A Third Option on the Charter Beyond "Yes" or "No"

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Over the last several months, I have knocked on over 2,000 doors all around Newton. As a candidate for City Council, I have spoken with residents about a wide range of issues—from taxes and affordable housing to trees and leash free dog areas. However, the number one topic of interest by far is the ballot question on the City Charter. The two main perspectives shared by the majority of people are:

  1. I would like to see a reduction in the size of the City Council
  2. I do not want to lose my Ward Councilor

Having read the countless documents, listened to hours of meeting audio and met with a couple members of the Charter Commission, it is clear to me that the Commission did their due diligence. I am grateful for the time they spent analyzing and researching the Charter for the betterment of Newton. All in all, this was a thankless job and in the end it is impossible to make everyone happy.

By this point, everyone who is familiar with the issue has heard most, if not all of the arguments, for voting “Yes” or “No.” I will not review them here. Instead, I would like to propose a compromise that could give most people what they want.

After reviewing all the changes recommended by the Commission, the issue that the majority of the people I have spoken with have trouble accepting is the elimination of local representation in the form of ward councilors. I believe that single but critical component will ultimately sink the chances for Charter reform.  Charter reform that beyond the loss of the ward councilors includes many excellent provisions like increased transparency and a mandated comprehensive development plan.

A City Council of 12 might be the “right size” based on the Commission’s statewide research, but ultimately Newton has eight wards.  During the Commission’s voter input sessions, it was clear that most people wished to maintain some type of balance between ward and at-large representation but to maintain a balance with 12 councilors and eight wards is impossible.  In the end, the Commission was forced to choose between size and balance and they chose size.  I believe that was the wrong choice for Newton.

I have a simple and elegant compromise with respect to the size and structure of our City Council - eight ward councilors and eight at-large councilors. This change would require minimal alterations to the Commission’s proposal and would utilize their research and analysis. (I created a redline version of what I call the “Compromise Charter” for those interested in seeing how simple the edits were.*)  Those who want a smaller council would see a reduction from 24 to 16 members and those who wish to maintain local representation get to keep their Ward Councilor.  Please understand that this proposal does not come from some grandiose piece of thinking on my part, but from the repeated refrain I heard from voters of, “they want to get rid of the ward councilors? Really? Why didn’t they just do 8 and 8?” 

Based on voter feedback I see a majority of Newton’s voters in two groups:

  • Group 1 - Residents that will vote “Yes” because they want change and are fearful that they may not get another near-term opportunity, but are not comfortable with the idea of losing local representation
  • Group 2 - Residents that will vote “No” despite the fact they might like much of what the new charter has to offer, but just can not accept the loss of the ward councilors and the potential of concentrating power in certain neighborhoods (I count myself in this group)

Be sure, there are people that are quite happy with the council size and charter exactly as it currently exists (Group 3), and there are people that do not feel that ward representation is an issue and prefer all at-large representation (Group 4).  Of course I cannot specifically size each group, but the first two groups make up the vast majority of the people I have met.  It is for that majority that I propose this compromise – a smaller more efficient council that maintains local representation and diversity of thought.

If we chose to reject the Commission’s version of the charter in November, Massachusetts provides another avenue by which a “Compromise Charter” revision can be completed http://www.mass.gov/dor/local-officials/dls-newsroom/ct/charting-a-route-for-charter-change.html. This process is called a “home rule petition” and it is relatively straightforward. We utilized the “home rule petition” to change the title “Aldermen” to “Councilor”, while other cities have used it to make significant changes to their governance structure.

Utilizing the charter proposal created by the Commission, along with the revisions included in the “Compromise Charter”, we have a fully researched document and one that is now far more amenable to the vast majority of Newton’s voters.  Massachusetts law allows the City Council, with the Mayor’s approval, to submit the “Compromise Charter” to the MA legislature as a piece of proposed legislation.  Once this is passed by the House and Senate and signed by the Governor, it would only then need to be approved by the voters of Newton.  All of this could take around a year, as all of the research, debate and reviews of the charter document have already occurred under the Charter Commission’s auspices.

I would like to ask the other candidates that will be, or hope to be, on the City Council in January and have not already declared their support for “Yes” that they join me in this pledge: if the Commission’s version of the charter is defeated on November 7th, we take up this idea to complete the revision with a balanced charter.  I feel that it is so important, with a change of this proposed magnitude, that we have an option to get something closer to what I feel the vast majority of Newton’s voters are truly seeking, which is a charter that both shrinks the council and maintains local representation.

In the face of what seems to be a movement across the nation toward all or nothing politics, please join me in advocating for this compromise solution.

 

 

Houston for a Better Newton

Here is my candidate statement as seen on Village 14

I would like to introduce myself to many in Newton whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting. I am Braden Houston and I have been living in Newton for over 15 years. Along with my wife Jennifer and our two daughters Beckett (10) and Blake (5), we have made Newton our home. We moved here because Newton is a great place to raise a young family—the schools are fantastic, the city is safe and the neighborhoods are close knit. We absolutely love it and all of its charm.

A little bit more about me personally, I attended Bucknell University, received a Masters in History from Colgate University and an MBA in finance from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Professionally, I develop renewable energy projects, both wind and solar, throughout the country and around the world. The nature of my business requires me to assemble and manage teams of people across various professions from engineers to lawyers to financiers to technical staff in order to realize a successful project. Given the cost and scale of these projects I have experience managing big budgets and working with many types of people who offer different perspectives. I believe that my experience in the private sector, especially in renewable energy, would be an asset to the City Council and a fresh perspective.

My wife and I are very involved in the community. Jennifer is the head of the PTA at our elementary school. I coach Newton Girls Lacrosse and have served on the board of the organization for the past four years. I also lead learn-to-skate with Newton Youth Hockey. I grew up playing sports and I enjoy playing hockey whenever I get the chance.

I am running for City Councilor (Ward 2 At-Large) because I felt compelled to get involved—on my doorstep candidates would say one thing and vote differently when in office. Discussions with friends and neighbors revealed that many people shared similar concerns about some of the big issues and questions facing our city like the Charter, our pension liabilities, environmental sustainability, the affordability of living in Newton and helping residents struggling to live in our city like our seniors.

VOTING “NO” ON THE CHARTER

Despite the comprehensive charter review process performed by the Charter Committee, I am voting NO on the charter. The detriment of eliminating of ward counselors far outweighs the benefits of a smaller council. Under the proposed charter, a candidate could win an election without the support of his or her ward. Furthermore, this charter favors people with the time and finances to run an at-large campaign, thereby deterring participation by those without either of those resources. Removing ward counselors from the Council is an attack on local representation in Newton and we should not have to live with the consequences of a charter that underrepresents us.

GREENING NEWTON

Reducing our carbon footprint is a noble goal, but I have found that the policy discussion focuses on relatively small-scale policies like more recycling programs and restrictions on landscaping equipment. Green policy can go beyond individual citizen’s actions, and I have some ideas on how Newton can champion renewables while also reducing energy costs for our most financially vulnerable residents.

For seven years I worked for Citizens Energy, a company with a unique and sustainable model for helping those in need. The model goes something like this: for profit enterprises contribute their profits to a non-profit parent company, which provides people in need with heating oil at no cost. Newton can do something similar with renewables—we can reduce our carbon footprint and help those most in need at the same time.

Starting in 2018, Massachusetts will be revising its renewable energy regulations. The proposed changes will provide Newton with a unique opportunity to significantly reduce our residents’ electric bills at no cost to taxpayers. As Councilor, I would propose working with solar developers in Western Massachusetts, where there is more land for viable projects, to provide power to households most in need, thereby reducing the cost of living in Newton

THE COST OF LIVING IN NEWTON

Seniors in Newton are following a national trend—most want to remain in their homes and community as long as they possibly can. Understandably, there is a great deal of discussion surrounding the cost of living in Newton especially for the aging and elderly. Of course housing costs, like repairs, modifications and maintenance, are part of the issue but most are concerned with property taxes. While knocking doors, I have heard from many seniors of modest means that annual tax hikes is making aging-in-place untenable. I would propose means tested tax reductions to help seniors remain in their homes as long as possible. Unlike the current program that the city offers, seniors that qualify would have their rate reduced not just deferred until they sell their home.    

RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT IN NEWTON

Perhaps he most contentious debate in Newton surrounds housing and housing development. It seems that the loudest proponents of more housing believe in developing as much housing as possible as quickly as possible and I cannot help but feel that well-connected and financed developers have exercised great influence in the debate. One of the most concerning aspect of the debate taking place is the name calling and ad hominem attacks on residents asking sincere questions and voicing well founded concerns about how more housing, people and cars will effect their neighborhoods.

Personally, I wish to preserve the feel of Newton and the unique character of each village. The idea of building significant numbers of large apartment complexes, which have proven to be the opposite of affordable, does not appeal to me as a resident who invested in Newton because of its suburban aesthetic and community.

We are being sold a lie with regard to the affordability of the projects already in the works. In order to go forward with these large-scale residential projects affordable housing had to be knocked down. Newton families, who lived here for many years in affordable units, were displaced with nowhere to go. Furthermore, they are unable to move back into the new residences due to the mandated lottery system for deed-restricted units that includes to applicants from a large geographic area within the state.

Many who advocate for more housing argue that we need affordable units for our teachers, firemen and policemen. Based on my discussions with the fire and police unions, leaders say that none of their members are eligible for deed restricted units because their starting salaries are just above the income threshold. I have spoken to teachers who say that they earn too much to qualify, as well. The fact that this argument lacks the empirical evidence that proves it would help our public servants live in Newton is concerning to say the least.

MORE BENEFITS AND LESS BURDEN: COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT

I would rather see our development energies focused on bringing businesses, firms and labs to Newton. Commercial development would even out our lopsided tax base without over burdening our services, infrastructure and schools-- when people work in an area they use the bank, eat out for lunch at restaurants and shop at the grocery store. This seems like a better and fairer solution than raising taxes on residents to make up the difference in the budget.

PROBLEM SOLVING

As your Councilor, I promise to focus my energies on the things that the city council has the power to change. Let’s get back to an effective local government focused on things like paying our public servants, keeping our schools top in the nation, repairing our roads and investing in economic growth that will serve the city in the long term.

I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my ideas and a bit about myself with you. Thank you for your consideration and I ask for your support on November 7.