”
He gave examples of other places that spell out the duties. Chelsea’s charter has a section called “Relationship of the city manager and the city council.” The section says “The city manager shall be the primary officer responsible for the implementation of city council policy, as reflected by the city council’s votes and resolutions, enactment of ordinances, appropriation orders and loan authorizations.”
The the Executive and Administrative Powers and Duties section of the charter in Amherst includes a sentence saying, “The Town Manager shall be responsible for implementation of policy decisions and direction provided by the Town Council, as reflected by the Town Council’s votes and resolutions, and by enactment of bylaws, appropriation orders, and loan authorizations.”
Hecht suggested Watertown’s charter could specify that Council should have appointment power for boards and commissions that make rules, including the Board of Health. Currently, all non-elected boards and commissions are appointed by the Town Manager, with the Council giving final approval. He also would like to see the power to set town fees be the responsibility of the Council.
“I think because those things directly touch on policies, and fees also touch on people’s pocketbooks,” Hecht said. “Normally, we think of that as something that the legislative branch should have control over.”
City vs. Town
Another question that came up is why Watertown is still referred to as a “town,” despite having a city form of government. The charter calls it “The City Known as the Town of Watertown.” Ward said several other communities use that same nomenclature, but recently some have changed to just call themselves “the City of …”
Some members of the committee and the public said they want to see the name changed to City of Watertown. Resident Ilana Mainelli said it has an impact because there are some laws that apply only to a town or a city.
“People in the public and even elected and appointed officials get confused because they are not sure if we are a city or a town. We should be a city,” Mainelli said.
Tuesday’s review of the charter was supposed to be a quick look at what is in the charter now, Ward said, along with some possible changes. Because the review of the current charter only covered the first couple sections, Council President Mark Sideris asked how the Charter Review Committee wanted to conduct the next few meetings.
The majority said they wanted to continue to review the charter and get possible options for changes from the Collins Center. Later, they wanted to have more time to look more closely at the current document.
Several members of the committee and the public asked when the general public would have a chance to weigh in and ask questions. Sideris said he would try to build in more time to future meetings for public participation.