EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 24, 2013

Mayor suggests forming new charter committee

By Douglas Moser

---- — METHUEN — Mayor Stephen Zanni wants to appoint a new committee after this year’s election to review the city charter, roughly a year and a half after voters overwhelmingly rejected the last revision attempt.

That proposal, among other provisions, would have eliminated term limits for elected city officials and was hobbled by a charter commission riven over the term limit changes. Zanni said yesterday that he wanted to change or clarify the charter given recent issues with the city solicitor and uncertainty over filling an opening on the School Committee.

“There are a lot of areas that should be looked at, streamlining the charter, making sure every point has been clarified,” he said.

Those issues, according to the Massachusetts Constitution, which sets out the procedure for altering local charters, may be able to be accomplished without the election of a charter commission. Amendments, which cannot change the composition or terms of major elected officials, can be approved with two-thirds of the City Council and by a majority of voters.

Zanni first raised the idea Tuesday evening at a special School Committee meeting, where he read an opinion by City Solicitor Peter McQuillan interpreting how a vacancy on the committee should be filled. The issue was a phrase that suggested the committee should appoint one of the last defeated candidates “who received at least 20 percent of the total votes cast.”

However, none of the candidates in the 2011 municipal election, including those who won, came close to 20 percent of the total votes cast. McQuillan’s opinion reasoned that using the total votes – each voter gets six votes for School Committee – would “defeat the purpose of the Charter. A more reasonable approach would be to interpret the term ‘votes’ to mean ‘ballots’.”

That effectively means the vacancy can be filled with the defeated candidate whose vote tally was at least 20 percent of the voter turnout.

“I think those things have to be clarified,” Zanni said. “And I think there are some other issues I want to look at.”

One of those issues is changing to whom the city solicitor and city auditor report. Currently, both positions are City Council employees, but Zanni said many communities put those positions under the mayor.

McQuillan has offered to resign soon, City Council Chairman Sean Fountain has said. The council on Jan. 7 voted 5-4 against reappointing McQuillan for a two-year term as solicitor.

That vote triggered a three-month search process that was marred by controversy and ended April 1 with a vote against former Lawrence assistant attorney Richard D’Agostino, one of the two finalists to succeed McQuillan. Several councilors said they could not support D’Agostino because of the flawed search, which included an interview meeting that was not posted as required by state law, McQuillan contacting one of D’Agostino’s professional references days before that reference withdrew his recommendation and McQuillan texting D’Agostino during the candidate’s interview before the City Council.

The charter allowed McQuillan to stay in office until his successor was chosen. Questions remain as to whether he could be removed, though Councilor Thomas Ciulla has been pushing to start that process.

Zanni said he also wanted to change the terms of councilors, and possibly School Committee members, to three-year terms with a lifetime limit of two terms per person. However, that type of change would require the election of a commission.

“I think it serves the community well and it gives other people the opportunity to come to the forefront,” he said.

Zanni said he was hesitant to initiate a full commission because of the contention in 2011.

According to the Massachusetts Constitution, a charter revision includes changes to the terms of elected officials, including city councilors, School Committee members and the mayor. Revisions require a charter commission, which is made of nine members who are elected after a petition with the signatures of at least 15 percent of the city’s voters is certified and after voters agree to revise the charter.

Amendments do not require the election of a commission and can be put before voters with a supermajority of the City Council.

Voters agreed in 2009 to create a charter commission and elected nine members. Those members reviewed the charter and produced a report listing recommended changes, including the elimination of term limits, reducing the number of signatures required to run for office and instituting a two-year wait for elected officials before taking a paid position in city government.

Four members of that commission split with the majority and campaigned against the proposal after it was submitted to the City Council in May 2011, decrying the elimination of term limits.

The changes were rejected by nearly 75 percent of voters in November 2011.

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