A referendum to update the city of Watertown’s charter is being dismissed by a vocal few more for what it doesn’t propose than what it does.

The effort to revise the charter began with the suggestion that the city government needed to be restructured. Ryan Henry-Wilkinson campaigned for the City Council in 2017 on the idea of eliminating the position of city manager and electing a strong mayor.

Mr. Henry-Wilkinson believed that the city manager was not accountable directly to the voters. So after becoming a member of the council, he called for Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. to establish a commission with 10 members to review the city’s charter and suggest any necessary changes.

And members of the commission took their work very seriously. They examined the entire charter and found portions that would benefit from some revisions.

The proposal for a strong mayor form of government, however, was not among the recommendations by the commission — and for good reason. Aside from Mr. Henry-Wilkinson, a smattering of political candidates and a few local pundits, it doesn’t appear to have much of any support among residents.

And no one offered a valid rationale for how this change would benefit city residents. But this minority faction is now urging people to vote against the proposed charter because it doesn’t have a proposal that very few wanted.

For more than a year, members of the commission met twice a month to study the charter and discuss ways to improve it. Members said there were no calls to change the city’s government.

So the commission declined to put that idea into the proposed revisions. What members have brought forth are plans to update language in the charter and improve aspects of city operations.

The proposed new charter would change the title of fire chief to director of the Fire Department. Another recommendation is to create the position of deputy city manager, who also would be the public safety commissioner.

This person would oversee the Police, Fire and Code department as well as the health officer. The deputy city manager would fill in during the absence of the city’s chief executive officer.

The commission’s work has resulted in a modernized charter. The current charter doesn’t reference the Planning Department and other city offices that have been around for many years. It cleans up the language of the charter in various spots.

The referendum will appear on the back of the ballot for the general election, to be held Nov. 5. It’s an all-or-nothing package: Voters will be asked to either approve all the recommended changes simultaneously or turn them down.

That’s a big gamble for the charter commission. But we endorse this measure and encourage voters to approve it. This would enhance city operations and update parts of the charter that are antiquated.

Some critics said this would add another layer of bureaucracy onto city government. But the deputy city manager would ensure continuity in the absence of the city manager, something we don’t have now. And the person in this position also would oversee the city’s public safety departments, freeing the city manager to focus on other areas.

Opponents to the recommended changes have said that many people don’t know what’s in the proposed charter or how it works. Unfortunately, this is due to the fact that so few people participated in drafting it. Residents had numerous opportunities to become involved in this process, but most chose to ignore them.

Members of the commission came from a variety of backgrounds and brought a wealth of experiences with them to the table. Their work was incredibly thorough. They went over the charter very carefully for the first time in years.

It would be a shame if this measure was defeated because many voters chose not to give it their attention. This is a good step in the right direction to enhancing city operations, so residents should move it forward.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1


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