The city attorney says major bylaw changes would trigger a vote

WESTFIELD — Although state law does not require ballots to change the charter, state legislatures will likely require one for each major change.

Assistant District Attorney Shanna Reed told the ad hoc bylaws committee Dec. 7 that in most cases, amendments to the bylaws would only require a motion from city councilors and a special law from the state legislature.

But she said the history of bylaw changes in other cities shows that lawmakers tend to approve major changes – like extending the mayor’s term to four years – on condition of a residents’ vote.

Councilor Ralph Figy said he felt the Council had “shown a lot of support for going before the electorate”.

In November, the City Council commissioned Figy, along with fellow councilors Brent Bean II and Dave Flaherty, to consider about 20 possible changes to the charter, which was last updated 10 years ago. The council did not approve an amendment to its own two-year term, but requested that the committee consider a four-year term for the mayor.

The founding committee is also working on standardizing the city’s process for filling medium-term vacancies on elected bodies. The current procedure for a City Council vacancy is to offer the seat to the runner-up in the last election. However, for vacancies on the school board and city lighting board, the city is soliciting applications, and the remaining board members are meeting with the city council to select a replacement.

Committee members spoke of applying the city council process to all three elected bodies, but said they must first determine who counts as a “candidate” — would a vacancy be offered after a county election with only one name on the ballot, and a letter-in candidate with just a handful of votes?

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“There are different ways to define a defeated candidate and it’s done in different ways in different communities,” Reed said.

The Council had discussed this issue earlier this year. Bean proposed Dec. 7 that the charter set a limit of 50 votes to match the number of signatures candidates need to qualify to vote.

Figy said he thinks his fellow councilors would prefer to call for special elections to fill vacancies, which would be a change for all three bodies.

Reed said filling vacancies through special elections would impose a heavy cost on the city every time someone dies, relocates or resigns in the middle of a term. Because of that commitment, she said, this is another proposal that could prompt lawmakers to require a ratification vote at the polls.

Flaherty said another point he would like to see changed in the charter has to do with the change process itself, which he said was too simplistic.

“It’s actually more difficult to change regulations than the charter,” he said.

He suggested that future amendments to the bylaws should require public hearings, a second confirmation vote by the council, or a supermajority vote.

Other changes being considered include allowing the mayor to appoint a school board chair instead of filling that role ex officio; allow the City Council to mandate an annual budgeting process; allow the city council to direct the mayor to list the cost of each union contract he signs; the requirement for salary ranges in municipal job descriptions; and the introduction of a right for city councilors to request documents and data from city offices without having to make a formal request for public records.

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City Council is expected to hear the committee’s report and hold a public hearing on proposed bylaw changes at its December 15 meeting.

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