Presumably the seven councilors who voted No on the Northland zoning and special permit were hoping for the same outcome as the Right Size Newton folks who seek a referendum and a reversal of last week’s 17-7 vote in favor of both the zoning and the special permit. So, do they support the referendum? I asked them.
I sent the following to the official newtonma.gov email address for Councilors Greg Schwartz (AL6), Emily Norton (W2), Chris Markiewicz (W4), David Kalis (AL8), Lenny Gentile (AL4), Jay Ciccone, Jr., (AL1), and Lisle Baker (W7):
Would you mind providing a public statement on the proposal to hold a referendum to reverse the outcome of the Council’s Northland vote?Do you support the effort to block the project, which effort is consistent with your no vote? If so, will you be taking an active role gathering signatures or otherwise supporting the referendum effort? Alternatively, do you feel the Council vote should decide the outcome? Or, do you have a different position on the matter?
The fact that the Right-Sizers seek the same outcome the no-voters sought is just part of the analysis. There are institutional reasons why even a no-voter might not be in favor and might actually be opposed to a referendum. Having established a preference for an outcome other than the zoning change and the special permit, it is important for the no-voters to communicate whether or not they feel this referendum effort is the right context to achieve that outcome. Do they really feel that a referendum results in exactly the same outcome as they had hoped to achieve with their no votes?
Only two councilors responded.
From Councilor Baker:
I am not prepared to take a position at this time. As I understand it, if enough signatures are gathered, the rezoning matter will first come back to the Council, and I want to understand more about what that may involve.
From Councilor Kalis:
First, I do think that you should be asking all Councilors this question. This is about principle. Where do you stand on the idea of a referendum? Councilors should be consistent in how they think about this question and not be able to take one position when it is convenient and another when it isn’t.
Second, on the question of referendums, this provision is in our Charter so citizens have the right to exercise it. In general, I am in favor of referendums, as it gives the voters another chance to make their voices heard.
However, the issues of an off cycle election potentially resulting in low turnout and the idea that referendums could make general elections moot (elected representatives vote on issues, but are always subject to referendum) is bothersome. Elections have consequences and thus the bar to hold a referendum should be very high. Currently, referendums require signatures of 5% of the voting population to become a ballot question – that’s approximately 3000 signatures. I am fine with this number but I also believe there should be a turnout threshold. To this point, the Programs and Services subcommittee (Kalis, Krintzman, Albright, Baker) on the Charter Question met for over a year in 2018 and made recommendations that were accepted by the City Council, but not adopted by the Mayor. One of the changes we recommended was establishing a voter turnout threshold of 15% of the voting population by which referendums would need to achieve to be binding. I still believe this is a change worth considering.
Finally, with regard to your specific questions, as I mentioned, citizens have the right to pursue this referendum. I will not be actively collecting signatures nor will I sign it.
First, poor showing by the five councilors who did not answer. If anyone is aware of any of the five offering guidance in a different forum, public or private, please let me know.
Great that Councilor Baker responded, but seems like he could have provided a little more substance. Maybe he’ll comment here after he learns more about the process.
Councilor Kalis comes to the right conclusion: he’s not going to sign the referendum petition. But, it’s a very procedural answer. It seems that he’d be fine reversing the Council vote, if there were assurance that there were enough voters participating in the election to assure a decent representation. Which is internally consistent. He was fine with the alternatives to a negotiated agreement when he voted no. And, apparently, he would fine with the alternative to a negotiated agreement if it came by referendum, if the referendum thresholds were higher.
As Councilor Kalis requested, I’m going to ask the 17 yes-voters what their position on the referendum is. I’m not sure I agree with Councilor Kalis that a councilor has to take a position on referenda in general to say that a referendum on this one issue might not be a good idea. In any case, the three Ward 5 councilors have already made their views known.
But, let’s see what the rest of them have to say.