Town Councilors would be required to meet with residents, and answer their questions, at least once a year, under a recommendation passed by the Charter Review Committee. Another recommendation would have the Council President will continue to serve on the School Committee.
The Town Charter defines how Watertown’s government operates, and every 10 years it is reviewed by the Charter Review Committee. The group, which is made up of Town Councilors and residents, approved a number of changes to the Charter at its meeting on June 1. The changes will be reviewed by the Town Council before ultimately going to the voters for final approval in November.
Required Meetings with Residents
A trio of items dealing with public meetings, where the residents will be able to hear from and sometimes communicate with their elected officials, were approved in the Legislative section of Watertown’s Charter Review. This section which spells out how the Town Council operates.
The items had been touched on at the previous meeting. The first one requires the Town Council President to have an annual State of the Town address, which was passed unanimously. In the public address by the President will be required to talk about “the financial state of the town, strengths of the town, and areas that need attention, as well as potential opportunities for the betterment of the town,” the new language reads.
In tandem with the first item was a requirement for the Town Council President to hold at least public meeting where people can interact with the President and are able to get their questions answered. The agenda of the meeting would be determined by the Town Council. This was also unanimously approved.
The third item was a requirement for each Town Councilor to hold at least one meeting a year to interact with residents.
Resident member Marcia Ciro said she wants to make sure that residents have a chance to hear from their Councilors.
“I want to know what my councilor thinks about, what their concerns are in the town, what their focus is, and I would also like more two-way communication with our councilors,” Ciro said.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she believes that Councilors should be able to determine how they interact with their constituents, and does not believe a meeting should be prescribed in the Charter.
Another discussion included whether district councilors, who represent only 1/4 of the town, should meet only with residents of their district or if the district councilors’ meetings should be open to all. Since anyone can attend a public meeting of the Council, the district councilor meetings could not be limited to just area residents.
The requirement for councilors to have at least one meeting a year with constituents passed 12-2, with Kounelis and former State Rep. Jonathan Hecht voting “no.”
Town Council President on the School Committee
In previous meetings the Charter Review Committee expressed concerns that the Town Council, particularly the Council President, have too much to do for a part-time position. To help relieve the President’s workload, Ward suggested the President be able to choose whether or not to sit on the School Committee. Currently, the President serves as a voting member of the School Committee along with his or her Town Council duties, but the proposal would allow the President to appoint one of the other Councilors to serve instead.
Hecht said he did not feel comfortable with the President being able to choose someone else.
“As a voter, the idea that an elected Council President who would have power to vote on School Committee — potentially as the critical seventh vote on the School Committee — perhaps would turn over power to another member TBD seems to be a strange approach,” Hecht said.
Charter Review resident member Anne Fitzpatrick said that while current Council President Mark Sideris has been able to serve both on the Council and the School Committee, he won’t be President forever and she fears the next person may not be able to do so. She also worries that people are not running for President because the job requirements are too daunting.
Sideris said he did not support the change, and said that he believes it is critical for the Council President to know what is going on with the Schools, along with the Town’s municipal departments, in part because the School budget is the largest of any department’s in the Town budget.
The proposal was voted down 12-2, with Councilor John Gannon and Ciro voting in favor.
At the next meeting, the Charter Review Committee will come back to an item that spells out the Town Council Presidents’ powers and duties.
The Charter already recognizes the Council President as the official head of town for ceremonial purposes and as recognized by the courts for serving civil process. Michael Ward, the charter consultant from UMass Boston’s Collins Center, presented proposed language that would add the roles of “official spokesperson for the council,” and “chief advocate of policy.” Another addition would that the President would be responsible for leading the development of the long-term vision for the town in coordination with the council, Town Manager, and the public.
Hecht said he disagreed with some of the new language that would be added.
“I am fine with the spokesperson part. I am not comfortable with chief advocate of policy. I am not sure what chief advocate means,” Hecht said.
He added that in Watertown’s form of government, with a council and town manager, policy is formed by the entire council, not the President.
Kounelis said she does not like the idea that the Council President speaks on behalf of the entire council because individual councilors may not always agree with the President.
“It is not fair we as individual councilors have to defend statements that we did not say. I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Kounelis said.
Gannon worried that the language could be read as only the President could speak to the media, and not other councilors.
Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that he worried that the new language would turn the Council President into a “mini-mayor.”
Ciro noted that the Charter Review Committee decided not to look at having an elected mayor rather than an appointed Town Manager, and also voted against having the Council President being elected by the council instead of directly by voters. She said she is confused by the role of Council President compared to the rest of the Council.
Fitzgerald said she does not believe it is an issue of who has the power.
“It is about having somebody be responsible,” Fitzgerald said. “Something I have spoken about many times is where does the buck stop in Watertown.There is a lack of accountability and we are trying to create some accountability.”
With so many members having concerns about the language, Sideris suggested that Ward work on new wording using the input from the Committee, and come back next meeting with a new proposal. The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, June 15 at 6 p.m.