HAVERHILL — A veteran city councilor wants to begin a discussion of the city's charter, which is basically the "constitution" of the city.

Councilor William Macek brought his request to the full council at its Aug. 6 meeting. The council voted to refer it to a joint subcommittee for study. 

"The city has evolved and it's time to ensure the charter properly represents the best interests of the residents of today," he said. 

Macek said he's not advocating for a specific change, but he thinks it's time for a review. He noted the last review was more than 50 years ago. 

"Some updates, some modifications, might be necessary," he said. "I'm not looking to up-end our city government, or see a total change in the way we conduct ourselves ... I'm just looking to see what some of our constituents are looking for, and this would be a process to allow the people to be heard."

He noted that a charter commission could make recommendations for voters to consider. The earliest this could happen would be November 2020.

The ward councilor question

One reason to change the charter would be to create a combination of ward councilors and councilors-at-large, which Macek said has been a hot topic of discussion in recent months.

Currently, Haverhill's governing structure allows for nine, at-large city councilors.

"I've always felt that all nine councilors represent every inch of the city, and we do not have councilors that only represent a small district," Macek said. "There is a percentage of our current residents, including the mayor, who feel we should also have a combination of a ward and at-large councilor system."

City Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua isn't one of those in favor of adding ward councilors to Haverhill's form of government. 

"I believe the majority of the people in Haverhill are comfortable with the system in place today," he said. 

According to Bevilacqua, ward counselors provide for less representation, not more. Also, ward counselors, once they are in power, are more difficult to remove than an at-large councilor, he said.

"Our issues are citywide, including police, education, water and fire, and not ward specific," Bevilacqua said. "Also, what can happen is, ward councilors become so ingrained in their particular ward that if people in their ward need help, they only have one person representing their concerns.

"I'm interested in seeing what residents believe is most appropriate for their representation, but, I'm not convinced a ward type of representation is the best kind of representation," Bevilacqua said. "Right now, you have nine people representing you. How would you feel to have just one?"

Voters will weigh in

Macek said that by taking a proactive approach, Haverhill could avoid what happened in Lowell, which he said was forced by court action to change its current, all at-large system.

Macek said there have been two attempts by citizen groups in the past to review the city's charter, the last attempt being in 1979.

"It failed to obtain the necessary number of voter signatures within the allotted period of time," Macek said. "I'm taking an action to allow for a review of the charter for the first time in more than 50 years."

The city's population in 1970, according to the Census Bureau, was about 45,000 people. As of 2018, Haverhill's population was estimated at roughly 64,000 people. 

City Solicitor William Cox said the city's charter contains the basic provisions which establish the form, structure and organization of a government, and the powers and duties of various officials.

He said the last time the charter underwent a revision was in 1965, when the city changed to a so-called "strong mayor" form of government, known as a "Plan A." Previously, the city was run by a city manager and a city council, with the council president also serving as mayor. 

"Going to a strong mayor form of government would have required a change to the charter," said Cox, who noted several ways a city can change its form of government.

"Ultimately, any changes to the charter, including going to a combination ward and at-large system, would require a majority vote in a regular city election," Macek said.