Motion to discuss changes to City Charter

City Councilor Patrick Murphy has a motion on tonight’s City Council agenda to “discuss larger Charter Changes to increase civic participation (including combined districts, at large system, term limits) at Rules Subcommittee.” Because the motion simply asks that these items be discussed at a future subcommittee meeting, I assume tonight’s discussion on the matter will be brief and procedural. In the interest of providing some historical context, here is a brief review of past attempts to alter the city’s method of electing its representatives.

In the 2009 city election, there was a question that asked voters to endorse a weighted vote system called “choice voting.” By this method, voters would still select up to nine councilors, but they would rank them one through nine. One of the motives behind the initiative was to increase the chances that a candidate with a small core of highly committed voters would be elected as opposed to another candidate who had broad-based but only moderately committed supporters. That referendum was defeated 57% to 43%.

In 1993, there were four non-binding questions on the ballot:

• Question 1 – Do you support keeping the present Plan E form of government? Yes-8,234. No-8,779.
• Question 2 – Do you support a change in the city charter to provide for an elected mayor as chief executive instead of an appointed city manager? Yes-10,0441. No-6,760.
• Question 3 – Do you support a charter change that would provide for district councilors instead of elections at large? Yes-6,841. No-9,213.
• Question 4 – Do you support a limit on terms of all elected officials in the city of Lowell to a maximum of 4 two-year terms in office? Yes-11,946. No-5,093.

Nothing ever came of any of these questions, probably because that year also saw the election of six new city councilors, a transition that completely changed the city’s direction. Presumably, the almost entirely new council and the new direction satisfied the voters’ desire for change.

Finally, in 1971, a previously elected charter commission after several years of work proposed a change from the city manager form of government to one with an elected strong mayor. That recommendation was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin.

16 Responses to Motion to discuss changes to City Charter

  1. Jack Mitchell says:

    These are very important question and it would be good to get some modern day answers. Tonight, the Council can give the Rules S/C a “charter” to further explore these questions. I hope the Council does.

    It would be best for the public to weigh in. The S/C can take the time to hear the public out, then move forward.

  2. Paul@01852 says:

    It is also important that the S/C meeting be WELL publicized! So often these meetings are held with no announcement except on some obscure location on the city web page or on a bulletin board in the lobby of city hall. This is an extremely important issue to me in that I have invested a lot of my own time even to the point of taking a day off from work to testify at the State House. If this gets swept under the rug like so many other motions referred to S/C’s I will be campaigning for some new CC’s in 2011!!

  3. Mr. Lynne says:

    It’s high time that we put together an electoral system for our city that doesn’t pretend that we don’t have neighborhoods. When all our councilors come from a less-than-diverse geography, it can’t be good for those neighborhoods that continually go unrepresented.

  4. Dean says:

    For years the people of Lowell watched Lawrence . They saw and studied neiighborhood representation and the little fiefdom the elected persons build, some for 30 years in Lawrence. The district reps. did not care for the rest of the city of Lawrence ,as long as their fiefdom elected them year after year. They had a strong mayor who was in power for close to two decades.I am for a strong mayor as along as there is term limits. Also,I am for a new carter commision.

  5. Jack Mitchell says:

    I have ideas. I’m looking forward to sharing them in a public meeting of the Rules S/C.

    I will say, I’ve looked over the ways to change the City Charter. A “Charter Commission” is a long, drawn out process. I’d like to avoid that. I’m thinking the Rules S/C can handle most of it. If they are inclined, a blue ribbon panel could be sent out to meet with activists/neighborhood groups, gathering ideas and public sentiment.

    If we move with resolve, we can have something on the November ballot. If approved by a simple majority, the changes could take effect, or begin to take effect, in 2013.

    One thing we should collectively avoid, imho, is talking off the top of our heads on this. It will be critical that Lowell voters make a properly informed decision. It wouldn’t be hard to see this spun in to a swirl of confusion.

    That was the counter strategy in 2009.

  6. Dave says:

    Jack, unfortunately there are only two ways to change the City Charter. One is through the Charter Commission process. The other is through a home rule petition.

  7. Jack Mitchell says:

    My understanding is that there are 4 ways to change the City Charter. Charter Commision and Home Rule Petition/Special Act are the most likely, applicable options. However, two more options do exist: Permissive Legislation and Charter Amendment.

    The City is not inventing the wheel here. There is M.G.L. c.43 & 43B to provide guidance. As the City covered the concept in 2009, surely the City is well advised on the tools available to execute a Charter change.

  8. Barry Rafkind says:

    This description of Choice Voting is the opposite of how it actually works:

    to increase the chances that a candidate with a small core of highly committed voters would be elected as opposed to another candidate who had broad-based but only moderately committed supporters.

  9. Righty Bulger says:

    Here we go with the choice voting nonsense again. Here’a novel concept. How about the people who feel they aren’t getting their proper voice in government actually get up off their arses and participate. Stop blaming everyone but yourself and your particular constituency for not having the motivation to be involved in the process. If you really want someone from your neighborhood on the council, take out nomination papers, do the necessary legwork to get the signatures, dedicate an inordiante amount of time to campaigning, educating yourself about the issues, meeting voters. If you don’t care to make that commitment, you could still choose to register and actually show up on election day. If you can’t be bothered to do either, you don’t deserve a voice in City Government, or any government for that matter.

  10. Jack Mitchell says:

    The matter before the Rules S/C is not tailormade to imposing Choice Voting. It is a process that could include the discussion of “a strong Mayor,” or a combined system where not all the councilors are at-large. It is a chance for more than one option to be heard. In 2009, one option did all the “leg work,” as you prefer. In 2009, only one choice was offered to the voters. Moving forward, the Council has allowed the Rules S/C to hear from everyone.

    So cool your jets, kid. If you go off half cocked, you discredit yourself.

  11. Renee Aste says:

    With choice voting not only could I choose up to nine, I had to pick a #1 BFF (Best Friend Forever) and then runner ups in an order. While anonymous, maybe it brought back memories middle school, but choice voting created a situation where I had to really think it out with differing scenarios. The tallying of votes wasn’t the problem, it’s how many people would take the time to even list 1-5 their favorites?

    The only reason why I wouldn’t want to change how we vote? I don’t like change. I admit it I don’t, but it’s not a valid argument.

    At-Large/districts is a better mode to get people out, fewer candidates on the ballot will actually make people happy.

  12. Righty Bulger says:

    No matter how its spun, it most certainly is not a better way to get people out to vote. It’s a better way to get a certain kind ot candidate elected. One without broad appeal, but one that would tailor to a certain constituency.

    As I wrote, if you can’t bet botherd to get off your arse and vote, especially if you’re one of the “disadvantaged,” you deserve the representation you get. If they can find a way to vote in the Middle East amidst bomb threats, they can find a way to vote in the Acre.

  13. Renee Aste says:

    Righty we’re you referring to my comment on choice/voting or at-large/district?

    Actually at-large/district voting may better, because you only have to make three or four choices without ordering them, not nine with order. The candidates elected from that district will can focus and advocate on behalf of those residents, giving their perspective. The at-large candidates elected can bring a consensus at the table. Also district councilors and move up.

    I’m thinking along the lines of ‘Paradox of Choice’ by Barry Schwartz, while the thesis is based on consumerism, the same idea can apply.

  14. Jack Mitchell says:

    And by “broad appeal,” do you mean deep pockets?

    The current systems requires a huge expenditure, not State/Federal expenditure huge, but enough to thwart many grassroots candidates at the starting gate.

    America will be well served by allowing candidates for high office to cut their teeth in “low” office. Though, in relative terms. a CC seat is not a “low” office, it is compared to Governor, Senator or POTUS.

    That said, I’d like each political party to have at their finger tips, folks that have come up through the ranks. I’m more likely to vote for a moderate Republican running for Gov or MA-05, if I have watched him/her in action in the City Council.

    I’d like those people to be my neighbor(s).

    Stop focusing on the “equal opportunity” bend to this. That is part of it, I guess. What I would like to do is bring the “brass ring” closer to folks that live the way I do. Not just when they visit.

  15. JoeS says:

    Those who argue against district voting usually claim that the district electee advocates for a small minority, whereas the at-large electee advocates for the city as a whole. That may well be true.

    But, you have to remember that votes taken result in consensus of all, both the district electees and the at-large electees. The result should be what is for the overall good, while still giving a voice to those minorities in districts.

    Now, how would you define the districts?

  16. Jack Mitchell says:

    I’m thinking the Districts would mirror the existing neighborhoods of Lowell. There is an exisiting sense of identity based on geography. What’s advantageous is that we are in the tail end of a full Census. If we were to set some structure down on paper, we could jigger the lines between 2011 and 2013. Using the recent Census to help balance population. It’s gonna have to be done anyways, no?

    What doesn’t make sense is gerrymandering Centralville to The Acre or something odd like that. We have distinct geography. That helps.

    Now if I can only convince my “Christian Hill” friends that they are part of Centralville. ;v)

    Another slam against Districts is the concern over creating “ward bosses.” It’s not unwarranted. But, term limits could squelch that.

    This really needs to be talked out. I’m looking forward to getting started on Dec. 7th.