Allowing the Town Council to hire staff to help them with their work, adding language to spell out the Council’s power, and requiring annual State of the Town meetings are some of the changes being considered by the Watertown Charter Review Committee.
The Committee began looking at ways to alter the current Town Charter Tuesday, at the first meeting following their vote to keep the current form of government with a Town Council and the Town Manager serving as the executive rather than changing to one with a mayor as the executive.
Assistants for the Council
The Committee’s consultant, Michael Ward from UMass Boston’s Collins Center, brought up some possible changes to address concerns raised at previous meetings. One issue raised was the Council’s ability to do its work, and having enough capacity to handle the duties of the Council. One way Ward suggested to address that issue was adding a piece to the Legislative section of the charter which would allow the Town Council to hire staff to help them with areas such as research into municipal issues, financial analysis or other areas.
Ward’s suggestion included that the Council could “hire staff and experts to conduct the business of the Town Council under the supervision of the Council President,” with the funds subject to appropriation.
Committee members liked the idea of the Council being able to hire staff, but some wondered if the exact positions should be spelled out in the charter, or decided in ordinances passed by the Council. They also opposed the idea that the funding to pay for the Council staff be subject to appropriation because then it would be up to the Town Manager to include the funds in the Town Budget.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis said the funding for Council staff needs to be guaranteed.
“I do know what the format would be, but it needs to be in the Charter so it is a budget line item and it’s going to be a given, not subject to negotiation or subject to availability of funds,” Kounelis said. “It needs to be a given.”
She also suggested that someone be hired to assist the Council and take notes during subcommittee meetings.
The current charter specifies that the Council can hire a clerk to help them with their work. The position is part time. Some on the Committee favored leaving the language vague so the Council can choose what kind of expertise they need. Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that could be done by the Council by passing an ordinance.
Councilor Tony Palomba said he wanted the Charter to include language guaranteeing the creation of a position to assist the Council. He said that there would be nothing stopping the Council from also passing and ordinance to create additional positions.
An ordinance should spell out the role of the assistant, said Councilor John Gannon, to make the position more formal than the Charter language proposed by Ward. Otherwise, he fears it might be hard to recruit candidates because people may think the job is not a long-term one.
Ward will draft language based on the discussion to be voted on at the next Charter Review Committee meeting.
Spelling Out Council Powers
Another issue raised previously was that the Charter did not have detailed language spelling out the powers of the Council.
Ward suggested adding sections saying the Town Council’s powers include “the establishment of policies to guide the administrative branch in its exercise of administrative power.” The policies would be created by the Council by passing resolutions and ordinances, appropriating funds and authorizing loans.
Council President Mark Sideris said he likes the idea and it should be used to help create language to put in the Charter.
State of the Town Meetings
Communicating with the public has come up as a concern at several Charter Review meetings. Ward said one idea that arose, which could be included in the charter, was the idea of having a state of the town meeting and/or public forum on an annual basis.
Ward said the Committee should consider that these meetings would take a significant amount of time for the Council President or staff to prepare for, so they might not require both to be held annually.
Gannon said he would not want the meetings to be one sided.
“It should not only be the Town Manager and Council President delivering a speech, but should be an interactive process so there would be questions and answers,” Gannon said.
He added that when he worked for the City of Somerville they had state of the city meetings in each of the seven wards in the city, which were popular.
Currently, the Town Council’s policy is not to respond to questions or comments brought up during public forum at Council meetings. Some suggested that the Charter require the Council to provide a response during Council meetings.
At the next meeting, the Committee will dig deeper into other areas brought up at Tuesday’s meeting: the make up of the Town Council, the term lengths, term limits, and details of the Town Council President.
Ward said the Charter Review Committee could consider whether to change from the current size of the Council and/or the number of at-large and district councilors (currently there are nine councilors, with four at-large, four district and the Council President). Other areas of consideration are term lengths (currently 2 years for all Councilors), and also whether to have term limits for the Council.
Whether the Council President should be elected directly by voters or chosen by the members of the Council is another area under discussion. The Council President also serves on the School Committee, but in some cities with similar forms of government the President does not sit on that Committee. Some suggested it be a choice of the Council President whether he or serves on the School Committee or appoints another Councilor to do so.
Some urgency would be needed for these areas because changes such as the number of Councilors and length of terms would require special legislation to be approved by the State Legislature and signed by the Governor before coming back to the Town to put on the ballot.