Barry Roth: Northampton’s charter change flawed
NORTHAMPTON — The proposed new Northampton city charter contains changes designed to simplify and make it more understandable. It succeeds at that. But there are three compelling reasons for voting against it.
The committee members who drafted it were appointed by political leaders and their recommendations often reflect their sponsor’s desire. Some of them want more power because they believe the average voter does not have the knowledge and foresight to vote wisely.
Accordingly, the proposed charter seeks to extend the mayor’s term from two years to four. At the same time, key committee members argued effectively against an attempt to allow for a recall provision.
The new charter continues to allow the Department of Public Works to raise fees and taxes on sewer and water services without citizens’ consent.
Finally, it blocks a motion I introduced which would have assured that citizen input would be made a part of the record in a meaningful way.
In calling for a four-year term, the argument was made that it was needed to get qualified people to run for mayor. A two-year term, they said, would not be of sufficient length for professionals to put their careers on hold. Yet people take jobs in the private sector all the time without any assurance that they will be there in six months, that alone four years.
They also argued that it would allow the mayor to act without undo political pressure. But put another way, they want it to thwart the will of the people. If you were for keeping the landfill in Florence, for the high-rise hotel in downtown and for demolition of Green Street for Smith College’s engineering building, this is your charter.
Also, omitted from the charter was a provision that would allow the City Council to vote to approve rate hikes set by the DPW. Recently, the DPW set a 9 percent increase in the already extremely high water and sewer rates. The increases may be ongoing and continue for decades more because of $100 million in needed infrastructure repairs.
The belief is that the citizens would not have the good sense to address infrastructure needs and City Council members would be too intimidated to vote for an increase.
But alternatives are available. For example, the city could require a two-thirds council vote to overturn a DPW rate increase to provide a genuine check and balance.
Finally, our government works by percolating legislation up from committees to the City Council. However, very often those in the committee have a vested interest in a particular viewpoint. So when legislation approaches the City Council for a vote, the choices presented are limited.
That’s what happened with the proposed charter. Alternative viewpoints were stifled.
The proposal I put forth would simply have allowed a citizen to address specific factual matters in writing and have that material included in the packages brought to City Council for a vote. When it came to final deliberations on this amendment, in a crass display of the very need for this amendment, a distorted rendition was presented. I was not permitted to clarify.
Power and wealth tend to accrue. A new charter should seek to lessen that tendency, not exacerbate it.
The proponents believe that because of the work and the good things in this charter, voters will have no choice but to acquiesce.
But voters should realize that they can endorse this charter in five years without these flaws. Should it pass now, the ordinary citizen’s voice will be further diminished and what could have been a real benefit will become an instrument for greater unfairness in government.
Barry Roth lives in Northampton.