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David P. Stevens: A new charter for Northampton

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 government functions. The new charter will increase the autonomy of the separate branches of government and facilitate broader public participation. To that end, 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.

These changes were backed by the council following a thorough and transparent process led by a council-appointed citizens’ committee. The committee made its recommendations after three months of public deliberations by its members, two televised public forums, one roundtable discussion with former and current elected officials and several written suggestions from the public.

As members of that committee, we are able to explain the specific reasoning behind these proposals.

Why transfer 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, it 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.

Why extend 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. Several other Massachusetts cities have already made this change in response to the increasing complexity of local governance.

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 who have supported or opposed the mayor’s initiatives.

Why establish special election procedures for electing a mayor for 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.

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.

Why change School Committee elections so all terms run concurrently and last for two years? 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 anachronistic structure makes it difficult for voters to keep track of members’ terms, and may depress competition for seats. The new charter simplifies School Committee elections by setting the terms for all ward and at-large positions at two years.

Why increase the transparency of compensation packages for elected officials, mandating a line-item in the proposed budgets from the mayor separately identifying compensation and benefits? There are conflicts of interest that can never be completely negated, but can be mitigated. City councilors set their own salaries. Mayors who determine eligibility for benefits create the possibility for patronage abuse. We can’t eliminate these conflicts, but with the public able to clearly see compensation levels in proposed budgets we can avoid improprieties. To further increase public input, 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.

For more information, including links to a more detailed executive summary and the full language of the proposed charter, we urge you to visit http://charteryes.blogspot.com.

David P. Stevens was the chair of the former Special Act Charter Drafting Committee. This article was co-written by the other members of the committee: Madeline Weaver Blanchette, Richard K. Greene, Thomas Miranda, Gail L. Perlman, Bill Scher, Todd Thompson, Marc Warner and Megan Murphy Wolf.

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