TownMeetingThe Charter Commission was elected last November.  Their job is to review the city’s charter (governing law) and come up with recommendations on how it may be improved.

For the past four months they have been meeting, gathering public input, and coming to various detailed recommendations for possible tweaks and minor improvements.  Starting with this past week’s meeting they’ve begun tackling the biggest job of the charter review process – determining the overall form of government.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that they are now in the midst of evaluating the possibility of switching to an Open Town Meeting or a Representative Town Meeting form of government.  Said commission member Jane Franz “when I first heard the idea floated, frankly I thought they were making a joke”.  As the commission began digging in, it slowly became apparent that it was a possibility worth exploring.

Says Commissioner Chris Steele “Open Town Meeting is probably a long shot but it hasn’t been ruled out yet.  In Open Town Meeting all the registered voters become the legislative body.  When Town Meetings are held all voters can attend and all have an equal vote.  For a city the size of Newton that might be a bit too unwieldly.   With Representative Town Meeting the voters elect the Town Meeting members and they vote at the meetings.  By Massachusetts statute there must be between 45 – 240 Town Meeting members and they must be elected in roughly equal proportion to the population, by precinct.

The overwhelming number of towns in Massachusetts including most of our neighbors and some towns roughly the same size as Newton (Framingham, Plymouth) all have some form of Town Meeting government.

For many the idea of such a radical change to the charter might be a bit worrying.  As one Village 14’er warned a year ago “once you open up the charter, anything can happen”.  Perhaps the most ironic part of all this is that many voted for the charter commission in hopes of reducing the size of the City Council.  In its place we could end up with 240 new elected Town Meeting members instead.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to all though is the issue of “identity”.  Despite the fact that we are a suburban town, Newton has always been overly proud of its official designation as a “city”.  As soon as we adopt Town Meeting form of government the state will immediately re-designate us as a “town”.  Given how much hard it was for many to give up the name “alderman” for “city councilor”, I’m guessing “Town of Newton” may just be a bridge too far.

For me personally, I’d love to see an Open Town Meeting form of government.  The thought of a packed house at Town Hall having a direct vote on swimming in Crystal Lake, or banning leaf blowers sends a hyper-democratic chill up my spine.