Proposed Newton Charter change threatens city texture

newton_logoMemo to Newton Charter Commission: Keep your hands off our ward councilors

Yesterday a 191-year-old copper beech tree split and landed on a lovely Newton home, built in 1878. Nothing is forever. Things change. When my parents moved to Newton, it was 1950. The Garden City’s population was 6,000 fewer than today. We kids mostly walked to school until high school. There was just one high school, and it was routinely cited nationally as one of the ten best in the country.

Norumbega Park, now the site of the Marriott Hotel,  had a small zoo, paddle boats, picnic grounds, and it boasted the Totem Pole Ballroom, where big bands played and adolescents slow-danced and scarcely dreamed of life later on.  All was good, if you didn’t stop to think about the lack of racial diversity, the anti-Semitism in the neighborhood and country clubs, and discriminatory practices in housing.

Today we are the 11th largest city in the Commonwealth, and are routinely included in national lists of best places to live. We have a population of some 87,000,  a high-profile, charismatic African-American mayor (perhaps destined one day for higher office), a black population still small but twice what it was when I was a kid, a somewhat larger Latino population and an Asian population of more than 13 percent.  Newton’s median age is slightly older than state and national averages but also has slightly more households with children under 18. We also have a range of municipal programs and services designed to address economic and social issues we didn’t know existed half a century ago.

So it’s not surprising that Newton voters last fall elected a Charter Commission to review the city’s governing document, last adopted by voters in 1971,  to see if we’re keeping pace with municipal needs and anticipating 21st century challenges. Now the Commission wants to reduce the size of the City Council from 24 to 13 members. Anyone who has ever watched the cumbersome 24-member debate on NewTV can make the case for that.  Unfortunately, the Commission is going about the reduction in the wrong way.

It will recommend that one member be elected from each ward but voted on by the whole city. Five councilors would be elected at large, and could come from anywhere in Newton. But that would eliminate all the ward councilors (formerly aldermen), and that makes no sense. Far better to have eight ward councilors and five elected at large.

We  may be a city, but it’s the councilors’ connectivity to the wards that authenticates neighborhood responsiveness and highlights accountability.  A good ward councilor has in his or her DNA the pulse of the ward and the fiber of its neighborhoods. The responsiveness of a councilor elected citywide, even if he or she is designated “from” a ward, is bound to be diluted, with tens of thousands more constituents to answer to. Newton is a unique community – a city, yes, but a diverse suburban enclave with 13 village neighborhoods distinct in character and needs.  Voters won’t have their say until the city ballot in 2017, but they will have several opportunities to weigh in before then.  Preserving ward-only representation, leavened by five at-large councilors, is a far better formula.

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2 thoughts on “Proposed Newton Charter change threatens city texture

  1. Rich

    If the current situation leads to divisiveness on neighhborhood issues, will the elimination of ward councilors solve that divisiveness problem by muting neighborhood voices? It just might. Great. Who needs people on the council who see things from the perspective of where they live?


  2. Adam

    I’m not sure what the right balance is, but as much as ward representation matters, so does a city-wide view. Newton has become increasingly divisive on neighborhood issues. Increasing the proportion of ward councilors from 8/24 to 8/13 could be just as much of a mistake as eliminating them!

    We have at-large councilors today, and they tend to represent their wards very well. It defies logic, but in my experience, at-large councilors have been at least as responsive to my local concerns as ward councilors. It’s worth noting that the job responsibilities of today’s at-large and ward councilors are exactly the same. The only real difference is the number of people who vote to put them in office. Today, a councilor put in office with only a few hundred votes can hold an enormous amount of power, leading a city-wide committee or even the entire council. As we reconsider the composition of the council, perhaps we need to look closer at the job responsibilities as well?


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