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Could Changes be Coming to Newton's City Government?

The Newton League of Women Voters is collecting signatures to create a ballot question asking voters whether a commission should study the city charter.

It has been nearly 40 years since Newton voters made changes to the city's charter, a document that outlines the city's government and how it operates.

Now, the Newton League of Women Voters (LWVN) is hoping to start the charter discussion again.

"It's been 40 years and a lot has changed out there in the world," says LWVN Co-President Sue Flicop. "I think it is good governace to look at the structure of [Newton's] government."

This election day (Nov. 6), the League will be hold a signature drive that will ask residents to support placing the question of a Newton Charter Commission on the 2013 ballot.

If the question gets on the ballot and is approved in 2013, the nine-person commission would then study the Newton charter and propose changes to the document and city government.

The League needs 8,400 signatures to get the question on the ballot, Flicop says, and the League is planning to have volunteers collecting signatures in every ward on Nov. 6. 

But before voters say "no" to signing at the polls on Nov. 6, there is one thing the League wants voters to keep in mind: signing the petition this election day is only to allow the question of whether to form a charter commission on the Nov. 2013 ballot -- it is not showing support of possible changes the commission may propose.

"[Residents] can vote not to have [a charter commission] if they want," says LWVN Board of Directors member Rhanna Kidwell. "It's like signing candidate nomination papers -- it doesn't mean you're supporting that person, it just means you're letting them on the ballot."

If the League gathers enough signatures and the question goes on the 2013 ballot, residents can then vote for or against forming the charter commission. At the same time, they can also elect nine charter commission members. 

Once voters approve of the commission and the nine members, the commission will conduct an independent study of the charter over the course of 18 months and make recommended changes. Those recommendations would then appear on another municipal ballot for voters to decide whether they should be implemented.

Flicop explains that the charter commission considers aspects of government including term lengths, term limits, number of representatives on a board or committee and whether the city should have a mayor or a city manager, among others.

Forty years ago, the charter commission recommended changes that were eventually passed, including changing the mayor's term from two years to four years and adjusting how vacancies were filled on the Board of Aldermen.

According to LWVN Co-President Ann Borg, the recent push to form a charter commission started almost three years ago when an independent group, which included several League members, tried to gather signatures for the charter commission ballot question and asked the League to join with the initiative. 

But before joining the signature drive, Borg says the League had to first get input from its membership and conduct its own study.

Over the course of nine months, a 30-person committee studied the city charter and decided to support the signature drive for the ballot question. In the process, the group also formed a number of "positions" on the city charter, or recommended changes. 

The League then voted to adopt those positions as part of its 2010-2011 program. If the charter commission question passes and the group is formed, the League will lobby in favor of its positions, Kidwell says. 

One of those positions, Kidwell explains, is reducing the Board of Aldermen from 24 aldermen to no fewer than 16. 

The League also has a position that recommends extending the terms for School Committee members and aldermen from two years to four years.

“The biggest issue that the [League] study uncovered, was that we have such voter fatigue and confusion,” Kidwell said. “A Newton voter has to vote in 25 contests every two years, and that can mean as many as 52 candidates.” 

With more than 50 candidates coming to the ballot every two years, Kidwell says it is “difficult” for voters to stay informed about city government.

“Most people don’t even know who the aldermen are from their ward,” Borg adds. “There are a lot of blank ballots every election where people just aren’t voting for anyone because they don’t know who to vote for.” 

The common theme to the initiative and the League, Borg says, is about getting more citizens and voters informed about local government.

"What the League is all about is getting citizens and voters involved with the community and how it works," Borg says. "To me, that is the bottom line."

Residents who are interested in helping out with the chater commission signature drive can sign up online. A password for the site is available if you email to charter@lwvnewton.org

Anyone with interest in local government is welcome to volunteer, and does not need to be a League member. 

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