A Revised Gardner City Charter

Mayor Hawke takes his ball & goes home

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No. XXI. Feb. 24, 2021

What Should a Revised City Charter Do?

When Mayor Hawke shut down the Charter Review process in 2017, a long and involved process that began in 2012, all of the City Council’s proposed amendments to 12 sections of the City Charter went down the drain.  

At the end of those 4-plus years, the City Council, which had had the benefit of the Charter Review Committee’s report, produced those substantial Charter amendments with the guidance of the Mayor’s Law Department.

But, the Mayor ended that long 4-year process by rejecting 100% of the City Council’s proposed Charter amendments.  In doing so, the Mayor wrote a long letter in which he laid the blame on the City Council – complete with justifications and evidence.

In that same “Dear John” letter to the City Council, the Mayor did not only pass out the blame, he also explained his feeling of victimhood at the hands of “some” Councillors on the City Council.

Apart from the echoing blame going on, the Mayor did not disagree with any of the City Council’s proposed revisions to the Charter. Yet, he rejected 100% of them.  

Now, remember, the 11 City Councillors are elected by the People – by the Citizenry.  The Citizenry elects their representatives to make decisions for them.  That is what the City Councillors are elected do – speak for the People.  

Notwithstanding these facts, the Mayor rejected 100% of the City Council’s revisions because the Mayor wanted his term of office to be increased to 4 years, and he wanted to gain full control of the City Council’s Department Heads (except for City Clerk).

If he was not going to get those things, he was taking his ball and going home – and that was the end of the ballgame.

But, let’s agree, for the sake of argument, that the Mayor was 100% genius/saint, and the City Council was 100% obstructionist/demon.

What can we do now that we have a new Mayor?

With the capability that Mayor Nicholson has demonstrated to communicate regularly and substantively with the City Council, the lack of communication that caused the break-down during the former process will likely not exist if we pick these issues back up.

So, let’s look at some of the deal-killer issues.  There is no reason why these should still be deal-killers.  We have a new Mayor, and a new City Council.  

Mayor Hawke wanted to gain new control of all Department Heads, except City Clerk.  I’m not saying I necessarily agree with it, but it does make sense.  The Mayor has every day, supervisory authority over all city personnel – and also the obligation to implement and administer his/her policies (which is why the Citizenry elected him/her in the first place).  

The City Council does not work closely with the Treasurer/Collector or the Auditor – certainly not the way the Mayor does on a day-to-day basis. This is not even a close call on this part of the issue.  The City Clerk – is just the opposite, and even more so the other way.

On the other hand, the City Council is legally responsible for the Citizenry’s money.  It is the City Council’s legal obligation to properly appropriate the Citizenry’s money for spending, or, sometimes more important, to properly refuse to appropriate the Citizenry’s money.  Therefore, it makes sense that the City Council have authority over the “money” positions – Tax Collector, Treasurer, and Auditor.  

It is bad enough that the recent executive policy is to do an end-around the City Council’s authority to appropriate funds.  I refer to the nebulous Section 33B “inter-departmental-behind-the-Council’s-back-transfer-appropriation-razzle-dazzle.”  But, if we put all “money” positions into the authority of the Mayor, and take it away from the City Council, a future Mayor with ambitious pecuniary designs could even further by-pass the checks-and-balances in place right now whereby the City Council funds (or doesn’t) appropriations in an open, public, City Council Meeting.

So, some believe that there should be a separation between the Mayor’s administration of city government (which requires lots of spending), and the City Council’s purse strings/checkbook – which is the City Council’s duty to guard.

Another issue is whether the Mayor’s term should be increased to 4 years – like Mayor Hawke and the Charter Review Committee thought it should be.  What about the City Councillors – should their terms stay at 2 years, or should they be increased to 4 years, too?

There are valid arguments on both sides of that issue.  For 100 years, we have had a two-year term for Mayor and City Council, and I know of no one who ever had an issue with it, except for Mark Hawke and the Collins Center (Mass. State Government).

Another issue (not brought up during the first go-around) is that many people, including former Mayor Hawke, have stated that the Citizenry would be better served if the City’s executive/administrative functions were “managed” by a “professional” – a City Manager.  

It’s a discussion to have now.

If we went that route, the Citizenry would lose its right to vote for the Executive because the Citizenry does not vote for the City Manager, like they vote for the Mayor.  The City Manager is appointed – by the City Council.  Also, the City Council would go from 11 Councillors down to 9 or 7 (no big deal there).  

The Mayor in that City Manager system (called “Plan E” under Mass. law) is pretty much a figurehead.   He/she would be chairman of the City Council and of the School Committee – but would otherwise have the same power as any other Councillor or School Committee member.

There are many other issues that can be tackled in a Charter Review.  Stay tuned.

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