It's been three months since I've sent out a newsletter as I've been trying to play catchup after falling behind after traveling in late February and battling that nasty flu everyone seemed to get in early March. But I'm looking to get back in the habit of sending out weekly newsletters every Friday!
I want to talk about charter reform. The City Council's Charter Review Special Committee is looking to wrap up our work on a new charter for our city next week. This is a major milestone in the charter reform process, with the council finalizing changes to the proposed charter produced last summer by the Charter Review Committee, before sending this on to the mayor.
First, some important background: A charter is basically a constitution for our city, spelling out how Somerville government functions and laying out powers and responsibilities. There are two ways to amend our charter: through a home rule petition to Beacon Hill requiring approval by the state legislature and the governor or with the Attorney General approving a local ballot question requiring approval by Somerville voters. This charter reform process we've undertaken is taking the former approach, as this is an entirely new charter.
I view a new charter as vital to improving our municipal government, so I closely followed the work of the Charter Review Committee in 2021 and 2022, attending a number of the meetings and engaging with committee members about their work. When the proposed new charter came to the City Council in the fall, I was eager to dive in and advocate for ways to achieve a better balance of power between our executive (the mayor) and legislative (the council) branches.
Currently the City Council in Somerville has very limited powers. We control zoning, certain licenses and permits, and have oversight of City finances and (in some cases) appointments. Yes, we can write ordinances, but if the executive chooses not to enforce those ordinances or City staff lack the resources or desire to implement those ordinances, that ordinance isn't going to accomplish much.
So this new charter is an opportunity to address this power imbalance in our Extremely Strong Mayor system, and I set about advocating for the reforms I wanted to see, like increased financial powers for the council. As the chair of the Finance Committee, I'm particularly focused on giving the council the power to reallocate funds within a budget and to make precise cuts to budget lines that achieve the stated goal of the council when we make a cut. I also was very interested in enshrining our power to confirm department heads, multiple member body appointments, and police and fire appointments -- as well as our right to legal counsel when we find ourselves in conflict with the executive, with the City Solicitor caught in the middle.
Very quickly it became clear that any home rule petition for a new charter would be dead on arrival on Beacon Hill if it included powers of budgetary reallocation for the City Council, due to Mass General Law's stance on the subject. I met with our Legislative and Policy Analyst and staff from UMass Boston's Collins Center for Public Management to try to explore creative solutions that we might include in this charter and still pass muster at the state level. But in the end I accepted that if I want to see this happen, the only realistic path to victory is through voter approval of an Attorney General-approved local ballot question.
We've heard so much about how the City of Boston recently was able to get power of budgetary reallocation for their city council. They did this with an Attorney General-approved local ballot question, and I want to follow the trail blazed by Boston and do the same here. The good news is that the new Attorney General is Andrea Campbell, who was a Boston City Councilor at the time and endorsed that ballot question while running for Mayor of Boston in 2021. So I believe we stand a decent chance of making this happen.
But first we need to get a new charter home rule petition approved by the state legislature and the governor (and then presumably by Somerville voters). And the prospects of that happening with reallocation powers for the City Council included are very bleak. So as someone who badly wants to see some of these "nonstarters" with Beacon Hill integrated into our new charter, I'm taking the approach of getting a new, 21st-century charter passed and then amending it accordingly at the polls.
If you read a recent Somerville Times op-ed from a community member about this, you might come away under the impression that your City Council had changed our minds about things like powers of budgetary reallocation. As the folks who spoke during last week's public hearing pointed out, the council has remained outspoken about wanting to see these powers in our charter. A number of us have heard what subject matter experts and our state delegation have told us about the reality of the situation and are switching gears to go about this via a route with far greater prospects for success and in a way that won't derail the entire charter reform process.
As anyone who has followed the work of the Charter Review Special Committee could tell you, the City Council hasn't performed some dramatic flip-flop on whether we want a power we all previously said we wanted. We're just being strategic about how best to achieve that aim, given the reality we live in. There are those who want to try putting this into the proposed charter and -- assuming we could even get the mayor to get on board with it -- let Beacon Hill reject our home rule petition. While reasonable minds can disagree on approach, if we know how something is going to turn out, I'd rather focus on a strategy with an actual, realistic pathway to success.
If you'd like to weigh in on the City Council's proposed charter, the Charter Review Special Committee be meeting in person in the City Council Chamber at City Hall on Wednesday, May 24 at 6 PM. The public hearing will continue from last week's virtual meeting, so you can come join us and share your thoughts at the committee's 13th and final planned meeting. You also always can send written comments to [email protected] and those will be entered into the public record.
And now some additional things I'd like to highlight:
Proposed Water & Sewer Rates
I want to thank everyone who has reached out to me and my colleagues on the council about the City's proposed FY 2024 water and sewer rates. Even if you were aware from last year's hearing on rates that a substantial rate increase was coming again this year because of badly-overdue work on our water and sewer infrastructure, I know it still has caused sticker shock.
Rest assured that your concerns are being heard, and that we're working on reducing that burden on residents. As the Finance Committee made clear in last year's hearing, we're deeply concerned about the disproportionate impact of these higher rates on our low-income and working-class residents -- either directly for homeowners or indirectly for renters in the form of higher rents.
Coming Soon: Budget Season
As chair of the Finance Committee I'll be overseeing the process of reviewing the proposed budget again this year. Budget Season officially begins when the Mayor releases her proposed FY 2024 budget on Friday, May 26. That budget book will be available online at somervillema.gov/budget.
The Mayor then will present her budget to the full City Council at a special meeting on Thursday, June 1 at 6 PM, followed by our first departmental review (Schools). There will be a (virtual) public hearing on the proposed FY 2024 budget on Monday, June 5 at 7:30 PM. The three-week sprint is scheduled to wrap up on Thursday, June 22 with a vote on approval of the FY 2024 budget at the City Council's regular meeting that night. We'll be talking FY 2024 budget in detail in next week's newsletter!
Spring City Hall Community Meetings
It's been great to see so many of you at City Hall Community Meetings (formerly ResiStat meetings) around the city. These are always a wonderful opportunity for residents and business owners to engage with their local government. I appreciated the many nights City staff gave to be there, and the updates they gave and all the constituent questions they answered.
If you didn't get a chance to make your ward's meeting, there's a final All-Ward Virtual Meeting on Monday, May 22, at 6:30 PM on Zoom. Spanish and Portuguese interpretation will be provided. Video recordings of the other meetings also should be posted after Monday night's city-wide meeting.
If you haven't already had the chance to submit your idea(s) for Somerville's inaugural Participatory Budgeting process, the deadline is Saturday, May 20! You can share your idea here ahead of tomorrow night's deadline -- and check out and support the many great ideas already submitted.
Also, Budget Delegates are needed and the deadline to apply also is Saturday, May 20. Budget Delegates will attend a two-hour orientation meeting (tentatively scheduled for June 15), followed by 10 recurring, two-hour, in-person meetings on Thursday nights at 6 PM from June through August. You can complete the Budget Delegate application here.
Anti-Displacement Task Force
Somerville's Anti-Displacement Task Force kicked off their work with an initial meeting last night (May 18). This important body is tasked with tackling our displacement crisis in Somerville, as our friends, neighbors, and local businesses find themselves forced out of the city due to the sharp rise in rents and property values.
The task force currently is recruiting more members for the Small Enterprise Displacement Committee and the Creative Displacement Committee. This is a one-year commitment to attend four task force-wide meetings and 12 monthly committee meetings, for an estimated five to seven hours of work per month. If you or someone you know is interested in serving on these committees, please email Luis Quizhpe at [email protected].
Mackey Field Ribbon Cutting
The much-anticipated opening of the new U12 (9v9) soccer field at the Healey School is taking place Friday, May 26 from 9 to 11 AM. This is the culmination of the schoolyard renovation project that transformed the asphalt backlot of the school into a gem of a community resource. The work of organizing the Healey community to advocate for this project was really my start in local activism. There is immense demand for recreational spaces like this and I know how much it will mean to the neighborhood to have this field available. So I'm counting down the days until the ribbon cutting.
The field is named after Joe Mackey, a multi-sport athlete at Somerville High School who went on to play baseball and football at Harvard. Joe served as the Ward 4 alderman from 1980 to 1985 and state rep for the 27th Middlesex District from 1985 to 1990. Having his name grace an athletic field seems a fitting tribute to someone who spent so much time on our city's fields.
Anti-Violence Working Group
Somerville's Department of Racial and Social Justice (RSJ) is seeking four community members at least 16 years of age who live or work in Somerville for the Anti-Violence Working Group. The group will work with RSJ and the Urban Peace Institute to tackle violence in our city.
Working group members will serve from May through November. There will be at least eight meetings, both in-person and virtual. Click here to apply. Applications are due by 7 PM *TONIGHT* (Friday, May 19).
Taxi to Health
The City's Taxi to Health program offers vouchers for free cab rides for low-income residents to get to the grocery store and medical appointments. The program recently was extended through 2024, with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). You can apply for taxi vouchers here.
We love our trees here in Somerville. Join the City's celebration of Arbor Day with an event at Glen Park at the Capuano School (150 Glen Street) in East Somerville from 1 to 3 PM on Saturday, May 20.
Somerville Bike Kitchen
We have a great community resource here in Somerville Bike Kitchen. This volunteer-run bicycle repair co-operative has been around since 2015 and brings community members together to keep bikes in good, working condition. They just announced phenomenal news that they've secured a new home!
SBK is holding a Bike Pageant on Saturday, May 20 from 12:30 to 5 PM at Aeronaut Brewing Co. (14 Tyler Street). They'll be announcing details on their new space at the event. Please consider attending and supporting this really valuable community organization!
Memorial Day parade
The City's Memorial Day parade is back for the first time since 2016! On Sunday, May 28, the parade will step off in Davis Square at noon, following Holland Street through Teele Square onto Broadway, and ending with a remembrance ceremony at Veterans Cemetery on Broadway in West Somerville. My family and I plan on marching, and I encourage you to come out and celebrate the return of this much-loved tradition.
The rain date is Monday, May 29. Please email [email protected] to volunteer with the event.
I'm running for re-election as your Councilor-At-Large this year. So far five candidates with At-Large experience have pulled nomination papers to run for the four seats, so it's looking like an extremely competitive race. I'm currently gathering signatures for my nomination papers. Please text me at 617.468.8969 if you'd like to sign my papers before I turn them in on Monday.
If you'd like to donate to my re-election campaign fund, you can do that here. And stay tuned for news on a campaign kickoff fundraiser event on June 3!
If you or someone you know is interested in joining me in working for the City of Somerville, please take a look at the City of Somerville positions and Somerville Public Schools openings currently posted.
Get involved in your city
Serving on a multiple member body (board or commission) is a great way to make a difference. The City of Somerville currently is looking for residents interested in serving on the following bodies:
Did You Know...
At the Mayor's discretion, Somerville now has expended or allocated all $77.5 million in ARPA funds. To see details about how these funds have been used, you can explore the City's ARPA dashboard.
I do weekly office hours on Sundays, and this Sunday (May 21) I'll be holding them in person at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School from 2 to 4 PM. Ward 4 Councilor Jesse Clingan will join us from 3 to 4 PM. We'll be meeting in Mae's Garden in the schoolyard and both of us will have our nomination papers with us for voters to sign. Click here for full details.
If you'd prefer to meet individually, I'm also continuing to offer on-demand office hours to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
The Week Ahead
I'll be attending the following meetings this week:
- Tuesday, May 23: Rodent Issues Special Committee meeting (6 PM)
- Tuesday, May 23: Finance Committee meeting (6 PM)
- Wednesday, May 24: 90 Washington Street Redevelopment Civic Advisory Committee meeting (5:30 PM)
- Wednesday, May 24: Charter Review Special Committee meeting (6 PM)
- Thursday, May 25: City Council meeting (7 PM)
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