Officials' hopes high for 2020 charter review

BILL KIRK/Staff photo The newly elected or reelected Lawrence City Council held its first, full meeting Tuesday, Jan. 7 and posed for a portrait for photographers. Sitting, from left, are: newly elected At-Large Councilor Celina Reyes, Vice President and District F Councilor Marc Laplante, Council President and District C Councilor Kendrys Vasquez, District B Councilor Estella Reyes and At-Large Councilor Ana Levy. Back row, from left: District E Councilor David Abdoo, District D Councilor Jeovanny Rodriguez, District A Councilor Maria De La Cruz and At-Large Councilor Pavel Payano.

LAWRENCE — When the City Council proposed changes to the City Charter 10 years ago, nothing happened. Instead, the changes, proposed after dozens of hours of meetings, debate and compromise, died before getting to the state Legislature and the governor's office for final approval.

The failure in 2010 to make substantive changes to the city's governing document is not stopping the current City Council, however.

Last Tuesday night, City Council President Kendrys Vasquez said because the council is required to review the charter every 10 years, in a "year ending in zero," he would be appointing a committee to study the document over the next year and make recommendations for changes by the end of December 2020.

Those recommendations would go to the council's Ordinances and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which would then send proposals to the full council for further review and approval before being moving them along to the mayor's desk. If approved by the mayor, either in part or in full, the changes would be sent to the state Legislature and governor for the final OK as part of a home rule petition.

In 2010, that almost happened. And then it didn't.

That's because the changes got hung up in the Ordinances Committee, when Mayor William Lantigua announced he wanted to introduce language into the charter that would give him a possible third term, according to former City Councilor Eileen Bernal, who was on that committee in 2010.

She said the roughly half-dozen to 10 proposed changes never made it to the state Legislature because of Lantigua wanted to add language to the charter.

"He had proposed a three-term change," she said, noting that the proposal would have given Lantigua a chance to run for three, four-year terms rather than just two, as in the current charter. "There was a fear he might have had six votes to do that. Because of that, the whole document died in committee."

District F Councilor Marc Laplante, who was on the council in 2010 and has been appointed to this year's review committee, also blamed the death of the proposed charter changes on Lantigua.

There was a "different dynamic in the city (in 2010)," Laplante said. "At that time, our mayor, Mayor Lantigua, did not have a lot of respect on Beacon Hill. ... Nothing got forwarded over to Beacon Hill. The delegation is in charge of shepherding these home rule petitions."

This time, however, councilors are vowing to get changes through.

"I think we are in a different time," Laplante said. "There is far more desire to move things through. I think the council will do its job and review the charter. The mayor will be a partner in this. There is good faith across the board to review it. Whether or not there will be changes is a whole different story."

District D City Councilor Jeovanny Rodriguez agreed, noting that while the past council "never finished the process," this council is more likely to carry the ball into the end zone.

Rodriguez said changes are needed in the charter, and some of them could be substantial.

For example, he said, he'd like to look at the makeup of the city attorney's office, where two of the three attorneys work for the council and one works for the mayor's office as labor counsel.

"We have two departments under the council — city clerk and city attorney," he noted. "But the second attorney in that office works for the mayor. The labor counsel. Why do we have people who work for the mayor in that department?"

He noted that the City Council, meanwhile, has a confidential secretary who is actually appointed by the mayor.

"That doesn't make any sense," he said. "We need to do this in coordination with the mayor. I hope he understands — the changes are to the benefit of the city. We want to make sure the charter works for the city."

Vasquez agreed, noting that the mayor "has to sign off on every change."

Public hearings will be held on every proposed change, he added, so that the public has a chance to weigh in.

"Take something controversial, like mayoral terms," Vasquez said. "In Haverhill, they have an unlimited number of terms. We could change the charter so it would be unlimited terms. That would drive a lot of discussion."

He said another proposal, including one that was made 10 years ago, called for making the charter gender neutral, so there were no references to "he" or "she."

"We need to be able to give it a fresh perspective and modernize local government," he said. "Demographics change over time and we need to be up to par with technology."

Councilor David Abdoo said he wasn't willing to go into detail about changes he would like to see, but said, "I'm not sure the current form of government is the best for us. I look forward to the discussion. I do see things that need to be changed. It's healthy for us to look every 10 years. I'm glad we are."

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