The Charter Change Debate in Lowell

Whether its being propelled by citizens who want change or the media that wants controversy, a discussion of whether Lowell should switch to a strong mayor form of government broke out this week. I wrote a blog post, In Defense of Plan E last Saturday, then discussed it on City Life on Thursday, and was interviewed by Lyle Moran of the Sun on Friday for a story that’s to appear in Sunday’s newspaper. After these multiple discussions, I thought it advisable to restate my opinion here even though it might repeat some of the arguments in the aforementioned Plan E post.

I think Lowell’s Plan E system works pretty well. Practical political power doesn’t reside in one person as it would with a strong mayor, but is balanced between the council and the city manager. And if the council forced/demanded/required/allowed (pick one) their other two appointees, the Clerk and the Auditor to exercise their authority to the full extent already permitted by statute, then power would be even more balanced.

If the voters don’t like the direction of the city, they can change the council every two years. That’s exactly what happened in 1969 and 1993, the two years in which charter change referendums also appeared on the ballot. In 1969, five new councilors were elected and in 1993 it was six. In both years, the impetus to change the charter died quiet deaths both times. From the historical record, we might infer (as I do) that rising talk of the need to change the charter might telegraph a disruptive election on the horizon but that’s just pure speculation based on historic patterns.

Those who lead such petition drives presumably are dissatisfied with the direction of the city. If not, why seek such a change. I believe that history also shows that under such circumstances, charter change efforts are a distraction, diluting the finite amount of time and energy possessed by those who want change. If the effort expended on charter change was instead focused on candidates, the change sought would be more likely to occur.

Another argument made in support of a charter change is the level of voter participation in municipal elections. In 2011, 20% of the city’s 50,354 voters (9946) went to the polls. I always respond to that statistic with one of my own: the 61% turnout on November 4, 2008 (31,905 of the 51,988 registered voters made it to the polls). True, that was a Presidential election year, but it’s also true that 22,000 voters (the difference in turnout from 2008 to 2011) knew where to vote, were able to get there on a Tuesday, and made the effort. Why don’t those 22,000 vote in city elections? I assume it’s because they feel disconnected from city affairs and doubt very much that altering the way we elect our mayor or councilors will change that. A strategy that sought to connect those people in practical ways with their neighbors, their neighborhood and then their city would do more to increase voter participation than a stack of petitions.

Finally, there are those who argue that the current position of mayor is trivial, limited to cutting ribbons and emceeing square dedications. Those with that view not only misunderstand the office of mayor, they misunderstand political power. While the actual authority of the mayor as chair of the council, the chair of the school committee, and the person who appoints the subcommittees of both is substantial, it’s the intangibles that make the mayor of Lowell such an important figure in the city’s power structure. Lowell is filled with people and entities – governmental, non-profit, corporate or individual – who all perform important missions. But there is no one to coordinate those efforts, no one to be the city’s political air traffic controller. Simply by virtue of the office, Lowell’s mayor has a seat at many tables and can connect people who then pursue common goals. This doesn’t require spending money or issuing orders; it just requires someone with a strategic view making connections. Ironically, when the mayor performs this role well, it’s almost entirely in the background known by just a few. If you doubt this view, just ask any former mayor about it.

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