As moderator of the Framingham Government Forum for the past decade, and as a member and former Chair of the Finance Committee, I have had the opportunity to observe the good, the bad, and the ugly with respect to town government.
When the push to create a charter for Framingham began, I was hopeful that the result would be a smart city charter that I could enthusiastically endorse – a charter that led to efficient, thoughtful decision-making while limiting potential abuses. What I looked for was 1) balanced power between the legislative and executive branches and 2) effective protections against abuse of power and exploitation by special interests.
This charter misses the mark in these two fundamental ways, and so I will be voting “No” on April 4th.
This charter creates a lopsided power structure
The Mayor holds the vast majority of the power under this charter. The Mayor, who does not need any professional qualifications, handpicks more than 160 appointees (including the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals). The Mayor has virtual control over all major decisions and can veto almost any measure passed by the Council. The Council has less power and limited checks on the Mayor’s power. For example, the Council can only decrease municipal department budgets, and can only increase the school budget with a 2/3 vote.
In contrast, our current structure distributes power pretty evenly between the legislative and executive branches, and I think that the decisions that result are better because they are thoroughly vetted.
The charter creates a dependency on large campaign donations in competitive races.
This charter fosters an unhealthy dependency on large campaign donations for the Mayor. In 2015, there were 5 medium-sized cities with similar commercial property base to Framingham that had competitive mayoral elections. The median expenditures for these races was $255,758. (Brockton: $159,325; Fall River: $255,758, Fitchburg: $48,304; Quincy: $861,009; and Revere $332,451).
You can bet that the large amount of money needed to fund mayoral campaigns does not come from the average member of the public. Real estate and business interests have contributed over $60,000 to fund the Charter campaign, and these same special interests will want access to and influence over the Mayor, and likely Council races as well. The inherent dependency of the Mayor on campaign donations to win competitive races threatens the basic integrity of our government. One would have to be pretty naïve to believe that these large donations won’t come with strings attached.
This charter puts the education budget at risk
In recent years, the School Committee and Town Manager have often negotiated a budget amount prior to Town Meeting. However, when agreement has not been reached, the School Committee (and parents and educators) have always had the ability to appeal to Town Meeting for increased funding over the Town Manager’s budgeted amount. A majority vote of Town Meeting can increase the school budget, and Town Meeting has a strong track record of supporting the schools.
Under this charter, the School Committee makes a budget recommendation to the Mayor, but the Mayor can ignore it and set the budget at a much lower level. The Mayor’s budget is a cap that can only be increased with a 2/3 vote. Given the tremendous pressure from the business community to reduce taxes, and the dependence of elected officials on donations from the business community to support their campaigns, it is unlikely that the School Budget will receive the 2/3 vote it would need to be increased. The Mayor and just 4 councilors can block it.
Be a skeptic. Don’t be fooled by the misleading sales pitch.
This charter does not magically lower taxes, increase state funding, fill empty shopping centers, improve our schools, prevent lawsuits, or improve traffic. This charter does not effectively prevent exploitation by special interests. This charter does not guarantee high-quality decision-making or equal representation at the decision-making table. In the last municipal election, Precincts 1-9 cast over 70% of the votes. Remember the mayor makes most decisions, so votes matter.
I respectfully ask you to join me and vote NO on April 4th This is not the right charter for Framingham.