Northampton Charter Review Committee Councilor Jesse M. Adams (Vice-Chair) Colleen Currie (Secretary) Councilor Marianne L. LaBarge Councilor David A. Murphy Alan Seewald (Chair) Margaret Striebel Marc Warner March 7, 2011City CouncilCity of Northampton212 Main StreetNorthampton, MA 01060RE: Minority Report of 2010 Charter Review CommitteeDear President and Councilors:This letter presents a dissenting view from that expressed by others on the 2010 CharterReview Committee in their report to the City Council. It is thus a minority report.The nature of the dissent is not about the worthiness of revising the current charter. Itdoes need revisions. Rather, it is about the tactics that the city should follow and thecosts that the city should incur in the effort to make the changes. The majorityrecommends that proposed charter changes come from a new, large committee withbroad representation, and with a budget, staff, and the ability to hire consultants. I rejectthese findings. Charter revisions should instead come from a) one or two council-appointed and unpaid editors to bring the current document to a “state of good repair,”and b) one or two council-appointed and unpaid facilitators to moderate public debates ofpotential new initiatives. City resources should be limited to the provision of meetingspace, documentation on the City web site, discussion of results at City Council, and thedissemination of any materials for a public referendum if needed to support a home rulepetition for changes to the Charter.This letter presents the reasons for these conclusions. It begins with a discussion of thecurrent state of the Northampton Charter.
The state of our current charterThe Charter—adopted in 1883 and amended incrementally through several special acts ofthe state legislature since then—has not aged well. This is not to say that the Chartershould define a radical new structure of city governance. None of the Charter ReviewCommittee members, nor any testimony we received, indicated a preference for afundamental division of power other than between a strong mayor and a nine-membercity council.The basic organization of governance in Northampton—and thus the basic substance ofthe Charter—does not need to change. There is, however, great value to changing thebasic organization of the Charter itself. After 128 years of piecemeal revisions, theCharter can no longer be said to provide Northampton residents (or policy makers) withsimple clarity about city governance. In this regard, the Charter is failing at its primaryobjective and is thus not in a “state of good repair.” The improvements needed hereinclude the following: eliminate the need for the dozens of editor’s notes that direct the reader to amendments superseding the current text; shift details about departmental workings that have nothing to do with the structure of governance out of the Charter and into city ordinances where they more appropriately belong; group related clauses under more logical headings, rather than having them spread out throughout the document; remove the obsolete references to the Board of Aldermen, the Hampshire County Commissioners, the Overseers of the Poor, the Massachusetts Central Railroad Company, and to other defunct organizationsThese changes would provide a clear document—a Charter in a state of good repair. Wecan think of it as a “Charter 2.0” on which to build the next hundred years of substantivecharter amendments. The changes are also the ones that could most assuredly reachfruition. These are not galvanizing proposals that would lead to opposition. They are noteven the type of changes that would warrant extensive community input anddeliberations. This is not a question of community values; it is simply an issue of editing.The role of the editorThe editor’s task can benefit from examples of several other Massachusettsmunicipalities. West Springfield, Easthampton, Newton, and Braintree have each inrecent years adopted a new charter with a mayor and city council form of governance.Look at these documents on the respective city web sites, and you will see a key featurein an instant: they are all almost identical. A further review shows that they would alsobe an easy fit for Northampton governance. The substantive differences that exist are
largely in regard to contingency planning (e.g., methods of filling the city councilpresident position in event of an unexpected vacancy). These do go beyond simpleediting, but they again do not indicate a need for weighty or drawn out deliberations.I have attached to this letter an outline of a revised charter based on the examplesidentified above. A second attachment shows how I have edited the three principalarticles: incorporation, the legislative branch, and the executive branch to be consistentwith Northampton’s current provisions. This is a big start to the editing. Finishing thetask should not be viewed as an overwhelming effort or one in need of city staff or hiredconsultants. I have no doubt that Northampton is full of interested and capable cityresidents who would be delighted to conduct this civic effort on a volunteer basis.It should in any case be apparent that the models for a clear, effective, applicable charterare available. These models have worked in comparable cities. They are contemporaryand they have passed the attorney general’s review for consistency with state law. TheCity Council should give the editors one month to complete these Charter changes.New initiatives“New initiatives” refer to Charter provisions that would significantly change the businessof city governance. The majority report has identified several of these, including: the mayor chairing City Council and School Committee meetings; appointment, rather than direct election, of certain city government positions; term length and term limits for the mayor and city councilors; and, the number of signatures required for candidates to get on the ballot.I agree that these are worth considering, and I think the list should also include thenumber of signatures needed to get a petition on the ballot. Note, by the way, that theCharter Review Committee did not debate or reach conclusions about these (or any other)specific policy issues.In any case, the new initiatives again do not merit the creation of a committee or theexpenditure of further city resources. A better approach, I believe, would be to hold oneor two well-publicized public forums with a structured, moderated debate on each ofthese issues. The point of these debates is not just to inform and to ensure publicparticipation, but also to gauge the breadth and depth of public support and opposition. Ifit is apparent that the opposition to any particular new initiative is strong, then it is likelythat the initiative is doomed at the polls anyway. Drop it, and move on to other issues.This process could generate more informed discussion, would be more open, and wouldcertainly be quicker than a year of new charter committee meetings.
The other key point here is that the new initiatives should be separable from the editingchanges and from each other. When voters see the proposed Charter changes on theballot they should not see an all-or-nothing choice. The new initiatives cannot beallowed to undermine the chance for a clear and logical document. Thus, the first choiceon the ballot would be the Charter edits. The subsequent separate votes should be foreach new initiative that has a chance to succeed.Time line for actionAs noted above, the editors should have one month from their appointment to submit aclear document that would bring the Charter back to the state of good repair that itprobably hasn’t seen for at least 50 years and perhaps since 1883.City Council, the mayor, and any other interested parties should review the document andprovide testimonials about the legitimacy, value, and the essentially clerical nature of thechanges.Preparations for debates on the new initiatives should begin immediately after that. TheCouncil—or the designated facilitator(s)—should find informed individuals willing tospeak for or against each of the proposed changes. Get these individuals to write a quick“point-counterpoint” section for the Gazette and the City web site. Hold the publicforums. Build a degree of excitement, charge the air, and publicize the results. Keep themomentum going and all of these proposals could be on the ballot in November, with ahome rule petition to the legislature shortly after that. * * * * * *Thank you for the opportunity to serve on the Charter Review Committee and to submitthis minority report. Respectfully submitted, Marc Warner