Voters in Watertown will continue to elect the Town Council President directly, rather than having the position chosen by a majority of the Council.
The decision was made by the Watertown Charter Review Committee on Tuesday night. The decision came on the same night that members discussed the makeup of the Town Council and the councilor compensation. Also, if the Council President should serve on the School Committee, or have a designee.
The group reviewing the document that defines how the Town’s government operates looked at the Legislative section of the Charter on Tuesday.
Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that the original charter adopted in 1980 made the Council President elected by the voters, and part of the reasoning was it was similar to having the Town Meeting Moderator elected by the dozens of Town Meeting members (who represented their precinct). It also referred to a desire to eliminate the possibility of a power struggle on the Council and groups splitting into voting blocks depending on who they supported for President.
Piccirilli said he also believes having the Council choose the President would not be as transparent for voters.
“One of our key themes is transparency,” he said. “Changing to a system where the President is chosen from Council, in my mind, is a big step back for transparency, and inevitably this will lead to behind-the-scenes deal making.”
Councilor Tony Palomoba said he liked the idea of having the President elected by the Council because it would bring new vision to the board.
“It would allow other people on the Council to provide leadership,” Palomba said.
If someone wants to be Council President, said Councilor Anthony Donato, they should run for it in the Townwide election.
“An unintended consequence would be the possibility of a district councilor, that could not be voted on by 3/4 of the population, could become Town Council President,” Donato said. “Or, if we switch to five at large councilors, the Councilor elected with the least amount of votes could be elected Town Council President. It doesn’t make sense to me, at all.”
Councilor Lisa Feltner said that she believes that having the President elected separately from the rest of the Council leads to a situation when the President speaks to the public he or she is only speaking on their own behalf, not necessarily for the whole Council. She added that she does not feel like having the Council electing the President would take away the power from the Town voters because they elect the Councilors.
If the Council were to choose the President, Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she worried that it would become a popularity contest.
Councilor John Gannon said he has seen past Council Presidents struggle to keep order during meetings, and members of the Council disagreed so much that it created a hostile environment.
“There were good people thinking about running (for Council) who didn’t want to get involved and decided not to run,” Gannon said.
Former State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, who serves on the School Building Committee, said he considered both sides and ultimately decided it would be best to stay with the current system.
“My feeling about electing the Town Council President is if we were starting from a blank slate, I don’t think we would want to do it the way we are doing it. I think we could make the Town Council President work well if we selected the person from the Council. It would require a different definition of the role of Town Council President,” Hecht said. “People in Town are accustomed to electing the Town Council President.I think it would not be successful to promote a change to an election from the Council.”
The Charter Review Committee voted 10-3 to continue to have voters elect the Town Council President, with Palomba, Gannon and Marcia Ciro voting against.
While the Committee did not vote on any other items, they discussed a variety of areas related to the Town Council and the Council President.
One suggested Charter change aimed at reducing the workload of the Council President was to either remove the job of School Committee member completely, or allow the President to designate another Councilor to sit on the School Committee.
Council President Mark Sideris said he believes it is key to have the President also be on the School Committee to be able to get to know school issues, as well as those impacting the Town departments. The role also allows him to advise both the school and town side when it comes to making the budget.
Some members of the Charter Review Committee supported the idea of having another member of the Council serve on the School Committee, while others said it is better for voters to know when they are voting for the Council President that they are supporting the person’s vision for both the Town and the Schools.
School Committee member David Stokes said that continuity is important, so he believes if someone is designated to serve instead of the Council President that it be a long term one, not meeting to meeting or even a year.
At prior meetings, people have suggested increasing the pay for Town Councilor, which is $7,500 a year for district and at-large councilors and $10,500 for the President. Councilors also have the option to get health insurance through the Town.
Some said the salary should be increased to reflect the amount of work done by Councilors, and others said adding more salary would allow more people to consider serving on the Council. The amount of $50,000 a year was suggested. Others said that amount would be hard to live on if it was the person’s only salary, and some believed that the Council should essentially be a volunteer position.
The length of Council terms and term limits also came up as topics of discussion. Some proposed going to four-year terms, saying that would allow councilors to focus on their work rather than campaigning every other year. Others said that if councilors are doing their job and connecting with constituents there would not be a lot more work to do to run for office. Another argument for a two-year term was that voters could remove someone they do not believe are doing a good job sooner. Most opposed term limits, but some said it would bring new blood to the Council.
Currently, there are four at-large and four district councilors, but a proposal to make them all at-large was made. Another suggestion was to add more district councilors. Those opposed to making them all at-large said that could lead to some areas of Town not having someone representing them on the council, while supporters said it could allow a broader range of people on the council. Some cities in Massachusetts have been ordered by the Federal Department of Justice to move away from all at-large councils, citing civil rights violations with some groups not having representation.
Giving the Council President more power to speak about her or his vision, as well as to inform the public during an emergency or fast moving situation was raised as a desired change in the charter. People pointed to the situation during the hunt for the Boston Marathon Bombing suspects, when the spokes person for the Town was the Police Chief, and the Council President could not speak publicly. The Charter gives the leadership role to the Town Manager in an emergency situation, who can designate the duty of management and communication to another person in the government. Charter Review Committee members wondered if there was a way to allow the Council President to give updates to residents, without giving the person power over the Town administration and/or the Police and Fire departments.
As far as speaking about the vision for the Town’s government, Sideris said currently, the charter only allows for the Council President to do so while campaigning and every two years during inauguration. One suggestion has been having an annual State of the Town address from the Council President, or adding language to allow other opportunities to speak about his or her vision.
The next Charter Review Committee meeting will be on Tuesday, May 18 at 6 p.m.