After 130 years, Northampton seeks to revise its charter
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NORTHAMPTON — Voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve the first major revisions to Northampton’s charter — the city’s de facto Constitution — since its creation nearly 130 years ago.
Those who spent more than a year planning for it and seeking input from the public as they drafted proposed changes believe this vote is arguably the most significant local measure on this year’s ballot.
The primary goal of modernizing the charter is to make it more understandable by replacing the archaic language that many find difficult to interpret. The changes would also streamline patchwork amendments that make the overall document hard to follow.
Here’s a closer look at some of the major revisions and the rationale behind them:
THE MAYOR: The proposed changes would change the mayoral term from two to four years.
Supporters of this change say a longer term would allow the mayor to focus more on the long-term challenges of governing and avoid the distractions of campaigning and fundraising. A longer term would also ensure stability and encourage qualified candidates to run for the job, supporters say.
Opponents contend that a longer term would decrease accountability to voters. Some say that campaigning for re-election is not a deterrent to the mayor’s work.
This change became a key point in a lengthy debate during City Council meetings last spring. The council voted 4-4 against an amendment that would have kept the mayoral term at two years.
The council also debated and defeated another amendment that would have allowed for a recall of the mayor as a way to offset the length of the mayoral term.
Regarding the mayor, the proposal would have the council president chair meetings instead of the mayor, and create the position of council vice president.
Few disagree with this change, which would create a separation of power between the city’s executive and legislative branches. The mayor and council president would consult on the council’s agenda, and the mayor would answer questions at council meetings.
The vice president would handle the duties of president during temporary absences or if the council president becomes mayor.
SCHOOL COMMITTEE: This proposal would convert School Committee elections so all terms run concurrently and last for two years. Additionally, the mayor would continue to serve as chair of the School Committee.
Under the current charter, School Committee at-large members serve for two years while ward representatives have four-year terms. Elections for ward seats are staggered.
ELECTIONS: One aspect of the proposed changes would create special elections to fill mayoral vacancies. The special election would be held 90 days after a permanent vacancy occurs, unless the vacancy is in the last eight months of the term.
In that case, the council president would vacate the council seat and become mayor until the end of the term. If the council president does not want the position, the council would elect another member to serve out the mayoral term.
When a vacancy occurs under current rules, the council president acts as mayor and continues to serve on the council.
BALLOT: Increase the required number of signatures to run for at-large positions on the City Council and School Committee from 50 to 100, and from 50 to 150 for mayoral candidates.
BUDGETING: Provide separate line items in budgets approved by the City Council that detail compensation for elected officials, and create a permanent advisory board on compensation and benefits for elected officials.
Some people believe other revisions are needed. One resident, Barry Roth, has unsuccessfully pushed for a measure that would have required council committees to include written correspondence, pro and con, in their full recommendations to the council.
At a city council meeting earlier this month, Roth urged voters to defeat the proposed charter changes until this and other flaws can be fixed.
In debates last spring, four councilors agreed with Roth’s proposal, saying they believe the charter should establish a method for dissenting viewpoints to be part of the public record.
Those against the amendment acknowledged that improvements can be made in the way information is presented to the council, but said those changes should be addressed in the council rules and not in the charter.