Charter Reform Needed in Mass

By Matt McLaughlin,
City Councilor, Ward 1

John Adams doesn’t trust you.

The second President of the United States and author of the Massachusetts Constitution, which in turn influenced the United States Constitution, was very skeptical of the public. While his support for a strong executive branch, and even a constitutional monarchy, was tempered on the national level, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts embraced Adam’s strong-man form of government.

This top heavy, archaic government is reflected in our cities and towns that are dominated by all powerful executive branches, be them mayors or city managers, who face little to no checks and balances from city councils and school committees. Many residents chide local governments for being ineffective “rubber stamps” but in reality our city charters limit our powers to near irrelevance compared to the omnipotence of the executive.

It does not have to be this way. The Somerville City Council, the Mayor’s office and the School Committee will begin a review of the city charter. As with many of our past accomplishments, I hope that Somerville will lead the way and encourage other cities to review their outdated charters. There are several changes I believe will create a stronger government with more accountability.

The right to an attorney

Imagine going to court and your attorney is not only representing your opponent, but your opponent is paying for both sides. This absurd premise is a reality for every city government in Massachusetts. The city solicitor’s office represents both the legislative and executive branch in theory, but in practice they work at the pleasure of the executive branch. This conflict of interest impacts the City Council regularly. We can’t pass laws, obtain basic information from the city or even reach agreement on the meaning of the word “shall” without going through the solicitor’s office. Any future charter should allocate an independent solicitor who works directly for the City Council, much like the School Committee has for union negotiations. None of the other charter changes will matter if the legislative branch does not have their own lawyer to interpret the law.

More control over the budget

On the federal and state level the executive branch proposes a budget and the legislative branch proposes changes and approves. On the municipal level, however, the City Council can review the budget but can only propose cuts. We cannot increase the budget or reallocate funds. Our only option to address budget concerns is to go nuclear and reject the entire budget or make draconian cuts, which will have a detrimental impact on the community. Even in the rare instance we do propose significant cuts the mayor can simply pull funds from any number of “revolving funds” the City Council has little to no oversight over. Other funds separate from the overall budget like PILOT agreements with non-profits and contracts with utility companies also have little oversight from the City Council. We’re talking about millions of dollars that the City Council has virtually no power to oversee. It is truly maddening and frightening how many times I’ve witnessed the city magically “find” lost funds “on a ledger” or discover that a budget cut was completely ignored and funded by a separate, unaccountable fund.

Any charter reform must address the inequality of the budget process. No dollar should be unaccountable. If the Council votes to make cuts that vote should be respected. If we decide by majority vote that funds should be spent differently that should also be respected. We need to go beyond pretending that our budget is fair and transparent and actually give the City Council the ability to do their job

The appointment process should matter

The City Council has approval authority over many mayoral appointments. Our own solicitor, however, concluded that while the City Council may reject an appointment, the mayor has the ability through the city charter to retain said appointment indefinitely or unilaterally change what positions require an appointment at all.

The City Council should have the ability to approve or reject appointments, otherwise the appointments committee is meaningless. There should be a window of time the mayor’s office has to submit another appointment, 60 or 90 days for example, if an appointment is rejected. If they fail to meet that timeline the position should be vacated until an approved appointment is made.

School Committees control the schools

The recent dispute over when to open schools revealed yet another authoritarian bent to our charter. The mayor’s office, with the supporting opinion of the city solicitor, determined that the executive branch controls all city buildings and therefore schools cannot reopen until the mayor says so. This decision makes the already weak powers of the School Committee utterly meaningless. The most essential function of a governing school body is completely stripped from the School Committee .

The entire purpose of the School Committee is to strike a balance between public accountability while prioritizing education over politics. The School Committee hires a superintendent to manage the schools. The super attendant, with consent from the School Committee, should be empowered to use their expertise to make the best decisions for our students.

Ten year review

Thomas Jefferson, the third president and philosophical antagonist to John Adams, famously said there should be a revolution every 20 years to preserve liberty. Fortunately we don’t need a revolution because many cities in Mass. have a ten year review built into their charter. We should review our government’s laws regularly and determine how relevant they are to the present day.

These are just a few examples of charter changes that will encourage democracy and enhance transparency. I am proud of the City Council for using our very limited powers to reform zoning, make the appointment process something more than a rubber stamp and influence funding for affordable housing and other basic needs. We changed the way the government works in Somerville with no actual authority to do so. I want to make the City Council and School Committee relevant bodies of government, representative of the people and empowered to do so by our city charter. As John Adams once said “public business … must be done by somebody.” If the job must be done by somebody we should give them the ability to do it.

4 thoughts on “Charter Reform Needed in Mass”

  1. I’ll believe it when I see Sargent Red work with people he doesn’t like towards something he may not approve of.

  2. One really big thing that needs change in the charter is to give power to the council over the traffic department. And I mean by this the power to step in when needed as a governing body to make changes when needed. Not to mean they have to run it. Having a council with no power to run things is wrong. Running the traffic department with just the mayor and traffic head having all the power is very wrong.

    1. Hi Arthur,

      I would take this a step further and dissolve the Traffic Commission completely. This idea was first discussed in 2009 when parking meter feeding cost and times were increased with lackluster public notification. In comparison to the charrette that was held in the Traffic and Parking office on the parking changes to Bow Street, the notification was laughable at best.

      The City Council currently handles licenses that don’t have to go through the Licensing Commission. These approvals are completed fairly efficiently with some applications going into committee that need further discussion. This method can work for Traffic and Parking with the inclusion of the City’s Manager of Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, The Director of Traffic and Parking and the Police Department for more complicated applications.

      1. You probably know better than me. I just see the power for this with too few people. And no oversight. I see a need to get this house in order.

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