Charter Review Committee Takes Straw Poll, Reviews Current Document

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Charlie Breitrose

Watertown's City Hall.

Watertown’s Town Hall.

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.”

Current Charter

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.

Upcoming Meetings

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.

14 thoughts on “Charter Review Committee Takes Straw Poll, Reviews Current Document

  1. Change for the sake of change is unwise.

    The reasons for change must be truly compelling.

    If not, don’t change.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    • The problem is that it is broke. Too much power vested in unelected officials, which makes for a lack of accountability that many residents complain about. But if you want that to be different, you have to have a change in government.

  2. I believe the issue is it is broken, let’s fix what is broken. Talk to people who work at City Hall or need to deal with Dept heads at City Hall. There are many issues with respect to this area and though our TM is great at fiscally managing the City, he doesn’t put any energy to all the other departments. How can this be fixed? The current system allows this to continue….

    • Does the Town Manager evaluate his Department heads? I’m not sure he does. If so, how does he measure success?
      Similarly, if Town Councilors are hearing from constituents – residents and Town employees – about credible, investigation-worthy problems with how Department heads are managing, what is the process for highlighting, requesting/requiring reports from Town Manager about outcomes- within state constraints?

  3. The elephant in the room is really this: if we stay with a TM/TC form, will any changes we make be best served by a change in administration?

  4. Levendusky is correct. Too much power with unelected officials. But, in order to remedy that, the political officials need to be compensated for full time work, it has to be their full time job.

    • I agree with Fred. A flaw of our current system is that Town Councillor is nearly a volunteer job. That may have worked years ago, but governing today is too complex for part timers. The result is that the Council is too reliant on staff.

      But there is a need for vision in Watertown that I believe can only be served by increasing the power of the Council and, yes, having a Mayor who can be elected on their vision and can be held accountable for it.

      The current Town Manager and hence his staff, care primarily about matters fiscal and are indifferent to citizen’s other concerns.

      Cheerio Fred, for once we are on the same side of an issue!

  5. Our town is in a much better position than a lot of comparable towns with mayors who tend to grandstand, or demagogue on emotional hot-button issues.

    • Joe
      This is not addressing anything sorry. One could simply state the opposite of what you said: There are other towns with mayors who are in a better position than Watertown.. Let’s get to the problems: lack of accountability/transparency with respect to the departments the Town Manger is in charge of(basically all of our Town Hall departments). Lack of accountability from the elected officials(Town Council) to do anything about this lack of accountability/transparency via Town Manager. I agree with other posters in that the TM does do a great job fiscally but otherwise I see a lack of accountability/negligence to our residents for all the other departments in town. We need a change in our town so that we, the people, can have more of a say in what is working/not working and have our voice heard(at least every 2-4 years).

  6. The problem is that staying with a TM will mean nothing changes because regardless of any wording changes, the same people as always will run it the same way as always. The call for a straw poll was a power move by the ‘Good Ol’ Boys’ club. It was brought to the floor by Woodland, quickly seconded by Mello, and then Sideris tried his best to do a roll call without allowing any discussion. Luckily others pushed back but it was futile. Already four councilors votes they would prefer TM so all it will take is one more councilor and that’s it. Even if the CRC approves mayor, 5 councilors can vote down that recommendation.

  7. IF you want feedback to Charter review just go to this link and give feedback:

    I was specifically interested in what we do today with regard to 360 peer review(done anonymously and by 3rd party). Given the fact that there are issues with Departments and the TM managing these departments, I would think this in place today(but I’m betting I’m wrong:<)?

    In oder to run a well managed group, input from all in organization is the best to get a good idea of what is/is not working(and then continue to promote the good and fix the bad).

    I also agree that a straw poll was just wrong.

    The status quo is just not working for a large majority of the Town Government:<

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