The Watertown Charter Review Committee voted strongly, but not unanimously Tuesday night, to keep the current form of government, with a Town Manager, rather than looking to change to one with a mayor.
The meeting, held remotely, included more than 130 people at its peak, and the Committee heard from dozens of residents in over close to two hours of public comment.
Types of Government
There are three forms of government in Massachusetts, the council with a manager (like Watertown’s current government), mayor with a council, and towns, which have town meetings made up of residents as the legislative branch and the select board (or board of selectmen) as the executive branch.
Michael Ward, the committee’s consultant from UMass Boston’s Collins Center, said that Tuesday’s meeting focused on the manager and mayor forms.
That decision was made, Ward said, “Because there has been no mention of towns by this committee, and in the history of the city form in 200 years of the Commonwealth, no city chosen to return to town form of government.”
Ward compared manager and mayor forms. With a manager, the council is elected and is the legislative body and is responsible for creating ordinances (like local laws) and passing the budget. The manager is the chief executive who is appointed, evaluated and can be removed by the council. The manager has no veto power over ordinances or other council actions, but is responsible to the day-to-day operations of the municipality and executing the policies and goals made by the council.
In the mayor form, the council remains the legislature, but the chief executive is the mayor, who is elected by the voters and accountable to the voters. The mayor has veto power over the council, but in most communities they can be overridden by a super majority of the council. The mayor must be a resident of the community. If the charter allows, a mayor can be recalled.
Ward said that he has observed municipalities across Massachusetts and has seen that there are pros and cons about both forms of city government. He has seen greater variability with mayors.
“My personal opinion is the range of outcomes for mayors is larger on both ends,” Ward said. “Due the combination of statutory and political authority of the elected mayors, the best mayors have greater ability to make change than potentially some of the best manager can hope to, but at the same time, having a bad mayor can inflict significant long-term damage in a way that we haven’t really seen in a council-manager form.”
Of those people who spoke during the meeting, a majority supported keeping the current manager form of government, by a significant number said they would like to see a mayor because the person would be more accountable to voters than a manager. People on both sides brought up concerns about accountability, responsiveness and transparency of the current form, and would like to see those issues addressed not matter which form is chosen.
Those who spoke in favor of the manager form often said that they do not like change for the sake of change, and some said they fear having a mayor would lead to political divides in town. Most of who supported a mayor said they feel that their voice has not been heard in the current form of government and that the manager is not accountable to the people.
Some said they did not think the Charter Review Committee should be making a vote on such a major change. Some preferred to try to change the current charter and see if issues can be solved that way before making the change to a mayor. Others said they did not think that the committee’s vote had been widely publicized, and some residents can not to participate in a virtual meeting.
Committee Weighs In
Committee members discussed the question of Manager vs. Mayor for about an hour. In the end, the vote was 13 in favor of keeping the Town Manager form, one against (Councilor Tony Palomba), and one person voted present (Councilor Lisa Feltner).
Resident member Marcia Ciro said she has been looking at municipal governments for several years, and when she started she supported Watertown having a mayor. Over the past five or six years, as she looked into other charters, she decided the manager form was preferable. Ciro added, however, that she believes major changes are needed to Watertown’s Charter, including giving the Council more power, and reducing that of the manager.
“Over the last 10 years we have seen so much change and growth. We need some change,” Ciro said. “We need to make sure the changes are made if we stay with this form of government. I hope you (the Charter Review Committee members) all prove me wrong, that you are more open to change than I think you are and you make real substantial changes.”
Palomba said he supported having a mayor because he has lived in communities with good ones, and said that those who opposed the form of government cherry picked examples of bad mayors, such as Fall River. He said he believes mayors are more accountable to the voters.
“I will be voting for change in Town government and voting for mayor form of government,” Palomba said. “For me it is an issue of democracy and the closer residents are to determining who their leadership is, I am in favor of that.”
When Watertown first changed the form of government Jimmy Mello said he supported having a mayor. Having seen the results of having manager, however, he now supports that form. He noted that Watertown has been able to have a surplus of tens of millions of dollars, which has enabled the Town to build two new schools, a police station, a public works facility, fire station and renovate the library without getting additional funding from taxpayers.
If a group of people has a strong desire to have a mayor, Mello said, they can do what those behind the original charter did in 1980, get signatures, form a Charter Commission, create a proposal and go to the voters for approval.
Former State Rep. John Hecht said he believes changes are needed to improve Watertown’s government, but he thinks it should be done in the current system. Among the changes he wanted to see is giving the Council more power to set policy and to monitor how it is implemented by the manager and Town administration. He added that he did not hear the level of desire from residents to move to a mayor.
“I think changing the form of government, that’s a major departure that requires a clearer need and broader support than we have in Watertown now,” Hecht said. “Back in 1980, when Watertown changed its form of government there were lots of differences of opinion, but there was very broad support for changing the structure of local government.”
William Oates, a former Town Meeting member who also worked for the Boston mayor’s office, said he also did not see a consensus for moving to the mayor form of government. He wants to dig into the charter to improve the current government.
“As a member of the Charter Review Committee what I want to be is be part of a Charter Review Committee that actually does some things that positively impact our city,” Oates said.
Among the things he would like to look at is changing the make up of the Charter Review Committee, which the current charter requires include all nine Town Councilors plus six residents appointed by the Town Council President.
Councilor John Gannon said he has worked with all types of governments in Massachusetts as a municipal attorney. He supported having a manager.
“With all due respect to the mayors I have worked with they do not, as a whole, come froma body of education and training to be ready to take the reins of a complex municipality. They may be respectful in the fields outside of city government, but they generally come in untrained. The successful ones, I’ve observed, are the ones that hired strong professionals with municipal backgrounds.”
Anne Fitzpatrick, a resident committee member, had to think about her vote, but after a few moments voted for the manager form. She said, however, that she felt like some people were giving mayors a bad name.
“Switching to mayor just to create some change is not going to create the desired effects, but people also seemed to be fear-mongering that we aren’t smart enough to be able to choose someone who would be a quality mayor,” Fitzpatrick said.
Town Council President Mark Sideris, chair of the Charter Review Committee, said he heard many people on both sides of the debate saying the same thing: they want to see the government be more more accountable, transparent and improve communication with residents. He supported keeping the manager form but said that the current charter was created in a different time and called on the Charter Review Committee to make major changes.
“We are going to make some significant changes for the first time in 40 years,” Sideris said. “Significantly meaning strengthening the role of the Council, strengthening how we engage with citizens and try to find ways to do better than we have the last 40 years because I think that’s demanded today and I think we should strive for that and I think we should do that.”
Feltner said she did not think the group should be voting on such a major decision because she did not think the group’s investigation into the charter had not been completed, and she thought more notice should have been given to residents.
Sideris said he thinks the committee needed to remove one of the main options in order to be able to focus more on one of them if the group hopes to get proposed changes on the November ballot.
Palomba asked whether the Charter changes could be moved to the same election as the debt exclusion vote on the new Watertown High School, which is expected to be in March 2022. Sideris said he will check with the Town’s law firm to see if there is anything prohibiting that. He added that some new councilors may be elected by then and may object to voting on a proposal in which they did not participate in drafting.
The Charter Review Committee also voted to approve the printing and distribution of a flyer about the Charter Review to every household in Watertown. The flyer will have information about the process and other information about the Charter Review. Marcia Ciro, chair of the Charter Review’s Communication subcommittee, said she had hoped to get it out before Tuesday’s meeting but they could not get it approved and printed in time.
Volunteers will be hand delivering the flyers around town, Gannon said.