LETTER: Open Message to the Watertown Charter Review Committee

Print More

To the Honorable Members of the Charter Commission;

I’m writing to share thoughts on the current Charter Review.

We’ve had the current form of City Government for 40 years. I believe for the most part that it has served us well. By the same token I understand some of the frustration expressed by those who would like to change the form.

I’ve been actively involved in municipal “politics” for 15 or 16 years. I say put “politics” in quotes, because I believe municipal government should be less driven by a partisan agenda or ideology and more driven by a “nuts and bolts” approach to fixing problems and providing public services.  During this decade and a half period, I’ve wavered between wanting to see major changes in our Government form to wanting to keep things the way they are with minor tweaks. At times I’ve taken a serious look at returning to Representative Town Meeting, at other times I’ve come close to embracing a Mayoral system of some kind.

To state the obvious, all three systems have their advantages and drawbacks. We certainly want a system that provides accountability, transparency, and accountability. That must be balanced with the need for efficiency and protection from what could be big swings in public opinion to the detriment of stability and the individual rights of taxpayers and residents.

It is my opinion that we may perhaps be approaching a time to make significant changes. The questions are “How” and “When”. Municipal Government is about PROCESS, PROCESS. PROCESS! Therefore, the process used in designing and building a new form of Government is equally, if not more important.

We’ve had 3 Charter Reviews since adopting this Town Manager / Council form of Government. To the best of knowledge, these 3 reviews never included a serious consideration of changing the whole form. Rather, the only thing on the table seriously looked at were minor changes or modifications.

This time, there appears to be a faction that is ardently pushing for major changes that would include getting Mayor.  One of their major arguments is having a Government with more directly accountable to voters, that includes a more open process, and features more transparency.  But ironically this process has been anything but that.
That’s not an indictment of the people involved. For the most part it’s been because of the current circumstances imposed on us because of the Covid Restrictions.

Zoom meetings have their benefits. They allow some to participate that maybe wouldn’t. By the same token, it restricts certain people who are not technologically savvy from participating. Beyond that the dynamics of Zoom or Telecommunication meeting aren’t quite the same as live in person meeting.  At a live meeting I may be sitting with a group that advocates a certain position. After I make my point, I may hear an opinion that I’d like to rebut. Having had my say, the odds of my getting to speak again is slim. But if I’m with a group, I can express my rebuttal to a friend who can get and make it for me. That’s just one example of how in person meetings lead to more and better input.

With so much at stake with a decision of this magnitude, even the normal process is insufficient with respect to public participation. If we’re going to make major changes, we need far more discussion than we’ve ever had since 1979.  Moreover, it should take longer. People promoting a given type of government form, ought to have the time to educate the public before formal discussions begin. Moreover, EVERYTHING should be on the table, including a return to Representative Town Meeting. I don’t say that as an advocate for that or any particular form of Government. But if any discussion dedicated to a more open, transparent, and accountable form of Government, ought to be open, transparent, and accountable… At the very least, we should start with an open discussion of all 3 forms of Government and then perhaps eliminate 1 if there doesn’t seem to be enough support.

Although the law requires we do a decennial Charter Review, we are not bound to wait another 10 years to have another. Therefore I suggest that we put off any major changes and propose the following.

In 2023, after advocates for each of the 3 systems have a chance to educate the public, we hold a non-binding referendum asking people which system they prefer. Once that vote is in, an expanded Charter Commission should be formed immediately after the new Council is sworn in 2024. This gives the Commission a longer period of time. Based on the referendum, they will have a better direction in which to head. If one form of Government doesn’t seem to have any significant support … then you can quickly take it off the table.  Then in 2025, we can vote on a proposed new Charter for the Town.

Having said all that about the process; I’d like to spend a few minutes dealing with the actual substance. How can we achieve a more responsive, accountable, and transparent Government, that includes more public participation.

Well some things we can do without changes to Charter. Rather we can do so by changing the Council Rules.  When I first started attending Council meetings, besides any Public Hearing, there were 2 Public Forums for people to speak for up to 5 minutes. One was at the beginning and one at the end.  In 2006, then Council President put together an advisory sub-Committee that included non-voting members of the public. I served on that Committee with another private citizen. The Councilors were President Younger, then District-B Councilor Jon Hecht, and District-A Councilor Kounelis.

The first thing we took on was the Council Rules.  We recommended and the Council adopted a rules change that allowed the Council President to inquire if members of the public had any questions or comments during any particular agenda item being discussed, once the Councilors had made their comments.  In exchange for that modification, the 2 Public Forums were limited 3 minutes. 

Well soon after the practice or rule that allowed questions from the public at the discretion of the President was dropped. But the Public Forum time limit remained at 3 minutes. Now there is only 1 Public Forum and I’m not sure how long people have to speak.

So right off the bat, we can return to the system we set up. Likewise, the Council can add 1 or 2 non-voting private citizen members to various subcommittees.

Moving on; some are concerned that the current authority of the Town Manager to appoint Department Heads is too plenary.  Well that can be tweaked. We could devise a system whereby the Manager nominates, but the Council must confirm the nominees. Such a confirmation process could be held in executive session, because it involves a labor matter. Just as important if the Council rejects the nominee, it won’t be public and it won’t put a black mark on the nominee’s record when said person applies elsewhere. At the very least, the Council can be given the right to interview such nominees and give the Town Manager an advisory opinion.

Again those are just 2 suggestions. I’m sure there are many more that would at least begin to address the concerns many have about accountability, transparency, and public participation.

Finally with respect to the Charter’s substance: A major founding principle of this nation found in the Declaration of Independence, is that to secure our INDIVIDUAL RIGHTs of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Governments are instituted by the CONSENT OF GOVERNED. And so we have a Constitution. During this debate, we’ve often heard the Town Charter referred to as our local Constitution. When we establish a Constitution and consent to being governed, we voluntarily surrender SOME of our personal sovereignty and entrust to the people we elect and to the will of the majority. But the key phrase is SOME of our rights. To secure the Government doesn’t encroach and encumber beyond the clearly defined aspects of our personal sovereignty we choose to surrender, any Constitution must be both an authorizing and restraining document. It must give clearly defined and specific authority to the government that must be strictly (not liberally) construed. It must be a restraining order as well, that protects individuals from the government from usurping authority the people never gave it. Likewise, it must protect the interest of individuals and a minority of individuals, from the tyranny of overzealous public opinion swings.

So when it comes time to make major changes in the Charter, we should include our own “Bill of Rights” to guarantee personal liberty, property rights, taxpayer protection, and so forth. Obviously we have a State Constitution and Massachusetts General Law, so we must be consistent with those. But we can enshrine our protections and guarantees.

Respectfully Submitted,
John DiMascio

7 thoughts on “LETTER: Open Message to the Watertown Charter Review Committee

  1. A Charter is NOT a Constitution. Municipal governments aren’t sovereign states! They are legal creatures of the state in which they exist.

    Any change of government form should be approved by an ELECTED Charter Commission and submitted for voter approval…the same way the form was last changed in 1980.

    • The people (individuals) are Sovereign and voluntarily surrender PART of their sovereignty to be governed. That’s the point. Therefore any “governing document,” no matter what you call it, should clearly define what authority the government has and has not.

      The term “Constitution” to describe the Charter has been used by many, including members of the Charter Review Board.

      You are correct — had this current Review Committee voted to change the form, then it would have needed to disband and new New Commission ELECTED.
      Or people who want to change the form are free to gather the signatures to form a Commission and put the question on the Ballot.

  2. Thank you John DiMascio,
    What a great letter with simple logical concepts and proposals on how to move forward.
    As a person who wants very much to participate in the charter review process but has to work extra because of a drastic loss of income not only since covid but since the disastrous 4 years of economic lies and demonetization of people considered “foreign”.
    That’s not meant to cause political hay but it’s just a fact in my life.
    Personally it would make a big difference in my ability to participate as I hope to be getting back to a state of economic normal sometime sooner rather than later.

  3. John has made some very rational and constructive comments that should be carefully considered. Why are we rushing this very important process? If the decision can be postponed so that factual information can be disseminated to everyone and let our citizens ultimately vote on the best system for us, I think this is the way to go. Many people are not aware of what is going on regarding the Charter and its review.

  4. This comment was submitted by Marilyn Petitto Devaney:

    It appears at this eleventh hour – the charter review committee is not going to have any outside public meetings scheduled for the Watertown residents. They are going to vote tomorrow (April 6th) for a mayor or the same form of government.

    I believe it is unfair not to present ALL three Massachusetts governments at their meetings.

    I don’t believe that because the committee members do not want Town Government that it should be excluded.

    Secretary of State has given the Watertown Charter Review until September 28 th to present their ballot questions to the town clerk for the November election, The vote if going to be taken tomorrow (April 6).

    Please consider the following 12 points why I am asking to postpone their vote tomorrow:

    1. Tomorrow the Charter Review Committee is taking a vote between a mayor and the present form of government. It will be placed on our November ballot. The majority of Watertown residents do not even know.

    2. I believe it is unfair of the Charter Review Committee to have banned any mention of 2021 town governments at their meetings. There are 298 towns out of 351 Massachusetts communities.

    3.There has been no mailing to the residents to inform them of this vote tomorrow.

    4,There have been no mailings to residents for the past months to inform them of the ten year charter review, the procedure and schedule.

    5.. At the majority of the Charter review 6 pm zoom meetings, the average number of residents calling in is about 20 people.

    6. People are going through life changing times due to this pandemic and are preoccupied (rightfully so) with work schedules- home schooling – being out of work, health issues etc.

    7.-Since the State requires the charter review committee to file their questions with the town clerk for the November ballot by September 28 th what’s the rush to vote tomorrow –April 6th ?

    8. The charter Review is only voting for a mayor or the present Manager form of government. There are 3 forms of governments in Massachusetts. They have excluded Town Government to even be mentioned. Only presentations from mayors and elected officials from cities know as towns were invited to their meetings.

    9. The question is when there are 298 town governments in Massachusetts why can’t they even allow a presentation and educate the people of how town government operates in 2021?

    10, Voters deserve more meetings to be educated on all 3 governments. –They should be held with the warmer weather on Saturday afternoons in May and June outside the Town Hall according to health regulations. It should be a public forum for people to listen to all forms of government and ask questions freely.

    11. Let the voters decide after being educated on the comparisons of all 3 governments Town Government- Mayoral Government -and present city known as a town. The voters will be given only one government on the ballot – city or present form of government.

    12. The charter must be examined to see what changes in the government need to be made. NONE have been made in the past 40 years with 3 ten year charter reviews.

    The first change should be to prohibit all 9 elected town councilors from being charter review members in the future. The council president should be prohibited from appointing members. As a Town councillor I served on two reviews and I know firsthand it needs to be changed. This is an obvious conflict of interest. The charter Review Committee should be elected by the people.

    With my opinions, I do sincerely thank the Charter Review members for all their time and efforts serving on the committee.

    If people feel strongly about their opinions, please voice them tomorrow on the Review zoom meeting.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Marilyn M. Petitto Devaney
    Concerned Citizen

    • Marilyn is quite correct about Councillors on the Charter Review Commission having too much of an interest in the outcome. The fact that the Councillors are a clear majority on the CRC is a thumb on the scale in favor of the status quo.

      The Commission’s own poll shows a strong preference for a Mayor-Council form of government, albeit with many undecided. But it is doubtful that that result have an even chance.

      There are also other options, such as strengthening the Council in relation to Manager and Staff. All options and every permutation thereof should be on the table.

      • I think there is a little confusion about a Charter Review which is charged to making changes to current existing Charter… but that retains the same Governmental framework… and a Charter Revision, which is charged with writing a whole new Charter that adopts a different form Government.

        To do the latter, people need to propose a ballot question to adopt a new form and at the same time Elect a Charter Commission… So the proponents who gathered the signatures would wind up being elected to the Commission if the question passes. Then that Commission writes the Charter it’s committed to writing….. You might have competing questions…. A group proposing Town Meeting, a Group proposing a Mayor…

        At least that’s how it was recently explained to me.
        So had the Review Committee recommended a Mayoral System, they would have needed to disband and New Commission be elected. Or the people can organize a ballot question…. Again that’s my understanding….. I’m going on what I was told by people who were involved in 1979.

        But I agree with many of the points made by Marylin and others. If this Committee was going to entertain a whole change in the Form of Government, then Town Meeting should have at least gotten a fair hearing… not that I’m crazy about it. Likewise there is an inherent conflict in having the Councilors make that kind of decision…. But that was never the purpose of the Charter Review…. as opposed to a Charter Revision.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *