By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — Mayor Stephen Zanni said longer mayoral terms and the elimination of four seats on the nine-member City Council will improve the efficiency of local government and increase cooperation among elected officials.
If re-elected this fall, Zanni said he’ll consider pushing for changes to the city charter that, if approved, would reshape the face of Methuen government.
Not surprisingly, several city councilors — including mayoral challenger Jennifer Kannan — don’t like Zanni’s ideas.
Zanni believes Methuen’s two-year mayoral terms are too short. He’d like to see a change to three-year terms, which under the city’s six-year term limits would allow for a maximum two terms instead of the current three, two-year terms.
Zanni also said the size of the City Council should be reduced from nine to five members.
The new makeup of the council, under Zanni’s proposal, would consist of two at-large members representing the entire city and one councilor each representing the East, Central and West districts.
The council currently consists of three councilors-at-large and two councilors from each district.
Finally, Zanni said councilors’ two-year terms should be staggered so the entire body doesn’t face re-election in the same year, as is presently the case.
“These are things to look at,” Zanni told The Eagle-Tribune. “Sometimes larger groups don’t work as well. I have to look and see what the public wants to do, too.”
Zanni said he won’t pursue the changes to the city charter without support from both the newly-elected City Council and members of the public. But if there is support, Zanni said the process could begin as early as next year.
“I think for next year, I’d like to look at that,” said Zanni. “I’ll get some thoughts for the new council as well.”
Zanni was a councilor-at-large for six years before being elected mayor in November 2011. In that same election, Methuen voters overwhelmingly defeated a series of proposed changes to the charter.
The highest-profile charter proposal in 2011 sought to eliminate term limits for elected officials. Of the roughly 8,000 residents who voted on the charter ballot question, 75 percent voted “No.”
Given the charter vote two years ago, Kannan questioned why Zanni would propose such major changes now.
“I don’t understand why he didn’t voice those opinions when we had a Charter Commission that cost the city $30,000 and was voted down,” said Kannan. “Where were those opinions then?”
Added East District Councilor Ron Marsan, “If you don’t like it, don’t run. Don’t fix what’s not broken.”
“I believe the people have already spoken on the charter,” said Marsan. “I like the way it is. If we have a councilor or a mayor that’s not doing a good job, they don’t get reelected.”
Central District Councilor Jamie Atkinson was more receptive to some of Zanni’s ideas. While he didn’t agree with the proposed reduction to five councilors, Atkinson said he would like to see mayoral terms as long as four years.
With longer terms, Atkinson said the increased job security in the mayor’s office would help attract qualified candidates.
“People get in now, you have one year and then you’re campaigning again,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson said he also has no problem with staggered terms for councilors.
“I think it’s something to be looked at,” said Atkinson.
‘A long, drawn-out process’
The formal procedure for a charter review begins with a petition.
Petition organizers must first collect thousands of signatures, with the precise requirement tied to a percentage of the total number of registered voters in the city. Once the signatures are certified, voters elect a nine-member Charter Commission.
The commission then has two years to put together a written report detailing their proposed changes to the charter. The report is then presented to voters as a ballot question at the next municipal election.
Residents are required to vote “Yes” or “No” on the report in its entirety.
Between 2009 and 2011, the last Charter Commission held more than two dozen meetings and three public hearings.
“It’s a long, drawn-out process,” said Joe Pappalardo, who chaired the commission.
Both Pappalardo and former Charter Commission member Jack Cronin said it is unclear whether Zanni’s proposals could be enacted through a home rule petition, which only requires approval of the City Council and state Legislature.
“I would think it’d have to be brought before the voters in the community (via ballot question), because it would be a major change to the charter,” said Pappalardo. “If he wanted to propose that, I would hope he’d put it before the voters.”
City Council Chairman Sean Fountain agreed.
“If there’s major changes to the charter, that should be up to the community — not the mayor,” said Fountain. “There’s a lot of people who have put a lot of time into this charter over the years. I think it would be a disservice to the people who have worked on the charter for years to have one person implement changes.”