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 MarcWarner 1March 7, 2011City CouncilCity of Northampton212 Main StreetNorthampton MA 01060RE: Report of Charter Review CommitteeDear President and Councilors:Please accept the following as the report the Northampton Charter Review Committee,which was formed in accordance with Chapter 22b(4) of the Ordinances of the City ofNorthampton. The Ordinance provides as follows: At least once in every 10 years, in every year ending in a zero, the City Council shall conduct a comprehensive review of the City Charter via a special Charter Review Committee comprised of three Councilors and four residents to be appointed by the City Council President. Within one year following the appointment of its members, said Committee shall file a written report to the City Councilor outlining its review and recommending any changes to the City Charter that it deems necessary or desirable for the effective function of government in the City of Northampton.The Northampton charter, adopted in 1883, establishes and defines the structure of ourcity government. Over the intervening one hundred and twenty eight years,Northampton, the administration of its government, and the provision of governmentservices have changed, but the fundamental structure of the charter has not. While thecharter has been amended incrementally through special acts of the state legislature, thefundamental organizing elements of the charter have not been modified to reflectcontemporary complexity, practice, or procedure. Two proposed charter revisions, in1973 and 1995 were unsuccessful. The current Charter Review Committee (CRC),
City CouncilCity of NorthamptonMarch 7, 2011Page 2 of 5convened in April, 2010, has gathered information, held public hearings, and reviewed,studied and debated our current charter. The recommendation of the Committee is thatthe City Council appoint a committee to revise and rewrite a special act charteraddressing the existing charter’s archaic and inadequate aspects. Also noted by theCommittee was the recommendation of the Best Practices Committee that the charter bereviewed, revised and rewritten for accessibility and transparency.The Charter Review Committee met initially with Marilyn Contreas of the Department ofHousing and Community Development to understand the Committee’s mandate, and thestatutory and recommended public processes for effecting charter revision. Ms. Contreasoutlined the two processes open to communities for such revisions: (1) a Home RuleCharter process, which requires a petition by fifteen percent of registered voters torequest the election of a Charter Commission, a vote by the electorate on the question ofwhether to establish a Commission and, to the extent that the voters decide in favor ofthat question, the election of Commissioners, and final electoral acceptance of theproposed charter; and (2) a Special Act Charter, which involves the City Councilappointing a Charter Committee, and Council, state legislature, and, in most cases, cityelectoral approval of the proposed charter. Ms. Contreas also provided examples ofrecent charters from communities across the Commonwealth. The Committee reviewedthose charters to understand contemporary models, approaches, and the scope and detailof modern charter content.The Committee requested written comment from Northampton’s department heads tobetter understand the charter’s application, relevance, and deficiencies as they pertain todepartmental operating procedures. The written responses of department heads weresent to the City Council President and/or Council clerk, and are therefore available to theCouncil. Comments and concerns included incorrect or outdated statutory references,archaic mandated intra-departmental relationships or accountabilities, outdated andincorrect references to stipulated procedural requirements or current law.The Committee invited current and prior mayors, city councilors, school committeemembers and trustees of the Smith Vocational-Agricultural High School to a publicforum to gather input concerning issues with the existing charter, its impact on citygovernance, and thoughts as the best approach for revising the charter. The Committeealso held a public forum to gather the same information from residents of the City.Neither forum was well attended. However, in addition to the written comments fromdepartment heads, the issues raised by Committee members, past and present publicofficials, and members of the public included: ● The charter is an anachronistic document, inaccessible to the average citizen.
City CouncilCity of NorthamptonMarch 7, 2011Page 3 of 5 ● There are numerous provisions that are outdated and inaccurate in their content, internal inconsistencies, and operational detail more appropriately left to the legislative process. Simply put, there are numerous provisions in our charter that do not belong in a charter. ● A charter should provide the basic framework of a government’s structure, identifying positions to be elected or appointed, the size, term and composition of the legislative body, appointing authority, operating and capital budget responsibilities, and organization of departments. ● A charter, like a constitution, should assure an appropriate separation and allocation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. In particular, review should address the present practices of the Mayor chairing City Council and School Committee meetings. ● The current structure is disjointed, with the charter specifying mayoral authority, and the City Council’s authority being more fully described in ordinances. There should be one integrated document outlining our city government. ● Given the significant statutory and public accountability associated with city administration, consideration should be given to whether certain professional positions in city government should be appointed rather than elected. ● Frequent re-election campaigns do not allow sufficient time to become familiar with and effective in office, pose financial burdens on candidates and city finances, and deter broad participation in city government. A review should include the length of terms for the mayor and councilors, as well as the number of terms which may be served. ● Consideration should be given to the appropriate Council leadership structure, in particular whether there should be a president and vice- president to ensure leadership continuity. ● The number of signatures required for candidates to be placed on the ballot was thought to be inadequate, and is recommended for review.After consideration of the two processes available for charter revision, the CharterReview Committee recommends a special act charter. The home rule charter processrequires a special election to constitute a Commission and another to vote on the finalcharter. The time line for a home rule charter is also stipulated: within eighteen months ofits election the Commission must file a final report, which is then submitted to the
City CouncilCity of NorthamptonMarch 7, 2011Page 4 of 5Attorney General for legal review prior to its being placed on the ballot. The process ishighly structured, lengthy and costly.A special act charter, on the other hand, provides for the City Council to appoint a chartercommittee. The committee drafts and recommends a revised charter to the Council, andthe Council requests its approval by the state legislature. It is common for the charter toalso be presented to the voters for approval.The Charter Review Committee would further recommend to the Council that the chartercommittee: ● be a large committee with broad representation, geographically, economically, racially; ● have a strong educational component for the community; ● provide broad notice to the community of meetings, public hearings, etc.; ● be transparent in its constitution and proceedings.The committee recommends that the approval of the state legislature be subject toratification of the new charter by the voters. Finally, we would recommend that thecharter committee be provided with a budget, staff, and the ability to hire consultants.In conclusion, the Charter Review Committee recommends a new charter, and a charterreview process of broad outreach, one encouraging community engagement in how wegovern ourselves. The current charter is opaque and inaccessible, inflexible andinadequate to meet the contemporary complexities of governing well and responsibly. Itis time for change, and the Committee urges the City Council to take action on ourrecommendations with a sense of the opportunity charter revision represents for ourcommunity now and in the future.Respectfully submitted,Alan SeewaldChair
City CouncilCity of NorthamptonMarch 7, 2011Page 5 of 5xc: Northampton Charter Review Committee