The proposed changes to the Town Charter, the document that lays out how Watertown’s government operates, will be on the November ballot in the form of two questions. The items will appear as summaries on the ballot, but voters will receive detailed information about all the changes.
On Sept. 2, the Town Council ironed out a few issues the Attorney General’s office had with the proposed Charter changes, and also discussed how the items should be on the ballot.
Number of Ballot Questions
Initially, the proposal was to have three separate items: one on changing the official name from the “The City Known as the Town of Watertown” to “The City of Watertown,” one about the preamble proposed to be added at the beginning of the Charter, and a third covering “everything else,” or all the other changes to the document.
Couniclor Tony Palomba asked why those particular items were broken out, while there are others that could also warrant being considered separately.
“I think there are a lot of things in the ‘everything else’ item that equally could be taken out: the creation of a human rights commission, creation of an engagement officer, the decision to give greater level of evaluation of the Town Manager, the decision to have Town Councilors hold a public meeting (annually),” Palomba said.
Palomba asked whether the Council would support having all the items in one ballot question.
Councilor Anthony Donato said he wanted to see the City vs. Town question broken out because people thought it might be something that could impact the passage of the other changes.
“My concern is we might be underestimating how emotional a question that is,” Donato said. “I do not want to see, for people not wanting the name of the town changing, the only way to express that opinion to be to vote down the entire charter. All the hard work by the (Charter Review) Committee and the residents would be for nothing.”
Palomba then suggested having just one separate item, the City vs. Town.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she does not support the preamble as written, saying she thought it was too long and too wordy. She was the lone vote against having two questions on the ballot about the Charter.
Informing the Public
The Town Council discussed how voters will be informed about the charter changes that they will vote on during the Nov. 2 Town Election.
The City vs. Town question is straightforward and will fit on the ballot, said Town Council President Mark Sideris, but the other question will have to be a summary of the other changes because there are dozens of proposed changes.
“I don’t feel we can put every single change in the summary,” Sideris said. “We are going to lose people at the ballot.”
Councilors said they want to make sure residents know what they are voting on and wanted to know how they can get information to people.
Attorney Lauren Goldberg, from KP Law, said that Town can send a complete list of the proposed amendments to the charter, but not much else can be included in the mailing.
“State law is pretty strict when it comes to what can be mailed to voters,” Goldberg said. “The law simply provides for the malling of the actual changes. It doesn’t talk about the form of the ballot questions. It doesn’t talk about the reasons for the changes.”
Some communities have included a short cover letter, Goldberg said, that includes a short history, and details about how to get more information about the proposed changes and where to find summaries of the ballot questions. She said state law allows for more information to be provided on the Town website.
The timing of when mailings would go out was also discussed. The state law requires the ballot information to go out a minimum of two weeks before the election. Councilor John Gannon said he would like to see voters have more time to review the change.
Goldberg said the mailing can go out earlier, but she said one thing to consider is whether they might be sent out too early, and people may not hang on to the information until election day. She added that the information can be posted on the Town’s website as soon as it is ready.
Gannon proposed an amendment saying the ballot information would go out at least three weeks before the election. Sideris said he wanted to check with the Town Clerk to see if the information could be printed and ready to send out three weeks prior, so Gannon withdrew his amendment.
The discussion on how to publicize the charter changes and get information to residents will continue during a meeting of the Town Council’s Media and Public Outreach Committee on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 5 p.m. See more information about the meeting by clicking here.
Attorney General’s Changes
Watertown’s proposed Charter changes were reviewed by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and three items which were highlighted as problems or possible conflicts with state law.
The first was the minimum time period in which a special election can be held to fill a vacancy on the Council. The proposal had 60 days, but the State requires at least 64 days. The Council voted to change 60 to 64.
The second was changing the term of the Town Manager. The proposed changes would have deleted the section of the Charter saying that the Town Manager would be appointed for an unlimited time.
“The Attorney General has interpreted (the language) to be making a change to the term of the Town Manager, and under state law an amendment to a charter proposed in this manner cannot make a change like that,” Goldberg said.
While the Charter Review Committee does not have the authority to make the change, she said it can be made by either by having a special act of the Legislature approved to do so, or by an elected charter commission. She suggested leaving the language as is, which the Council voted to approve.
The final item was a suggestion, rather than a required change, Goldberg said. The AG’s office said the Council should consider adding clarifying language to make sure that it is clear that the Town Council does not have the authority to approve or reject rules or regulations for committees, boards or positions that get their authority from state law. In Watertown, this includes the Watertown Public Schools and the Library Board of Trustees.
Goldberg proposed adding the following language:
“City officers and agencies other than the School Department, the Watertown Free Public Library and those statutorily authorized to adopt rules and regulations, may adopt rules and regulations only upon authorization by the city council, except as otherwise specified herein and by state law, the city council shall authorize adoption of rules and regulations by ordinance or resolution.”
Initially, Palomba said he did not feel comfortable changing language approved by the entire Charter Review Committee (which included the Council and six community members) without everyone’s approval. He noted that it was a suggestion from the AG’s Office, not a requirement.
Councilor Lisa Feltner said she liked the additional language because it clarifies the section, and makes it easier to understand it without having to refer to other documents.
Donato said he believed that the fact that the AG’s Office highlighted only three of the many proposed changes means it is something he takes seriously. He did not think it changed the substance of that section of the charter and supported the addition of the language.
The Council voted unanimously to approve the additional language.