City or Town of Watertown – Charter Review Committee Weighs in on That & Other Proposed Changes

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Typically, Watertown is referred to as a town, but it has a city-form of government. The group proposing changes to the Town Charter looked at officially changing the name to the City of Watertown.

The Charter Review Committee also looked at a range of areas in the document that defines how the town’s government works, including how the Town Auditor should be supervised and disciplined, what information should be included on the Town’s website and how many councilors it takes to call employees to appear before the Town Council.

City or Town

Watertown was founded in 1630, and for most of that time was known as a Town. In 1980, the Town voted to change from a town form of government, with a Town Meeting, to a city form with a council and manager. Despite the change in form of government, Watertown continued to call itself a Town, with a Town Council, Town Manager and Town Clerk.

The official name of is “The City Known as the Town of Watertown,” and is one of a handful of Massachusetts communities that have that designation.

At the July 6 meeting, Marcia Ciro, a resident member of the Charter Review Committee, said she finds the “City Known as the Town of Watertown” confusing, and said the community has grown a lot, and believes the name should be changed to the City of Watertown.

Resident Ilana Mainelli told the Charter Review Committee there are some state laws and regulations that are different depending if a community is a city or a town. She said she has heard of some people, even Town employees, who have used the wrong regulations because of the confusion of whether Watertown is a town or city.

Councilor Angeline Kounelis said that she has heard from a lot of people who like that Watertown is still called a Town. She said she would want more input from residents before making the change to be called a city.

Resident member Bill Oates, who served on the Town Council right when Watertown changed to a city form of government, said that he saw a reason for keeping the Town moniker then, but he believes times have changed.

“Forty plus years ago there was a reason to keep that tradition of that history of the longest standing representative Town Meeting,” Oates said. “Forty years later, I think it is time for change.” 

During a discussion about the change at the June 29 meeting, Council President Vincent Piccirilli said while he supports the change to a city, but said that it would have a financial cost. The government will have to change all municipal documents, letterhead, business cards, signs and other things that now say “Town of Watertown” with ones that say “City of Watertown.”

The change would not take place officially until it is approved by voters in a Town Election. Councilor Anthony Donato said that he believes the issue could be an emotional one for voters, and he suggested having the change from Town to City as a separate item on the ballot from other proposed changes to Watertown’s Charter.

The Charter Review Committee voted 10-4 in favor of changing the name to the City of Watertown. Council President Mark Sideris, Jonathan Hecht, Kounelis and Donato voted against the motion. The motion also changed all references in the charter from Town to City, including official titles such as Town Council to City Council and Town Manager to City Manager.

Supervision of Auditor

Under the Charter, the Town Auditor reports to the Town Council President, and the President can discipline the Auditor. At the June 29 meeting, the Charter Review Committee discussed how to handle this supervision, and made changes to have the entire Council vote on discipline. Other questions arose, however, due to the current situation where the Town Auditor, Tom Tracy, reports to both the Council for his role as auditor, and to the Town Manager because he is an Assistant Town Manager.

Fitzgerald described the situation with the current Auditor as a person with two masters. Former Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney said that the situation where the Auditor reports to both the Council and Manager is against State Law. At the time when the Council approved the Assistant Town Manager role the Town’s attorney said it was legal for them to do.

Steve McGoldrick, from the Collins Center, said that some communities have the Auditor report to the Town Manager and have the independent audit of the Town’s budget conducted by the Council.

The Charter Review Committee did not address the dual role of the current Auditor. They did approve changes to the language in how the Town Auditor can be removed. The change (approved 12-1 with Palomba opposing it) requires a vote of at least five members of the Town Council to remove the Auditor. The change also applies to the Clerk of the Council.

Information Published on Town Website

On June 29, the Charter Review Committee unanimously approved a change to the Charter that would require the Town to put all the public comments and questions raised at the Public Forum portion of Town Council meetings, along with the responses, to be published on a page on the Town website. The change also applies to Town Councilors’ requests for information from the Town Manager. Exceptions would be information that is prohibited to be disclosed by the state’s Public Records Law.

Council Requests for Employees to Answer Questions

The group continued discussion of a proposal to allow three councilors to call a department head to appear before the Council and answer questions on June 29. Currently, a majority of the Council, five members, is required to do such a request.

Some members of the Charter Review Committee worried that this would give a legally binding request to a minority of the Council. Gannon noted that the request to appear is like a subpoena, and the person must appear or may have to go to court.

Feltner said she is not sure if the item belongs in the section where Councilors can comply an employee to appear, and said that she does not view the request as a subpoena, but as the way that the Council conducts business by overseeing how municipal government operates.

The Charter Review Committee voted 12-1 to keep the section as is, with Palomba voting “no.”

11 thoughts on “City or Town of Watertown – Charter Review Committee Weighs in on That & Other Proposed Changes

  1. Unbridled development has created a city where there once was a town, and now we have to think big, not small. If we had a fully city style government I believe there would be requirements and methodology for forethought and oversight of development. Watertown is a city which has been operating as a town: it hasn’t worked and won’t work. I believe we need to move forward and be fully governed as a city, without any “town” vestiges in government.

  2. I strongly disagree with the statement that “Watertown is a City operating as a town; it hasn’t worked and won’t work”. First, that is categorically incorrect. I’d be interested in hearing how many other cities or towns are building three new elementary schools (ok, two from ground up and a third major renovation) AND a new high school without a property tax over-ride? That alone is evidence that “it works”. Let’s add in the approximately 20 million dollar surplus created by paying the municipal pension fund and the comment that Watertown does not work is revisionist history, at best. Finally the name is “WATERTOWN”. In my opinion the City of Watertown is no less confusing than the City Known as the Town of Watertown. The name change is a waste of taxpayer money with absolutely no value in return. The next proposal will be to rename our Town…Water-City! The fact that Watertown is one of only a few cities with the “City known as” moniker is part of what makes us unique. I will vote that we stop trying to be more like the City of Cambridge and stay known as WATERTOWN.

    • Just because we are building new schools all at once doesn’t make us so smart. ALL of these schools should have been addressed 15-20 years ago but instead we let them, especially the high school, fall into such despair. I don’t celebrate the fact either that we didn’t have to raise taxes but instead question why if the town had the money for the schools then why were they not addressed years earlier. Schools and public education in Watertown has never been a priority and it shows.

      I have seen my taxes increase steadily over the years and my quality of life decrease so again, let’s not be patting ourselves on the back for this.

      So now, if the town has excess money then how about lowering taxes for the residents. And I agree with Rena on her comment that we are a city being run like a town.

      • Someone should ask the question “HOW MUCH WILL IT COST to change the name to the City of Watertown…and is it worth it?
        Figure in changing all the signs on every public building, all the lettering on every town vehicle and truck, every town logo, seal & letterhead, all the legal paperwork and I’ll bet the cost easily exceeds 6 digits. We are already a City. Wasting taxpayer money on a technicality is not my first priority. Also, the surplus that’s paying for the new schools just became available when the pension fund was paid within the last year. These funds did not exist 15-20 years ago. I call on our elected public officials who voted to change our name to at least tell us what it will cost?

        • Just to be clear, funds were there but a choice was made by the manager to prioritize aggressively paying down the pension fund vs spending on other areas of the town. You may or may not agree with this choice but that is now water under the bridge.

  3. I agree with Len. Why is it the theme of everything today to change things just for the sake of change. Can’t we just leave some elements of history alone. Calling us a town gives us a feeling that Watertown is not like a typical big city like Cambridge, which many of us are against. Although we have grown a lot, we are still very small compared to the cities around us as we are only 4 sq. miles in size. Let’s stay unique and avoid paying all the extra money to change all the papers, signs, etc. I will also vote against this change.

  4. 4 square miles with a $150 million budget abutting Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Waltham and the Charles River; the reality is that Watertown is and has been a city for 40+ years but we’re often miscategorized by the State and Agencies due to the confusion created by our official name, “The City Known As The Town of Watertown” which is a VERY GOOD REASON to update our official name.
    Creating melodrama that “Water-city” is next is histrionic and counter-productive.
    Watertown is a city, has been since the 1980 Charter changes were implemented. Changing our name to simply, City of Watertown is long overdue and the expense is the cost of doing business and not going to get cheaper
    I haven’t seen decrease in my tax bills and have been told that all the development that we’ve been enduring for a decade is paying for the schools, so it’s not some magical “Town” in the name status that’s done that for us, it’s commerical taxes (and good fiscal oversight).

  5. Folks you can call it whatever you want. It’s a city and has been for over four decades. It’s legally designated the “City Known as the Town of Watertown”. The only other option – an easier one frankly – is the “City of Watertown”. There are many in the United States, so this wouldn’t be blazing any new trails here. If you don’t agree with policy, get involved!

  6. “The government will have to change all municipal documents, letterhead, business cards, signs and other things that now say “Town of Watertown” with ones that say “City of Watertown.” Any ideas what the estimate is for all this unnecessary nonsense? Taxpayers should know before we spend millions in legal and other fees changing the name. Please, can we focus on City Services, Safety and Schools rathe then spend millions because a few people find it “confusing” or some such, the way it sounds now….Gershwin was right: Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto! Let’s call the whole thing off!

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