Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Somerville city councilor Matthew McLaughlin at a Thursday meeting in a screen capture from city video.

Tempers flared and accusations flew in the final half-hour of a four-hour hearing Wednesday on changes to Somerville’s city charter, the subject of 16 months of Charter Review Committee deliberations and a baker’s dozen of meetings by a City Council special committee.

The cause was the late introduction of language to give the Somerville council more power over budgets, a popular idea most members have backed away from to ensure that other changes become reality.

“This process is very precarious,” council president Ben Ewen-Campen said during the hearing. “There is a extremely live possibility that this process just kind of withers on the vine” – and after many meetings with the office of Mayor Katjana Ballantyne he saw “no ambiguity” that the finance change would be unwelcome and risk years of reform work.

It puts “all the other work that we’ve done at risk,” councilor Lance Davis added.

Neighboring Cambridge is also undergoing a charter review process, but its council won’t see proposed changes to discuss until the end of the year.

The final vote on the Somerville proposal failed 3-7-1, with favorable votes from Democratic Socialists of America-backed councilors Willie Burnley Jr., who made the motion; committee chair J.T. Scott; and Charlotte Kelly. (Judy Pineda Neufeld was absent.)

Endorsed the idea

Somerville city councilor Willie Burnley Jr. in a screen capture from the Thursday meeting.

Burnley’s text, a finance motion raised about an hour after its section passed without debate, suggested that “council may amend the mayor’s proposed budget” to put money toward a line item within a department or create a line item “within an existing department or previously non-existent department as long as the amended budget does not exceed said operating budget.”

The idea is not without precedent, as noted by Nate Clauser, who is chair of the Somerville Ward 5 Democratic Committee and associated with the DSA and Our Revolution groups. During public comment Wednesday and in an essay published in The Somerville Times early in the month, he noted that the mayor and several councilors are on record as supporting “the goal of shifting power to the City Council,” including in the budget process.

“Through the process they’ve backed down substantially on things they said they were trying to get,” Clauser said Friday by phone, referring to the councilors.

Burnley underlined that past support in explaining his motion: “I put this forward in the spirit of collaboration, in the spirit of statements that many of my colleagues have made in the past and in in support of what many members of the public have asked us to do,” he said. “We should fight for the powers that our residents are asking us to have.”

Support had faded

The mayor’s statements cited by Clauser and some councilor comments are years old, though. During the Wednesday meeting’s sudden dispute, reasons for moving away from the shift in budget power were given by councilors and Brendan Salisbury, the city’s legislative and policy analyst.

Salisbury didn’t believe Somerville’s part-time council had the capacity for major financial policymaking within the annual budget cycle and warned the change “simply would not fly” in the State House, where legislators would have to approve it through a home rule petition. “There was no ambiguity on that,” Salisbury said, noting that when Boston city councilors proposed a similar change, it was through the Attorney General’s Office.

In the Somerville process, the council will send its version hashed out since November to the Mayor’s Office, which is expected to mark it up over the summer and return it in the fall before it is sent to the Legislature for approval, according to councilors Wednesday.

“The process requires agreement between the City Council and the Mayor’s Office, period,” Ewen-Campen said. That made it pointlessly provocative to include language the council knew would be rejected, councilors suggested.

Debating the motion

Even councilors who might be sympathetic were bothered by the eleventh-hour nature of the motion. Jake Wilson, ultimately a vote against, said he was “uneasy,” while Kelly, a vote in favor, said she was “really struggling procedurally about why we’re having this conversation and why we’re taking this up for a vote tonight.”

Some councilors went further. Beatriz Gomez Mouakad called the actions of Clauser and Burnley “creating a culture in our politics of antagonism,” while Jesse Clingan called it “pure manipulation” considering that “we’ve had this discussion.”

No one was as upset as Matthew McLaughlin, who was president of the council when the Charter Review Committee was appointed in October 2020 and said he offered Clauser a spot on it, then agreed to instead seat a member suggested by Clauser. He also appointed Scott as chair “in the hopes of having some buy-in from people [from whom] nothing positive can come of anything, unfortunately.”

“This is lazy virtue signaling” from people who “in my humble opinion, could care less about passing an actual charter and doing anything of substance,” McLaughlin said, drawing rebukes from Scott and Burnley.

“Saddening” vs. “sabotage”

Burnley called McLaughlin’s comments “really saddening,” a breaking of the rules to impugn colleagues, and defended his own insertion of the language as coming late because he’d “put trust in my colleagues [on the committee] to bring this forward in some manner.”

McLaughlin wasn’t buying it.

“This language, [as] has been repeatedly told to us, will sabotage the entire charter,” McLaughlin said of the finance clause. “The adults among us who want to see things move forward and see things progress realized the harsh reality: that we weren’t getting this. And we decided to not make the perfect be the enemy of the good, and to move forward and actually have a charter instead of shameless virtue signaling that will inevitably just destroy the entire charter and leave us in the current state, which is completely unacceptable.”