Recommended Charter Change Would Allow Council to Hire Staff, Committee Looks at Requiring Open Forums for Councilors

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Charlie Breitrose

Watertown’s Town Hall.

The Town Council should be able to hire its own staff or consultants without having to ask the Town Administration for funding, the Charter Review Committee decided Tuesday night.

Also, Tuesday, the Committee recommended changing the Charter, which spells out how the Town’s government operates, to add more details about how the Town Council sets policies.

Hiring Staff

The members of the Charter Review Committee agreed that the Council should be able to hire assistants, but they disagreed on the best way to specify it in the Charter, and how much detail should be included.

One of the proposals presented by Michael Ward, the consultant from the Collins Center, was to specify hiring an analyst, with a second recommendation which would enable the Council, by passing an ordinance, to hire more staff that it deems necessary.

Former State Rep. Jonathan Hecht said he preferred to leave the language more general.

“It is better to speak in broader terms to give latitude,” Hecht said. “It may well be an analyst, it may not be. I am leery of putting in the Charter discussion of the duties (of staff).”

Councilor Tony Palomba preferred to have more detail about the position, and worried that it would become a recommended budget priority from the Council, known as a budget guideline, and not necessarily get funded.

“I would like to see the Charter provide the type of resources the Council needs,” Palomba said. “I support the establishment of an analyst, full time, and put a dollar amount in (for the position’s salary),” Palomba said. “I don’t want us to go through a process where we have to abide by … to bring it as a budget guideline, and then bring it to the Town Manager to determine if we can have the resources or not.”

The salary should be decided by an ordinance passed by the Council, said Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli.

“An ordinance is a law. Once it is voted into law, then the manager has to provide money per the ordinance,” Piccirilli said. “It is not going into the budget guidelines because it is not something that is discretionary in the budget.” 

Discussing what other type of help the Council might want, Councilor John Gannon said he would like to see someone who can research ordinances from communities nationwide that would benefit Watertown. Currently, the person they would go to, the Town Attorney, costs $300 an hour, he said, so the budget does not allow it. Council President Mark Sideris said that Council subcommittees might need help with work they are doing, and gave the example of a zoning change.

Hecht proposed an amendment to change the language to the section for hiring additional staff, saying that it would require the support of at least five Councilors. The original proposed language called for having the staff work under the supervision of the Council President.

Some members wanted the person to work for the whole Council, so that was stricken. Another line was added to say that the Town officials would work in cooperation with the employees and consultants working for the Town Council.

The amendment passed 8-6, with Angeline Kounelis, Jimmy Mello, William Oates, Anthony Doanto, Sideris and Piccirilli opposing it.

The amended language passed 13-1, with Mello voting “no.”

Policy Making

The Charter Review Committee also passed the changes to spell out the Council’s policy making powers. The language, which was unanimously approved, reads:

“The powers exercised by the Town Council include the establishment of policies to guide the administrative branch in its exercise of administrative power. Such policies shall be reflected in the Town Council’s votes, resolutions, ordinances, appropriation orders, and loan authorizations.”

Community Forums

Much of the meeting was spent on proposed additions to the charter to require officials to have public meetings to share their vision and goals, and others to have councilors meet with constituents and answer their questions. No decision was made on Tuesday regarding these issues.

Ward proposed having two Town-wide meetings, a State of the Town and an annual open public forum. He said the State of the Town would likely be where the Council President and the Town Manager laying out their visions and goals for the year, while the annual meeting would be more interactive, where residents could ask questions and get answers.

Some thought the inauguration could be a place for the vision to be laid out by the Council President and Town Manager. Sideris said, in his mind, that night is for the elected officials, not the Town Manager, and he suggested separating the two events.

Resident member Marcia Ciro said she liked the language she saw in Amherst’s Charter where district councilors are required to have two meetings a year where residents could address their issues with the councilor.

Most supported the idea, and some suggested that not just district councilors, but also at-large councilors should have the open forums with residents.

Some felt that two meetings each would add too many things to the already busy Council calendar, so they preferred having one such meeting annually. Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she opposed the idea of being required to hold a meeting each year, and said that she worries that the added burden might dissuade people from running for Council.

Resident member Anne Fitzpatrick said she thinks the open sessions with a councilor are exactly what residents have been calling for, especially as the Town faces more and more major development projects.

Ward said he would take the suggestions and come back at the next meeting with proposed language for the public meeting requirements.

The next meeting will be on June 1, and Sideris said he plans to have three meeting in June, instead of the usual two, so the Charter Review Committee can make more progress. Ward said decisions would need to be made by July for anything requiring a special act of the State Legislature to be passed (such as changing the number of Councilors, term lengths or adding term limits). Those items that do not need Legislative help, Ward said, could wait until August in order to get onto the November Town Election ballot.

7 thoughts on “Recommended Charter Change Would Allow Council to Hire Staff, Committee Looks at Requiring Open Forums for Councilors

  1. A councilor hiring “staff” is a formula for nepotism and patronage.

    If staff is truly needed for research etc., the Council as a whole can hire 1 or 2 people.

    I hope that Watertown does not turn in Cambridge where the City Council thinks it’s the US Senate and UN General Assembly rolled into one.

  2. I strongly encourage the CRC to amend our Charter to include requirements for all members of the Town Council and the Town Manager to meet with residents at least once per year. In response to Watertown Forward’s resident survey, 47% of respondents answered “Poor” to the following two questions: “How well do you feel that our government asks you about and understands your needs?” and “How well do you feel that our government tells you its priorities and areas of focus?”. Surely we can do better!
    By the way, all members of our community are invited to take the survey, which is still open. We have just under 500 respondents to date. Just click this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/3SKLCZ5

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