On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Watertown voters will not only vote on the Town Council, School Committee and Library Trustees, but also the proposed changes to the Town Charter.
The Town Charter defines how Watertown’s government operates. Watertown first adopted the Town Charter in 1980 when it moved from a town government with a Town Meeting, to a city-style government with a Town Council and a Town Manager. Every 10 years the Charter is examined and changes are proposed to be made.
In past reviews, the changes have been minor, often changing wording, but in 2021 there are many changes proposed.
The Town Clerk’s office sent out a mailing of more than 30 pages with the full version of the changes. You can also see it on the Town’s website by clicking here.
There are two items on the ballot:
1 – Whether to change the name from “City Known as the Town of Watertown” (commonly referred to as the Town of Watertown) to the “City of Watertown.”
2 – All the other proposed charter changes.
The ballot has a short summary of the changes proposed in the second question, but there are dozens of proposed changes.
The changes come from the Charter Review Committee, which met dozens of times over more than a year to discuss the changes to the Charter. The committee was made up of the entire Town Council and six residents appointed by Town Council President Mark Sideris. They were assisted by consultants from the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass, Boston. The meetings, all held virtually on Zoom due to the pandemic, were also attended by members of the public, who gave input and made suggested changes.
The discussions were wide-ranging and the committee looked at some major changes — such as having a mayor, making the Library Trustees an appointed board, changing how the Council President is selected — but ultimately voted against such moves.
Some of the major changes include:
- The addition of a Preamble
- Defining the powers of the Town Council and Town Manager
- Allowing the Council to hire staff or consultants to help with Council business
- Create a Community Engagement Officer
- Establish a Residents’ Advisory Committee
- Communication requirements for the Town Council
- The creation of a Human Rights Commission
The proposed preamble would read:
“We, the people of Watertown — mindful of generations who came before us and those yet to come as we seek a more perfect union — are committed to preserving the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In recognition of the historical truth that we live on land that is the traditional territory of the Pequossette people, we hereby establish the following Ethic of Civic and Environmental Stewardship, supported by a group of Guiding Principles for this Home Rule Charter for our city.
These guiding principles find multiple expression in Watertown’s policy priorities, practices, and partnerships, in furtherance of the Charter’s purpose: to provide the residents of Watertown with a government that represents all who live, work, play, and create here, and affirms our right to live and grow in freedom, dignity, and tranquility. They also foster wise management of resources that guarantee the opportunity for all residents to reach their full potential while caring for one another and promoting the health, safety, and welfare of our community.
ETHIC OF CIVIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP:
⋆ SAFETY & TRANQUILITY ⋆ HEALTH & WELL-BEING
⋆ LEARNING & EXCELLENCE ⋆ EQUITY & DIVERSITY
⋆ CREATIVITY & INNOVATION ⋆ ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY
We believe that this stewardship ethic and related guiding principles uphold public trust in the competent and faithful execution of government duties, including loyalty and care. Taken together, they yield vibrant and welcoming neighborhoods, high-quality and inclusive schools, transparent and accountable municipal operations – including performance excellence, responsiveness, and collaboration – and thriving local businesses. Recognizing the impact of our decisions on future generations, and committing to practices that foster a sustainable environment in service to the common good, we, the people of Watertown hereby adopt the following Home Rule Charter for our city, all in accord with the Home Rule Amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
Town Council President’s Role
A new paragraph defines the Council President’s role, including that the person “shall be responsible for coordinating the development of council goals and policies, and for facilitating the development, periodic review, and updating of a long-term vision for the city, in collaboration with the council, the city manager, and members of the public.
Also, the President could become the council’s temporary spokesperson during emergencies if the Council votes to give the person that power.
That move was made after incidents such as the Lockdown during the search for the Boston Marathon Bombing suspect, and the collapse of several utility poles on Arsenal Street. At those times department heads were made the spokespeople, but the Town government could not (or did not) send out announcements.
Changes were proposed to be more specific about the role of the Town Council. One focuses on how it makes policies for the Town: “The powers exercised by the city council include the establishment of policies to guide the administrative branch in its exercise of administrative power. Such policies shall be reflected in the city council’s votes, resolutions, ordinances, appropriation orders, and loan authorizations.”
Council Staff & Analysts
Other changes would allow the Town Council to hire analysts to help with legislative oversight and research, but they would not be involved in day-to-day operation of the government. Another proposal allows the Council to hire staff to help councilors conduct their work. The proposal says that the administration will cooperate with the council staffers. Both analysts and staff must be approved by at least five councilors
Town Manager’s Role
The proposed changes include added details for the role of the Town Manager.
“The city manager shall be responsible for implementation of policies established by the city council, as reflected in the city council’s votes and resolutions and in ordinances, appropriation orders, and loan authorizations.”
When hiring a department head, the Manager would consult with the Council to discuss priorities for the department and desirable qualifications and qualities for candidates.
The manager would have goals and provide data and other results to show progress toward meeting benchmarks and goals. The results would be provided in a “public-facing data and performance management initiative.”
The Town Manager would no longer have to live in Watertown.
Many requests from the Charter Committee members and the public focused on communication with the public and government transparency.
One change was to have all public comments made during the Public Forum section during Town Council meetings be posted on the Town’s website, along with any replies from the Council or Town Administration. Likewise for requests for information made by the Town Council at meetings.
The Town Council President in coordination with the Town Manager, would deliver an annual State of the Town message. Also, the Council President would be required to have at least one open forum each year where members of the public can have a two-way conversation with the president, and can propose agenda items.
Each Town Councilor would also be required to have at least one meeting a year to have two-way communication with residents. The public could propose agenda items.
The Town Manager would be responsible for communications from the Town government, and would develop a communication strategy, communicate regularly with the public, keep the website up-to-date, and look for recommendations for how to communication better with residents.
Community Engagement Officer
The Town would create a position of Community Engagement Officer to work to improve communication and outreach to residents.
The Town Manager would have until Dec. 31, 2022 to appoint a Community Engagement Officer.
Residents’ Advisory Committee
A group of citizens would be appointed to the Residents’ Advisory Committee to help the Town Manager with “recruitment, evaluation and selection of candidates for appointment to multiple-member bodies.” These are the appointed boards and commissions (i.e., Planning Board, Zoning Board, Conservation Commission, Historical Commission, etc.). The committee would seek people with relevant expertise or experience, and would establish policies and practices to encourage a diverse pool of applicants. Under the proposed charter language, diversity includes, but is not limited to: gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity.
Human Rights Commission
The Town Council would form a Human Rights Commission. The role and details of how the commission would operate would be determined by an ordinance to be adopted by the Town Council. The Town Council would have until June 30, 2023 to adopt and ordinance establishing the Human Rights Commission.
Next Charter Review
With all the proposed changes, the Charter Review Committee wanted the Charter to be re-examined in a few years to see how it is working. Rather than waiting 10 years, the next charter review would be in 2026. After that it would occur every 10 years in years ending in 6.
Read about the Charter Review Meetings in these stories: