I Go to City Council Meetings #37

Voting-related Charter Review recommendations, continued

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On October 1st, Northampton City Council held their 18th regularly scheduled meeting of the year. All councilors were present.

Five members of the public spoke during public comment, including three members of the Northampton Youth Commission, who all spoke in favor of one of the Charter Review Commission’s recommendations to lower the voting age in municipal elections from 18 to 16. Another speaker also supported this recommendation.

As usual, Councilors shared announcements before getting into the rest of the agenda. Of note this time was an announcement of a hearing regarding changes to the Public Shade Tree Commission, which is seeking to change its name to the Urban Forestry Commission and slightly restructure itself, as well as an announcement about Policing Review Commission and Ordinance Review Committee meetings. Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) announced that the former is meeting on Tuesdays, has elected two co-chairs, and is breaking out into subcommittees; Councilor John Thorpe (Ward 4) announced that the latter had its first meeting the day before, that he and Megan Peck of the Human Rights Commission were elected chair and co-chair, respectively, and will hold the commission’s next meeting on October 14th at 7pm. (Both the Policing Review Commission and the Ordinance Review Committee have come from efforts by City Council to respond to pressure from the public to address issues of systemic racism in the city.) Additionally, Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) announced that, due to an oversight in scheduling, the second reading to approve the warrant, or the slate of ballot questions and candidates running for office, will take place at a special meeting on October 8th at 5pm.

Charter review: voting-related recommendations, continued

The bulk of the meeting was spent considering the last three recommendations of the Charter Review Commission, which concluded roughly a year’s worth of meetings early in 2020 and issued recommendations for changes to the city’s charter. After a six-month delay due to the pandemic, City Council approved recommendations for non-citizen voting and ranked choice voting in municipal elections at its last meeting, and concluded its review of the commission’s recommendations at Thursday’s meeting.

The three recommendations discussed were lowering the voting age to 16 in municipal elections, mailing ballots to all registered voters for every election, and removing the need to cite a reason in order to receive an absentee ballot. Sam Hopper, co-chair of the Charter Review Commission, introduced each recommendation. Regarding the first, Hopper noted that from 2009 to 2019, turnout for municipal elections averaged 38%, and argued that enfranchising a group that has demonstrated its activation around a number of issues would increase civic engagement. It would also help to start building voting habits earlier, as opposed to at age 18 when many young people are in transitional periods and may not remember or know how to register to vote in a new place.

A number of councilors spoke in favor of this recommendation, including Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7), Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3), Councilor Quinlan, and Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large), in his typical long-winded fashion. Councilor Dwight addressed an earlier comment crediting him with championing this issue for years, noting that former City Councilor Ryan O’Donnell first floated the idea. In his comments, Dwight also noted that the arguments against this measure have been much the same that were deployed against expanding the franchise to African-Americans and women, and alluded to those who would prefer to see fewer people vote, whom he claimed were mostly from one party.

As if in response, Councilor Sciarra deployed in her concluding comments much of the same rhetoric that might’ve been used by her enfranchised forebears who decided to expand the ballot to African-Americans and women, praising the youth commission members’ comprehension and thoughtfulness and wishing she could someday have a “moment of eloquence” akin to the youth speakers at the Charter Review Commission hearings. The Council approved the recommendation unanimously with the Mayor’s support.

Next, Sam Hopper introduced the recommendation for universal mail-in voting, crediting City Clerk Pam Powers with the suggestion. Hopper noted that city elections cost roughly $30,000 no matter how many people vote by mail or in person and that this measure would be another that would likely expand participation in local elections. Hopper concluded by asking, “should democracy only be available to those who can fit it in their busy schedules?”

During discussion, Councilors Dwight and Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) heaped praise on Clerk Powers. Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) told an anecdote about a mother of three children with disabilities she knew who could not make time to vote, and Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) offered some statistics about how many states would be doing this in November (9) and how many have already been doing it (5), which the Mayor complemented by pointing out that 67% of Northampton voters who voted in the September primary did so by mail. This recommendation was also approved with the Mayor’s support.

The final recommendation, removing the need to cite a reason to vote absentee, is essentially a backup option in case the state legislature does not approve universal vote by mail. It was also approved. The five recommendations related to voting will now go to City Solicitor Alan Seewald, who will draft language to be included in the charter. The amended charter will then be submitted to the state legislature for approval, which is unfortunately far from guaranteed (non-citizen voting has been struck from the city charter at least once before). Stan Moulton, co-chair of the commission, concluded the discussion by thanking the Council, saying that it was validating to have all their recommendations met with approval.

The meeting concluded with a vote on an order that would designate members of the Policing Review Commission as special municipal employees. Mayor Narkewicz explained that this designation is given to many members of boards and commissions, as conflict of interest law would in many cases prevent these members from working in the city. This passed in two readings after some clarifying questions from the junior councilors, and the meeting adjourned soon after.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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