William Dwight presides over first Northampton City Council meeting under new charter
NORTHAMPTON — For the first time since the city incorporated in 1884, the mayor is officially no longer at the head of the City Council table.
That’s one of many changes taking place — though likely the most noticeable — as the city transitions to a new charter overwhelmingly approved by voters Nov. 6.
In other business, the council, on first reading, set a single tax rate for commercial and residential property for the current fiscal year. The change means an average single-family home in the city will see their tax bills go up about $234 next year.
The charter transition and its emphasis on separating the legislative and executive bodies began in earnest at Thursday’s council meeting, at which Mayor David J. Narkewicz relinquished the gavel to City Council President William H. Dwight. The mayor took a seat in the audience, just like other city department heads do when they visit the council, where he was joined by Finance Director Susan Wright.
Several councilors expressed reservations with not having the mayor and finance director sitting at the table, a longtime council practice.
“There are many items that come across our desks that do require information,” said Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen T. Carney.
City Solicitor Alan Seewald reminded councilors several times that the new charter specifically removes the mayor from the legislative process, including as chair of council meetings and as a member of council committees such as the Finance Committee and the Economic Development, Housing and Land Use Committee.
Seewald briefly outlined how the council should proceed with implementation of the new charter, which took effect immediately after its passing last week. He outlined five recommendations, including election of a council vice president; removing the mayor from membership of council committees; bringing council rules into compliance with the new charter; and establishing an elected official compensation advisory board.
The council also will create a five-member committee to review and revise city ordinances to make sure they comply with the charter. Councilors have yet to decide who will be on that committee, but they are asking residents who wish to volunteer to contact Ward 2 City Councilor Paul D. Spector at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-5226.
The council debated whether to act on some of those recommendations at Thursday’s meeting, but in the end deferred further discussion and decisions to its next meeting Dec. 6.
Narkewicz said removing the mayor from the legislative branch is a wise separation of powers that the special charter drafting committee envisioned.
“It feels like it’s the right way we should be doing this,” he said.
Dwight noted that most cities in the state have figured out some of the things Northampton is now grappling with, including in Easthampton and Greenfield.
“We have reason to feel comfort and don’t need to despair too much,” he said.
It didn’t take long before Dwight had to make his first tough ruling when former City Councilor Mike Kirby went past the three-minute time limit during public comment time. Kirby ended up speaking for about five minutes before he sat down.
Later in the meeting, Dwight added a bit of levity after the council opted to waive the reading of a lengthy financial order by quipping, “Come on, I could do it in iambic pentameter.”
For the most part, councilors gave Dwight high marks for the way he led the meeting.
Single tax rate holds
Councilors stood firm on a long-held position that taxing all property owners at the same rate helps the city retain and attract new businesses.
While not yet official, the assessor’s office has calculated that the tax rate this fiscal year must increase from the current $13.35 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $14.23 per thousand.
The new rate reflects a $10 million override to build a new police station, which equates to a 26-cent increase. If the rate is adopted, owners of an average single-family home valued at $297,323 would see their tax bill go from $3,969 to $4,203, an increase of $234.
A second vote is scheduled for the council’s next meeting on Dec. 6, with property owners noticing the change when third-quarter bills go out early next year.