By Greg Reibman
When Newton voters head to the polls this Nov. 7, they’ll have an opportunity to dramatically reshape our city for generations.
This isn’t just because Newton is choosing a new mayor, but because voters are deciding on a proposed change to the city’s core governing document as well as major shifts on the city council and on the school committee.
In fact, as important as the position is, the mayoral contest may be the least impactful decision before voters.
City Council President Scott Lennon and City Councilor Ruthanne Fuller both have the experience and acumen to be fine chief executives.
Both have long records of being supportive of businesses.
Both say they’re committed to improving our infrastructure and transportation and addressing our critical shortage of workforce housing — issues the chamber has identified as top economic development priorities.
More significant is the ballot question asking voters to overhaul the city’s charter, which includes reducing the size of Newton’s city council and imposing term limits.
A charter is a city’s constitution. Revising a charter is a carefully defined, multi-year process that included an extensive signature drive, the election of a nine-member commission, 18 months of public meetings, studies of other municipal structures and deliberation.
The final document was unanimously approved by the Charter Commission. It aims to modernize City Hall in large and small ways and makes sure the charter reflects state law (that’s not always the case in the current version) and best practices.
A smaller city council
By far the most controversial change is a plan to reduce the city council from 24 to 12 members and the way the new council would be elected.
Presently, Newton elects three councilors across eight voting wards for a total of 24. All three councilors must be residents of that ward. One is elected exclusively by voters in that ward. The other two are elected city-wide.
The charter commission has proposed a new 12-member city council with one resident councilor per ward (elected city-wide) and four city councilors, elected city-wide but who could live in any part of Newton.
The new charter would also add term limits for mayor (12 years) and councilors (16 years). Only Newton’s school committee members now have term limits (eight years) and that would remain unchanged.
Proponents argue that this new charter would create a more effective, responsive government. Voters could make more informed choices and would elect all of their representatives. Meetings would be shorter and more productive, reducing deliberations that now often drag on for months and have frustrated many business owners and residents for years.
Opponents decry the loss of Newton’s ward councilor system as less democratic, arguing that each ward has its unique needs requiring its own representative. They also argue that the cost of running for election city-wide is more expensive than a ward race, making council seats more affordable to challengers and more accessible to minorities.
Which side is right? Well there is no doubt that Newton’s ward councilors are fine public servants who do an excellent job providing constituent services, although, of course, so are, and so do, our at-large councilors.
As for ease of election, the data suggests there are not more challengers nor greater diversity at the ward councilor level. Since 2005 there have been more challengers — and more successful challenges — to at-large candidates than ward candidates. And in a city with a 30 percent minority population, not one person of color has ever been elected in a ward-only election, while we have elected minority candidates in city-wide contests for aldermen/council, school committee and mayor.
In recent years, no issue has been more divisive in Newton than the debate over land use, which is really a debate over how highly the city should prioritize make being socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically competitive.
In those discussions anyway, councilors elected city-wide have generally been more receptive to those priorities and to projects that aim to bring new vitality to our village centers and provide housing for millennials and seniors who can’t necessarily afford or want a house with a garage and a yard.
For example, in the contentious debate over building a mixed-use housing, retail and a co-working space over the Austin Street parking lot, three of the six opposing votes came from ward councilors. And for the rezoning of the mixed-use project known as Washington Place, four of the seven opposing votes were from ward councilors.
The chamber’s Board of Directors believes the revised charter would be vastly superior to the city’s current city council configuration and make City Hall more efficient, more diverse, more accountable and more responsive to new ideas and is urging a yes vote to adopt the new charter on Nov. 7.
City Council races matter too
This new charter, even if approved, won’t go into effect until 2020. This January, however, Newton’s new mayor will have a new city council that could also alter the city’s future sooner.
Five veterans – Amy Mah Sangiolo, Ted Hess-Mahan, Jay Harney, Fuller and Lennon — are departing the council, opening new seats and leadership positions, including the job of council president. Turnover on the school committee will result in new faces for at least half of the eight members.
There are also interesting challenges to incumbent councilors in three at-large and one ward contest, including some smart newcomers who are boldly running on platforms in support of smart growth, sustainable development, improving our transportation, growing our village centers and addressing our housing crisis.
At stake is an opportunity to alter Newton’s reputation as a great place to live but a difficult place to do business. We can be both. And we can expect to have a highly qualified mayor to lead us there.