Charter Review Group Discusses How Planning, Zoning Board Members are Appointed

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The Town of Watertown’s Zoning Map.

With development in Watertown being a topic of controversy for the past decade, the Charter Review Committee examined how the two boards overseeing building and development are appointed.

At the June 29 meeting of the Charter Review Committee, resident member Marcia Ciro proposed an amendment to the Town Charter, which would change the way the members of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals are appointed. Currently the Town Manager makes the nominations for appointment, and the Council votes to confirm, or not, the person. Ciro proposed having the Town Council appoint the members of both boards.

“In my years of being involved, all the development in town is the biggest issue in town. It is the biggest change engine in town, and there is a bit of conflict fo interest,” Ciro said. “The Town Manager focuses on raising money for coffers — it allows him to do other things, it allows him to do things better. The Town Council, on other hand, is split between needing to focus on finances and also focus on constituent issues.”

She added that she does not oppose development in town, but she is concerned that there is no oversight of whether projects are following the Town’s planning documents such as the Comprehensive Plan.

Councilor Tony Palomba supported the change, saying that it would make the boards more answerable to the voters.

“(Town Councilors) are the elected positions in Town, I think we should have some say on two of the most important commissions or boards in Town,” Palomba said. “I strongly support the Council being the determining body.” 

Councilor Caroline Bays worries that if the Council appoints Planning and Zoning board members they could become too politicized, and the change could even impact the election of Councilors.

“I strongly oppose this change. I have a personal perspective. I lived in a town and it was the most corrupt town I’ve ever lived in,” Bays said. “The developers had the councilors in their pocket. They were the ones supporting their campaigns and they were the ones getting people elected. It was truly horrible. There was a lot of illegal stuff going on.”

John Gannon served for 10 years on the Zoning Board before becoming a Town Councilor. He said he never felt influence from the Town Manager on decisions. The things that influence what is being approved, he said, are the Town’s Zoning Ordinance and planning documents such as the Comprehensive Plan.

“Who is responsible? The Town Council votes on the Zoning Ordinance and any development has to be done in accordance with the Zoning Ordinance,” Gannon said. “Perhaps we should be looking at a new plan or vision.”

Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said he worries that fewer people would come forward to apply to serve on the two boards because their interviews would need to be conducted in public under the requirements of the Open Meeting Law.

Councilor Anthony Donato asked consultant Michael Ward, from the Collins Center at UMass Boston, if he thought the Town would get more people interested in serving on the Planning or Zoning boards if it is appointed by the Council or the Manager. Ward said he is not sure, and could see arguments either way. Being appointed by the Council may make people feel more involved in the Town, but they may not want to be interviewed in public.

Anne Fitzgerald, a resident member, said she supports the move because it would shift the balance of power from the Manager to the Council, which is one of her goals as a Charter Review Committee member. She added that she would feel more comfortable applying to the Council because she already knows some of the Councilors.

Resident member William Oates, who served on the Council after Watertown switched from a Town form of government to a City one. One of the changes was moving from a system where members of the Planning and Zoning boards were elected to one where they were appointed. He said he thinks the charter allows for a balance of power with members appointed by the Manager and confirmed by the Council. He recalled at the time there was a push to confirm or deny the members appointed by the Town Manager.

“From that perspective, there was a whole dynamic going on between the Council and Manager as we established the balance of power. There were requests for more information, for more timely information regarding appointments” Oates said. “We have the balance of power, we just need to exercise it. I am not in favor of changing this. I do believe we could push back. Is it painful to deny an appointment the manager made? Sure it is, but if it is the right thing to do the Council needs to do it.” 

The motion to change the Charter to have the Planning and Zoning boards appointed by the Town Council was voted down 10-3, with Ciro, Palomba and Fitzgerald supporting it.

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