Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Cambridge voting in 2011. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge residents are likely still years away from voting on a revised charter, according to a Law Department memo heard at the Monday meeting of the City Council.

That confirmed the fears of councillor Quinton Zondervan, who asked in April for a legal opinion about “the earliest possible date” for a vote.

“I think the voters were expecting something on the ballot this fall, which is certainly not going to happen,” councillor Quinton Zondervan said. “I don’t see a whole lot of wiggle room for anything to happen before the municipal election in 2025.”

Anna Corning, the charter review project manager, confirmed Zondervan’s suspicions.

“If everything went extremely speedily, theoretically there could be a ballot question for the voters on the state election day in 2024. It’s likely it will not be,” she said.

Cambridge adopted its “Plan E” charter, with its weak mayor, city council and city manager in 1940 – and there have been no major reviews or revisions since. Voters approved a review in 2021, and a 15-member Charter Review Committee was appointed; though it’s meeting every other week, the group decided in April to ask for a six-month extension, moving final report to perhaps November from this summer.

Zondervan opposed the extension at an April 3 vote because he felt the voters who approved the process deserved action.

The Charter Review Committee must submit its report to the City Council by the end of the year. The council will review the recommendations and likely solicit public comments, Corning said.

Process ahead

Once the council approves a draft of the charter, the state government must approve what’s submitted before Cambridge residents are permitted to vote. This approval process can follow one of two paths. The first involves the Office of the Attorney General. According to councillor Patty Nolan, the council used this route a few years ago for a smaller amendment to the charter.

This time, however, the council is unlikely to follow that path. A few months ago, the Charter Review Committee voted tentatively to rewrite the entire charter into modern language, removing gender references and updating antiquated phrasing. The attorney general is unlikely to approve such substantial changes, Corning said.

The second path involves the Massachusetts General Court, which would vote on approving the charter. Cambridge will almost certainly follow this path if the Charter Review Committee moves forward with a full rewrite. It is unclear how long this process will take.

Even if the council and General Court could approve the charter relatively quickly, the council is unsure if the state would allow the city to host a vote the same day as the 2024 state elections. According to Nolan, the council received a memo saying that the Secretary of State had never allowed a municipal charter change on a state ballot.

Election options

At the end of the meeting, Nolan issued a late policy order to clarify some of the council’s questions about this memo.

“The questions that came up were whether the secretary of state has approved charter revision ballot questions by municipalities voted on the same day as state elections as long as separate ballots are issued,” Nolan said. “The memo suggested that the secretary of state has never allowed a municipal charter change on the state ballot. But that’s different than having it on the state election day.”

In the policy order, Nolan also asked if any Massachusetts municipality had ever used a special election for a charter change. If the state prohibited Cambridge from hosting a vote on the state election day, then a special election could prevent Cambridge from waiting until its 2025 municipal elections.

The council approved the late policy order and now awaits answers from the Law Department to its questions.