Group Creating Tool to Keep Track of Changes to Watertown’s Charter

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The following announcement was provided by Watertown Forward:

Now that Labor Day and back-to-school transitions are behind us, apple picking, fall foliage, and politics have moved to center stage. With the Nov. 8 election just a few weeks away, it’s easy for Watertown voters to lose sight of seismic changes to our Home Rule Charter that they approved almost a year ago during November’s municipal elections.

Progress on implementing the roughly 20 charter revisions remains unclear. That’s because there’s been no formal report back to residents, no ongoing updates as to implementation status, no flagging of timelines or deadlines for achieving required outcomes. The 2020-21 Charter Review Committee was disbanded after submitting its final recommendations to the City Council on Aug. 3, 2021. Aside from news articles after the election, there’s been no further coverage. Thus it’s no surprise that residents remain in the dark.

While some charter changes have been implemented, many have not. City Hall may be referred to as “City Hall,” but you wouldn’t know it by visiting there. “I was at City Hall this week and the entry information board designating rooms and floors hasn’t changed ‘town’ to ‘city’,” one longtime local resident recently recalled. “Maybe the change from ‘town’ to ‘city’ isn’t complete yet.” While a new City Manager and new faces in City Hall are expected to make a different, in the meantime, it’s fair to say that voters don’t know what, when, and how required revisions are being implemented.   

That’s why back in early April, Watertown Forward (“WF”) got to work. “We know that the City has a big job ahead of them,” said Janis Hudson, chair of the group’s Steering Committee. “In order to support both city officials and residents during this [charter] rollout, we developed a tracking tool where progress on all changes can be viewed in one simple dashboard.”

On Saturday, Sept. 24 at Faire on the Square, Watertown Forward will unveil that tool, which is a user-friendly, online interactive “Charter Tracker.” After vetting earlier versions with a feedback group, Watertown Forward is careful to note that the dashboard always will be iterative — that is, it’s a vehicle for continued updating and improvement, as users weigh in with constructive suggestions. “You could say it lives in permanent beta,” said Marcy Murninghan, one of WF’s four co-founders who helped create the Tracker. Others who worked hard on it include former chair Emily Daman (who’s moved back to Portland, Oregon) and Watertown Forward member Vana Pistoftzian and Tia Tilson.  

From changes affecting greater City government transparency, engagement, and accountability; to efforts to boost diversity, equity and inclusion; to creation of a values-based Preamble that serves both as an ethical framework and mission statement regarding the purpose toward which City government is expected to serve, the Charter Tracker brings Watertown’s “constitution” to life. It also serves as a vivid reminder of the power voters have to continually reflect upon and choose how they wish to be governed. “The goal is to help residents stay informed, and perhaps encourage them to celebrate progress as things move to completion,” Hudson said.

How It Works

When viewed online, the Charter Tracker includes both a user guide (page 1) and interactive dashboard (page 2) featuring colorful tiles organized like the Home Rule Charter. They begin with the Preamble and proceed with other voter-approved revisions that appear in sections and subsections of Articles 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9. The interactive tiles also comprise two “tiers” — Tier I and Tier II — for each charter change. Tier I is what the user sees on the landing page and presents high-level basics, with options for filtering by implementation status and responsible party. Tier I tiles are color coded by the degree of progress made toward full implementation of each amendment: Not Started (red); In Progress (yellow); Complete (green); and As Needed (purple). (See Fig. 1 for working example)

Figure 1

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Tier II tiles, when clicked, show pop-ups containing a bit more detail. There are links to both the charter amendment under scrutiny and reliable City Hall and/or City Council sources to contact for more information. (See Fig. 2)

Figure 2

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Preliminary Feedback

In addition to constructive feedback, the reaction thus far has been positive. “Great idea and great job,” wrote Nancy Hammett, who, along with Alice Poltorick and Larry Raskin, is another Watertown Forward co-founder. Hammett, Poltorick, and Raskin also are members of Watertown Community Conversations, the group from which the idea of Watertown Forward first emerged in late summer 2019.

“Thank you so much for taking this on,” Hammett wrote.

I see this as an important first step in better accountability regarding important city decisions, where we have gotten better at inviting resident input but still fail at good tracking and reporting results. I hope this will be publicized widely and improved based on experience and feedback. I also hope it can serve as a model for other City initiatives such as the Comprehensive Plan, the Climate & Energy Plan, school-related goals, and so on.

Alice Poltorick, who’s responsible for coming up with Watertown Forward’s name, agreed. “This is a terrific idea!” Poltorick wrote, responding to the feedback request. “Kudos for taking this on! Overall, it is very informative and easy to use.”

Ultimately, producing the Charter Tracker fulfills Watertown Forward’s mission of educating, engaging, and empowering local residents on the premises and practices of self-governance. “This tool nicely follows-up the work we started around the Charter Review process two years ago,” Hudson said. “We hope it will provide the same value by simplifying and demystifying an otherwise complex process.”

“The revised Charter is both prophetic and pragmatic,” Murninghan added. “It’s not just a set of rules and procedures.

It’s also about larger purpose and possibilities. The spirit of the Home Rule Charter, especially the Preamble, opens the door to new ideas and innovations, so as to better fulfill the promise of a happy, healthy, and sustainable Watertown for current and future generations. That’s not just good for Watertown — it’s good for our pluralist democracy, too.

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