Newton has always prided itself on being a well run city with high degrees of citizen participation. But now it seems that, as part a special commission’s review of the decades-old city charter, grassroots democracy may have to take a back seat to some notion of streamlining and efficiency. A case in point: the commission’s toying with the elimination of area councils from the municipal charter. At the same time, the charter commission wants to reduce the size of the City Council from 24 to 13 members and eliminate ward councilors, those chosen from and by each ward, in the process.
The 1971 charter allowed the creation of neighborhood area councils, each with between five and nine members, elected at municipal elections to two-year terms. Newton Highlands created the first area council and was eventually followed by Upper Falls, Waban and Newtonville. Some of the charter commission members have declared it inequitable that only four neighborhoods have area councils. But other areas are perfectly able, should they so choose, to gather signatures from 20 percent of their areas and create their own area councils. Those who reside in areas not specifically within a village, or where a village boundary is unclear or overlaps with another, may choose to affiliate with a nearby area council.
The area councils have shown skill dealing with pressing issues facing neighborhoods. The councils gather information, disseminate it to the grassroots level and take neighborhood feedback to the City Council. In Waban, where I live, it was the Area Council that gathered facts about the state-run Add-A-Lane Project for Route 95, theoretically in Needham and Wellesley, but profoundly affecting traffic in Waban. The Newton Highlands Area Council played a key role in pushing for handicap access to the Highlands MBTA station. Other councils have mediated concerns about dog parks, crosswalks and more, to the satisfaction of opponents and supporters.
Some charter commission members think that citizen engagement may be adequately encouraged by some other kind of neighborhood association or special interest group. Those neighborhood or village associations often do reflect the cultural fabric of an area and are to be lauded for organizing holiday decorations, beautification projects, bake sales and community pot luck dinners. But they are not city entities like the area councils. They do not have to conform to open meeting laws or abide by standards of accountability and transparency. To jettison the area councils, which must meet such requirements, would stifle voices of agreement and dissent.
Reasonable critics are concerned that area council elections place too great a burden on the city’s Election Commission. But is the answer to that concern throwing area councils out of the charter? Instead, how about rationalizing the boundaries of area councils so they conform to existing precinct lines, which should help make area council elections easier to administer?
Whatever refinements the charter commission sees fit to recommend, it should preserve the area councils as municipal entities. Neighborhoods that don’t want to create them don’t have to. Those who do want them may organize to get them on the ballot. Neighborhoods that prefer neighborhood associations may continue to have them. A lot of caring volunteers have put in enormous hours on their area councils with good results. Keeping them in the city charter will ensure the broadest possible participation in the civic life of our city. They are needed now more than ever.
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