Framingham Online News

City or Town? Framingham Charter Rumblings Heard Once Again

Filed under: Politics by Randy Harris at 1:26 am on May 23, 2011

FRAMINGHAM, MA - In the municipality that claims to be "The Largest Town in America", rumblings, in the form of off-the-cuff remarks, hushed whispers and a few outright cries for reform are once again being heard in Framingham.

For those who weren't around in the late 1990's -- or weren't paying attention, the last Charter Commission was established, heard from, and its findings quietly tucked away along with the rest of the efforts to reform Framingham's government from its historical Town Meeting form into a City, with a Mayor and City Council.

The commission's Majority Report from 1996-1997 began with the following statement-

"The majority of the Charter Commission believes that Framingham's present government, dating back approximately 300 years, is ineffective and inadequate. Because of the size and diversity of our population, Framingham is already like a city. Our local governing institutions should reflect what we are, not what we were a long time ago."

The "City or Town?" question, supported by the Charter Commission's Majority Report was put before voters on the April 8, 1997 Framingham Town Election ballot accompanied by the following summary of what changes to Framingham's charter would take effect if voters accepted the initiative:

SUMMARY:

  • Full-time Mayor (4 year term) elected by the voters. Replaces the 5 member Board of Selectmen and the appointed town manager.
  • City Council (2 year terms) with 11 members, 3 elected at-large and 8 from districts. Council replaces the 204 member Town Meeting. Council has strong budget authority and may veto action of mayor.
  • Elected School Committee (4 year terms), with the 7 members having staggered terms, and Mayor serving as ex officio, non-voting member.
  • Elected Library Board (4 year terms), with membership reduced from 12 to 7 over next four years.
  • Planning Board members no longer elected but appointed by Mayor subject to City Council review.
  • Voters have the right to initiative petition and referendum and the right to recall the Mayor.

~ View full text of proposed City Charter (.PDF format) ~

The ballot question was defeated by voters with 8245 "NO" votes and only 3647 residents voting "YES" [to a city and mayor form of government] in an election that brought 38% of registered voters to the polls.

The 1996-1997 effort was not the first time residents attempted to do away with Town Meeting, two previous efforts in the past century also failed.

The 1996/1997 Charter Commission was comprised of nine well known and respected community leaders. The following lists them (in alphabetic order by last name) and notes whether they declared themselves pro-city or pro-town upon conclusion of their work;

  • Dennis E. Black (CITY)
  • Deborah Blumer (TOWN)
  • Edward L. Burke (CITY)
  • Dennis Cardiff (CITY)
  • Anthony M. "Tony" Colonna (CITY)
  • John F. DelPrete (CITY)
  • Barbara Gray (TOWN)
  • Mary E. Murphy (TOWN)
  • Thomas P. Tierney (CITY)

Ray Salemi, Chairman of the 1997 "Vote City" effort failed to get his group's message out, and was overrun at the polls by a more vocal group which called itself "Town 2000".

Town 2000, aka "Vote NO on City" was co-chaired by Helen Lemoine, Jim Miller and Tom Scionti.

Currently, Framingham Town Government is organized into a hierarchy which places voters at the top of an inverted pyramid-like power structure.  Power is then concentrated into an elected 216 member representative body of Town Meeting Members, (TMMs) and an elected Moderator who is tasked with keeping that body in order during deliberations and votes.  Next in line is a 5-member elected Board of Selectmen, (BOS), who are responsible for setting policy and appointing a myriad of committees and department heads -- and finally a hired Town Manager who carries out the daily administrative duties of Town Government at the behest of the BOS.

The problem many cite as the need for reform is that while Town Meeting holds the purse-strings, and the BOS has a lot of leeway in major operational decisions -- nobody seems responsible or accountable to voters.

Others complain that Town government is just too big -- with literally hundreds of people's permission needed to undertake simple matters of Town business.  On the flip-side, many cite that a large body politic and slow moving processes are the most democratic form of government.

As an example, the current Town Manager, Julian Suso was recently informed that his contract would not be renewed -- that the BOS was not satisfied with his work.  The odd thing many point out is that "his work" is carrying out the duties given to him by the BOS -- the same board that appointed him.

Others complain that Town Meeting is made up of Town employees, their relatives and individuals who earn their living directly or indirectly from the Town and that the needs of the few sometimes seem to outweigh the needs of many.  (It should be noted that the 1997 City Charter had specific language prohibiting anyone in the highest positions of the "City Government"  from wearing multiple hats -- and continued that prohibition for a full year after they left office).

In a recent Metrowest Daily News article, while discussing filling the Town Manager position, Jason Smith, Chairman of the BOS was quoted as saying, "Until we get one, we need someone who looks, sounds and acts like a mayor".

It should be noted that the article mentions discussion of putting out a bid to retain a consultant to head up the Town Manager search --  although at a previous BOS meeting, when the subject of hiring a consultant was brought up, Smith commented to fellow BOS member Charlie Sisitsky that they should use the same consultant they used last time.

It is just this type of idiosyncrasy make many voters feel having a Mayor would deliver both transparency and accountability -- two things many feel the current form of (Town) government claims to deliver but does not actually provide.

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