Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gazette, City Councilors Urge "Yes" Vote On Charter

The Daily Hampshire Gazette editorial board has given an unequivocal endorsement for the proposed city charter:

We believe the charter changes are warranted and urge Northampton voters to usher them in. It only makes sense to periodically review the city’s charter and examine its strengths and weaknesses. What constitution doesn’t change?

A four-year mayoral term, which is not uncommon, would eliminate the annual or biannual distraction of fundraising and campaigning and allow the city’s chief executive officer to stay more focused on his or her work. Instead of a two-year track record, voters would examine a four-year span when considering electing an incumbent to another term.

We believe the mayor should not preside over City Council meetings. Eliminating that structure will provide a healthier balance between the city’s executive and legislative branches.

What taxpayer wouldn’t want the city to periodically review compensation and benefits for elected officials? And streamlining elections for School Committee members has numerous benefits, including placing everybody on a level playing field at election time.


The charter changes are well-thought-out, community-driven initiatives. There are no surprises here, just change for the better. Vote yes for a new Northampton city charter.

And 8 of the 9 Northampton city councilors signed a letter of support for the new charter in a recent letter to the Gazette:

On Tuesday, Northampton voters will be asked whether or not to ratify a new city charter. Your City Council endorsed the new charter earlier this year and we, the undersigned, urge you to vote yes.

By modernizing a charter riddled with archaic and confusing language, clarifying separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches and improving transparency, the new charter will strengthen our local democracy and increase the public’s accessibility to their government.

Please remember to vote "Yes" on the Special Municipal Election ballot on Election Day Tuesday!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why We Need A New Charter: Stronger Democracy

On Election Day 2012, Tuesday November 6, Northampton voters will be given a separate ballot asking if we should ratify a new city charter -- a new "constitution" -- that was previously approved by the City Council.

We urge you to vote "Yes," and we've established this blog to explain why.

We need a streamlined, flexible charter that is more accessible to the public. The current 129-year old charter is filled with archaic language that many find difficult to interpret and patchwork -- sometimes contradictory -- amendments that make the overall document hard to follow.

We want to strengthen the democratic process and improve how our local government functions. The new charter will increase the autonomy of the separate branches of government, and facilitate broader public participation.

 To strengthen our democratic institutions, the new charter includes the following changes:

* Shift chairmanship of City Council meetings from the mayor to the City Council President

* Extend the term of mayor to four years

* Create a special election process to fill permanent mayoral vacancies

* Simplify School Committee elections so all terms run concurrently and last for two years

* Improve transparency by having Council-approved budgets break out the cost for both the compensation and benefits of elected officials

* Create an advisory commission to make recommendations on appropriate levels of compensation and benefits for elected officials

In the spirit of keeping what works, here are some of the key aspects of the current Charter that will remain the same:

* Maintain the Mayor as chair of the the School Committee

* Maintain the City Clerk as an elected position

* Maintain the current provisions for Citizen Initiatives and Referendums

* Keep out arbitrary term limits for all positions, elected and appointed

* Retain current process for mayoral appointments, subject to approval by the Council

You can find additional information about the proposed charter by clicking on the subject headers on the right side of the page. And you can read the entire proposed charter by clicking here.

Mayoral Changes

The new charter extends the term for mayor from two years to four years. A longer term would allow the Mayor to focus more on the long-term challenges of governing and avoid the distractions of perpetual campaigning and fundraising. A longer term would also provide the Mayor more time to implement changes and demonstrate results before the voters render judgment. Arguments against making this change include the concern that a longer term would decrease accountability to the voters. But voters would retain the opportunity in the biennial Council and School Committee elections to send a clear message to a Mayor by voting in or out Councilors or School Committee members that have supported or opposed the Mayor’s initiatives.

The new charter also establishes special election procedures for electing a mayor when there is a permanent vacancy in the middle of a term.  Currently, a permanent vacancy leads to an awkward situation in which the City Council President acts as Mayor but continues serving on the Council. This puts one person atop two branches of government at once, upsetting the separation of powers and raising questions -- unanswered by the current charter -- about proper compensation. Furthermore, the current charter does not provide for a special election in the event of a permanent mayoral vacancy.

The new charter would create a special election to be held 90 days after a permanent vacancy occurs; unless the vacancy occurs during the last eight months of the term. In that case, the current City Council President would become Mayor until the end of the term, vacating his or her Council seat. If the City Council President refused the office, the Council would elect another member to serve out the mayoral term.

City Council Changes

The new charter transfers the chairmanship of City Council meetings from the Mayor to the City
Council President. City governance would benefit from a clearer separation of powers and a more autonomous City Council. The Mayor does not need to run Council meetings, or even be present at all Council meetings, for the two branches to regularly communicate with each other and maintain a working relationship. The proposed Charter requires the Mayor to attend Council meetings and answer specific questions upon request, ensuring full communication in public when necessary. Further, the proposed charter specifies that the Council agenda be set in consultation with the Mayor, so there won't be any barriers to the Mayor placing important city business on the agenda.

Also, the new charter creates a new position: City Council Vice-President. The proposed changes to the Council chairmanship and how a permanent mayoral vacancy is filled necessitate the creation of such a post. The Vice-President would handle the duties of the President in the case of temporary absences, and in the event the City Council President were to become Mayor and leave the Council, the Vice-President would be elevated to Council President.

School Committee Changes

Under the current charter, School Committee At-Large representatives serve for two years while Ward representatives serve for four years, with elections for Ward seats held on a staggered basis. This convoluted structure confuses voters. The new charter simplifies School Committee elections by setting the terms for all Ward and At-Large positions at two years.

Compensation Of Elected Officials

The new charter mandates that the annual budgets from the Mayor's office submitted for approval by the City Council include a line-item separately identifying the compensation and benefits provided to all elected officials.

The City Council has the authority under the current city charter to set the salaries of elected officials through ordinance, while the Mayor retains the legal discretion under state law to determine elected officials'  eligibility for benefits, including participation in the City’s group health and life insurance plans. Under the proposed charter, the City Council and Mayor will retain these powers.

But there are inherent conflicts of interest in these processes. City Councilors set their own salaries. Mayors who determine eligibility for benefits create the possibility for patronage abuse. Since the potential for such conflicts cannot be completely negated, there is a need for greater transparency. With clear budget line items, the public would be better positioned to see how elected officials are being compensated, providing an additional check to possible impropriety.

To further increase public input on fair and reasonable levels of compensation, the new charter creates a permanent Compensation of Elected Officials Advisory Board comprised of citizens that would review compensation levels and make recommendations to the City Council.

Read The Full Charter

Click here to read the entire charter, approved by the Northampton City Council and the state legislature, now up for ratification by the voters on Election Day, November 6, 2012.

And click here to read the executive summary of the new charter from the Special Act Charter Drafting Committee.