This past Monday, the Charter Advisory Committee held a public hearing on Monday, November 10 to present and receive comments about its preliminary recommendations, relating to “the number, function and composition of City Boards and Commissions; governmental and management structure; terms of office for elected officials; nomenclature of legislative branch; and structure of the School Committee.”
Although I didn’t keep detailed notes, I would estimate that about 15-20 people submitted oral testimony at the hearing. Some of the people testifying suggested, and I agree, that had the preliminary recommendations been published prior to the hearing, there would have been greater public participation. (Except for an email to the PDS list serve by Charter Advisory Committee member and School Committee chair Paul Bockelman, reproduced here on Somerville Voices, they are still not publicly available. The City website, for example, still does not list the preliminary recommendations.)
I encourage others who attended to share their reflections; these are mine.
Perhaps the most frequent themes of testimony were
· Opposition to the appointment (instead of election) of School Committee members
· Filling Vacancies on the BOA / Instant Runoff Voting as the means of electing both ward and citywide positions (these are separate topics but got blended together in the discussion)
· Concern about increasing the already substantial disparity in power between the Mayor and Board of Aldermen, for example, by increasing the Mayor’s term to four years, while BOA members must continue to be elected every two years.
· Creating greater accountability and transparency in City Government
Appointed School Committee Members
The idea of appointing some additional members of the School Committee arose from a stated concern that certain kinds of educational expertise and certain constituencies (e.g., representatives of distinct linguistic or minority communities) were absent from the School Committee. The Charter Committee suggested that the Mayor and President of the Board of Aldermen should be removed from the School Committee, and replaced by one or more appointed persons (it was not clear who would appoint these individuals) to fill those gaps.
With the exception of School Committee member Mark Niedergang, who supported the recommendation, there seemed to be uniform opposition to adding appointed members, particularly if they would have equal voting rights with the elected members. (There didn’t seem to be much of any opposition to removing the Mayor or President of the BOA from the Committee.) School Committee member Mary Jo Rossetti made the most impassioned argument against having appointed members, wondering why the School Committee had been singled out as needing supplementary expertise, and suggesting that, perhaps the Board of Aldermen could likewise benefit from the same kind of supplementation. Among other School Committee members and residents who spoke, the two most prominent concerns about the suggestion were (a) the potential for unproductive tension by creating two classes of School Committee members, one elected and the other appointed, and (b) the loss of community accountability if the votes of elected representatives could be offset by some number of appointees who might be accountable only to the Mayor or …
Filling Vacancies on the Board of Aldermen – Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)
Currently, when a member of the Board of Aldermen or School Committee resigns, the position is filled by special election (if the vacancy occurred prior to the completion of the first year of his/her term) or by appointment (if the vacancy occurred after the one year mark). The Charter Advisory Committee suggested that such vacancies should be filled by selecting the next highest vote-getter in the most recent election, provided that that candidate received some threshold percentage of votes (which they were not yet prepared to recommend).
This mechanism for filling vacancies has, in times past, generated considerable controversy; however, the Committee’s recommendation was largely overlooked, perhaps because no-one anticipated it. The Committee’s recommendation offers an approach that makes sense, depending upon the threshold established. That threshold would have to be different for At-Large elections as compared with Ward elections.
A number of persons testified in support of replacing our existing method of electing ward and citywide representatives with Instant Runoff Voting or IRV www.instantrunoff.com . The benefits of IRV were given as (a) eliminating the need for preliminary/primary elections, which cost the City up to $50,000, and (b) allowing voters to prioritize their selections. With IRV, voters would not have to choose between voting for the candidate with real potential to be elected vs. voting for the candidate who best represents their values, and voters would not have to “bullet” vote for At-Large Aldermen in order to ensure that their vote for their preferred candidate was not negated by a vote for their #2, #3, and #4 choices.
Concern About Increasing the Power Disparity Between Mayor and Board of Aldermen
The Committee proposed a four-year term for the Mayor.
On the one hand, a four-year term would allow the Mayor to spend proportionally more time governing and proportionally less time running for re-election. A four-year term would make it possible to take a longer-term perspective in policy planning and planning for economic development. As we have seen in the past, the shorter the planning horizon, the more likely we are to end up with big-box retail or condominiums as the centerpiece of development, since these are the kinds of projects that have the quickest turnaround from shovel-in-the-ground to return-on-investment…. even if they aren’t the best outcomes for the City.
On the other hand, as noted by a number of speakers, extending the Mayor’s term to four years while retaining the two-year terms of Aldermen would simply exacerbate the already problematic power imbalance between Mayor and Board of Alderman (or City Council). Would it make sense to also increase the terms of Aldermen? Is that even allowed by Chapter 43 of the Mass. General Laws? If so, would it be better for the stability of the government if we could stagger the election of Aldermen, for example voting on the At-Large positions at the same time as we voted on Mayor, and voting on the Ward Aldermen two years later?
Some speakers argued that elections every two years are essential to holding elected officials accountable.
Some speakers argued for a shift to a City Manager form of government, believing that our strong mayor form of government concentrates too much power in a single person, and can lead to corruption and nepotism in the dispensation of services or in hiring decisions. The Charter Advisory Committee indicated in the minutes of one of its early meetings that it would give consideration to the City Manager form of government; its decision to recommend continuation of the Strong Mayor form of government was not explained in subsequent minutes, and there was not much in the way of explanation offered at the hearing.
When asked by speakers about their thoughts on these matters, Committee members variously stated (a) that the idea to extend the Mayor’s term was theirs and not the Mayor’s (contrary to many of our recollections), (b) that the Committee could hardly expect Mayoral support for a recommendation that diminished the mayor’s authority, and (c) that there are trends in the Commonwealth towards adoption of a strong mayor form of government.
Creating Greater Accountability and Transparency in City Government
If we retain a strong mayor, would it be possible to nonetheless separate politics from the process of hiring to fill government positions? The Charter Advisory Committee recommended the creation of a Chief Administrative Officer under the Executive Branch. What if that position was jointly hired by the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen, but accountable to the BOA and not the mayor (in much the same way that the School Superintendent is hired by the Mayor and the School Committee, but is accountable to the School Committee)? In the same way that the hiring of school principals and teachers is removed from the realm of politics by entrusting those decisions to the School Superintendent and School Department, so, hiring of staff for the Traffic, Planning (OSPCD), Public Works, Personnel, and other Departments could be entrusted to a more independent Chief Administrative Officer. While it is reasonable for the Mayor to have the final say in hiring Department heads, using a more independent process to recruit candidates and narrow the field (as was the case with the recent hiring process for Police Commissioner) would increase transparency, boost public confidence, and improve the quality of our municipal workforce.
One relatively unnoticed recommendation that would strengthen accountability would require the Mayor to submit an annual Capital Improvement Program to the Board of Aldermen at the start of the fiscal year. A stronger recommendation would state a clear deadline for the process, and would require submission of 1, 3, and 5 year plans, and an explanation of how borrowing to pay for proposed capital spending would impact the annual operating budgets.
The Committee made a few minor recommendations for changes in the process of creating the City’s annual Operating Budget, but fell short of anything transformative. Changes proposed by the Charter Advisory Committee would require the Mayor to furnish a long-term financial forecast for the City, and to submit his/her operating budget to the Board of Aldermen “with a reasonable period of time for the Board of Aldermen to act on the Budget before the start of the fiscal year.” Currently, neither the public nor the Board of Aldermen have any real opportunity to influence the City budget, which is prepared by the Mayor. The Board of Aldermen has no authority to add to line items, to create line items, or alter line item language; it may only delete line items. The token public hearing before the BOA, coming at the end of the Budget “deliberation” process is all but an empty gesture.
Ideally, Charter reform would address this tremendous imbalance in power. However, if the Charter Advisory Committee feels that Chapter 43 prevents it from giving more budget-making authority to the Board of Aldermen, it should at least require Departmental budget hearings and should require the Mayor to hold public hearings on the overall budget long before s/he has finalized his/her recommendations to the Board of Aldermen.