Charter: After 80 years, a change is needed
A charter is the most important legal document in a city, defining the power structure and organization of municipal government. A city’s charter, much like the Constitution, is meant to be a living document, amended as necessary as the times change and society advances. As spelled out in the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: “Every city and town shall have the power to adopt or revise its charter or to amend its existing charter in accordance with procedures prescribed by [Chapter 43B].” Most cities and towns across Massachusetts update and amend their charter regularly, and many charters require a review every five or 10 years.
Cambridge, however, has not reviewed its charter formally since the Plan E form of government was adopted in 1940, the same year FDR was elected to a third term. Instead, this “living document” has remained static while the city around it has evolved and changed dramatically. Attempts to review the charter have been pursued in the past, but it was only last year, after we made it a priority, that a serious and successful effort was made to explore changes. With help from the Collins Center, an affiliate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, dedicated to improving the effectiveness of local governments, we worked on a public process to review the charter with the support of our colleagues. The City Council held several meetings, passed multiple policy orders and released two memos. The memos detailed the process, summarized Cambridge’s options and provided us with a list of recommendations in June of this year. Our work culminated in a 8-1 vote when the council endorsed placing the questions before voters, and the attorney general approved the ballot questions.
Our city, and the world, has transformed since 1940. Our charter needs an update. This year on your municipal ballot, three questions on the ballot will appear in the following yes-or-no format:
- Should amendments to the City’s Plan E Charter, Section 105 of Chapter 43, be made, by special act providing for the City Council to confirm appointments of the City Manager to the City’s boards and commissions which confirmation is not currently required?
- Should amendments to the City’s Plan E Charter be made by special act providing for the City Council to establish a process for an annual review of the City Manager’s performance?
- Should amendments to the City’s Plan E Charter be made by special act providing for the City Council to establish a process for review every 10 years to be made of the City’s Plan E Charter by an appointed committee of voters per City Council Ordinance?
We urge you to vote “yes” on all three questions. The first amendment, which would update the charter to give the City Council veto power of appointments to boards and commissions, acts as a simple yet important form of checks and balances. Boards and commissions have significant power in city government, and giving the council veto power would help to ensure proper representation on these bodies. In many Massachusetts municipalities, including Somerville, Watertown, Newton, Chelsea, Framingham, Amherst and Northampton, the city or town council has a role in appointing and/or approving department heads and/or multiple-member boards. This change is good governance and ensures a more democratic process for all appointments.
The second amendment would codify an annual review of the city manager with an opportunity for public input. The City Council has the right and the responsibility to review the city manager, but we have not done so in years. An annual performance review is good governance, and having a mandate would help voters hold us accountable and ensure the manager receives feedback – essential in high-performing organizations.
The third amendment would codify a charter review process every 10 years, starting in 2022. No specific changes are being proposed – this would simply establish a charter review commission representative of the city. A “yes” vote gives residents each decade a way to ensure the charter is meeting Cambridge’s needs. With a regular review we would join other forward-thinking cities.
The election commission will be mailing a simple explanation of the changes, and there will be public events before Election Day to answer questions about these amendments. Do not hesitate to reach out in the meantime. We are proud to have worked to get these questions on the ballot and look forward to residents getting a chance to weigh in on our city’s most important document. We hope these amendments pass and our charter is updated. Please help by talking to your friends and neighbors and voting “yes” on Nov. 2.
City councillor Patty Nolan and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui