Lowell Charter Changes through history

There were some interesting comments on my Tuesday post on City Councilor Patrick Murphy’s successful motion to have the Rules Subcommittee “discuss Charter Changes to increase civic participation.” It might be helpful to review how the city’s charter has changed through the years.

Lowell was organized as a town in 1826 but the official

    City Charter

was granted on April 11, 1836 (which makes next year the city’s 175th anniversary but that’s another story). Skipping the early years of alderman and mayors elected to one-year terms, the first modern governmental charter was enacted in 1921. It provided for an elected mayor and a council of 15 members with 9 elected by ward and 6 elected at large. The school committee consisted of 9 members elected at large.

The city adopted Plan E in 1944 which consisted of a city manager, 9 city councilors elected at large, and 6 school committee members elected at large – essentially the system we have today EXCEPT the council election used proportional representation, the voting method that requires voters to rate their candidates 1 through 9. A complex formula that tabulates all the #1 votes, then all the #2 votes, and so on, is used to decide the victors. (This is the system that the 2009 referendum sought to enact). A major change occurred in 1957 when the city discontinued proportional voting in favor of “plurality voting” which is the system we have now – one vote counts for one vote with no weighting involved.

In the late 1960s, a charter commission was elected. That group proposed a change to a “strong mayor” form of government but the voters rejected that in the 1971 election by a 2 to 1 margin. I remember that the election of charter commission members was a hotly contested race with many prominent citizens winning election and serving. (Beyond the election and the personalities, I’m fuzzy as to the when, what, where, how and why; so more research is called for on that topic). The defeat of the charter change by such an overwhelming margin seemed to suppress the reform impulse for a couple of decades.

The only subsequent attempts to alter the charter by way of the ballot box were the four non-binding questions in 1993 and the proportional representation referendum from 2009, both of which I discussed in my Tuesday post.

2 Responses to Lowell Charter Changes through history

  1. Jack Mitchell says:

    Below, I’ve provided snippets from the M.G.L. relating to a formal “Charter Commission” which is NOT the best way to proceed, imho. Why? Two words, time & money.

    Anyone can search this material. I’ve parsed out sections with the intent to inform with respect to brevity. If I have missed anything pertinent, please provide a correction. My aim is not to intentionally misinform.

    (bold mine)
    Section 6. A charter commission shall consist of nine registered voters of the city or town elected at large and by official ballot, without party or political designation, at an election held in accordance with this chapter. The names of the candidates nominated in accordance with section five shall be placed on such ballot in alphabetical order, preceded by an instruction to the effect that a voter may vote for not more than nine persons as charter commission members whether or not he favors the election of a charter commission. The question of electing a commission to adopt or revise the charter shall be placed on such ballot in the form prescribed by the constitution.

    If a majority of the votes cast upon the question of adopting or revising the charter is in the affirmative, the nine candidates receiving the highest number of votes shall be declared elected.

    Section 7. … Members shall serve without compensation but shall be reimbursed from the commission’s account for expenses lawfully incurred by them in the performance of their duties.

    Section 8. (a) …. In addition to funds made available by a city or town the charter commission account may receive funds from any other source, public or private, provided, however, that no contribution of more than five dollars shall be accepted from any source other than the city or town unless the name and address of the person or agency making the contribution, the amount of the contribution and the conditions or stipulations as to its receipt or use, if any, are disclosed in a writing filed with the city or town clerk. …

    (b) Each city or town shall provide its charter commission, free of charge, with suitable office space and with reasonable access to other facilities for holding public hearings, may contribute clerical and other assistance to such commission, and shall permit it to consult with and obtain advice and information from city or town officers and employees during ordinary working hours. Within twenty days after the election of a charter commission, the city or town treasurer shall credit to the account of the charter commission, with or without appropriation,

    .. the sum of ten thousand dollars in any other city or town. Such sum shall be provided by taxation

  2. Eleanor Rigby says:

    The narrow defeat of the 2009 question tells me that voters did not want to return to a weighted vote system, but may be supportive of exploring other alternatives to the way the City of Lowell’s elected offices are set up.

    I, for one, voted against the weighted vote system but fully support exploring changes to the charter that would generate more interest from candidates and voters alike.