RE-Visiting Gardner’s City Charter

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No. XX. Feb. 23, 2021

It’s Time to Review the Gardner City Charter (Again)

In 2012, the Citizenry, Mayor Hawke, and the Gardner City Council wanted to take up the issue of amending the City Charter.  

This can only be done by following the “Home Rule Amendment” to the Massachusetts Constitution, which provides for two ways to revise the Charter.  Neither way is an easy endeavor – this is serious business.

One way is by “home rule charter.”  The other is by “home rule petition” (or “special act charter”) – which is the way chose in 2012.

2012 – The City Council voted for the creation of a Special Act Charter Drafting Committee (aka the Charter Review Committee) – which came to life in 2012.

2017 – The Mayor killed the City Council proposal.  By law, our course required both City Council and Mayoral approval before it could move through the State House, and, ultimately, to a vote by the Citizenry.

That was a long period of ongoing discussions, debates, meetings, and considerations.

In the end, the real sticking points included that 1) the Mayor wanted his term of office to be increased from two years to four years, and 2) the Mayor wanted to have the power of appointment over every City Hall position except for City Clerk.  

But, the task of amending the Charter got off on the wrong foot from the very start.

Our big mistake was to hire the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management (i.e., State Government) to assist us.

Right off the bat, there was either an independent effort on the part of the Collins Center to do what the Collins Center wanted to do, or its lack of understanding about what the City Council had asked for.

Through it all, there was this invisible disconnect – which kept everyone from staying on the same page.

Some blame the City Council, some blame the Mayor, some blame the Collins Center (the State Government). But, it doesn’t matter.  Everyone shared in the blame (if it is blame you’re looking for).

One thing everyone agrees on – we had an extremely capable Special Act Charter Drafting Committee, comprised of community leaders who volunteered their time and energies to this challenging endeavor.  The Committee members were Andrew Boucher (Chair), Leonette Roy (Vice-Chair), David Curran, Patricia Jandris, Albert LaFreniere, Charles LeBlanc, Cleo Monette, Edward Yablonski and Arthur Young.  A stellar cast, indeed. That was not our problem.

The Collins Center seemed to many of us to have taken it upon itself to overlook what the City Council had requested it do in the first place, inserted their values for ours – and misdirected everyone’s efforts to reach a mutually-satisfactory result for the Citizenry.

Whatever was the case, what the Committee presented to the City Council was an unrecognizable simulacrum of the 1923 City Charter.  In the words of then ultra-experienced Council President Atty. James Walsh, “[w]hat was received was a scrapping of the existing Charter and (the production of) an entirely new one.”

In Modernspeak, it was a complete “re-imagination” of the City Charter.  Not good.

So, the Mayor’s desires (which, just coincidentally correlated with the views of the Collins Center, and of the Committee) did not carry the day with the City Council.

Yet, the City Council, undaunted, plowed forward.  It requested the Law Department to undertake “an analysis of the current City Charter and (produce) a report that details any provisions that are obsolete, contrary to state or federal law, or otherwise unenforceable.”

However, similar to what the Collins Center did, the City Solicitor provided the City Council with something the City Council never asked for.  

Instead of objective (neutral) legal conclusions about those portions of the existing (1923) City Charter that were legally problematic, the City Council had to cut through the City Solicitor’s own personal philosophical policy opinions – which just coincidentally supported the Mayor’s views of how our government should be set up anew, from a policy perspective.  

The City Council asked for neutral legal conclusions – but got partisan ideological sophistry.  The writing was on the wall at that point.

Still, the City Council plowed on.  It cut through the City Solicitor’s policy lessons and found enough with which to formulate a Charter revision – and sent it to the Mayor for his signature.

The Mayor refused to sign it (which was his right), and that was the end of it.

It seemed like everyone was defeated.  It was as if we had fought through several tiebreakers of an exhausting rugby match – only to see the game end in a useless tie.  Everyone goes home no better for the battle, and we miss the playoffs by a half a game.

At all times, there was widespread community support for a Charter revision.  Nothing has changed since then – other than the government’s failure to get it done.

This should be revisited now. It’s wasn’t dead on the vine – it’s still on the vine.

We are way ahead of where we were when we started from scratch.  All that work, including the countless hours put in by the Special Act Charter Drafting Committee, can be utilized now as a springboard.  Plus, we will have learned from the mistakes made then.  

We have a different Mayor, and a different City Council now.  

Mayor Hawke had very valid, meritorious and rational points for wanting what he wanted, and there are sound positions on both sides of these issues.

A great deal was accomplished in that long process, but we didn’t cross the goal line.  

Every provision of the Charter was reviewed and scrutinized in great detail by a multitude of people.  Many very productive comments, suggestions, proposals, ideas, theories, opinions, and discussions came out of it.

Too much was produced by all that effort to leave it all on the field.  It’s time to revisit whether the City Charter should be amended.  The Citizenry deserves that much.

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by Scotts on the Rocks Politica Podcast

Scotts on the Rocks Politica is a political-centric broadcast that aims to lead through example.

Scott M. Graves is your host joined by a wide variety of guests from throughout the political spectrum and from a wide variety of disciplines.

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