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.