City Clerk, School Committee Present Opinions on Pittsfield Charter

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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The Charter Review Study Committee continued its examination of the city's charter Tuesday by looking at the roles of the School Committee and local elections.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School Committee members are expressing support for stipends for their elected board.

School Committee Chairman Alfred E. Barbalunga voiced "a resounding yes" on the issue of committee stipends, pointing to a lack of candidates in recent elections (in the past two cycles, only seven individuals have run for six available seats).

Barbalunga told the Charter Review Committee on Tuesday that adding compensation to the equation might encourage "a higher caliber of candidates."

"I like to think I'm doing a good job but I guarantee you there are people out there that have better experience than me that could run for School Committee as well," he said. "It's just how we encourage them to get out and run."

The mechanics of governing the School Department and local electoral processes were among the major topics discussed on Tuesday as the committee tasked with revising the city's aging charter approaches the halfway point in its review process.

A majority of the current School Committee expressed favor for increasing the term length and establishing compensation for committee members — the latter idea has been frequently suggested by others who have come before the charter committee in recent weeks.

School Committee members Katherine Yon, Kathleen Amuso and James Conant agreed with Barbalunga while Terry Kinnas opposed the idea. Daniel Elias declined to express an opinion.

In addition to improving the field of candidates, those in favor of stipends also cited the hundreds of hours of time required by the position, including numerous subcommittees, school functions and other responsibilities comparable to that of a city councilor.

"When you see us on TV at our regular School Committee meeting, that's the least amount of time and work that we give the children of this city," Amuso said.

But Kinnas disagreed saying, "we are not professional politicians. Do you run for office for the compensation, or do you run because you want to do something?"

Kinnas also suggested a four-year term limit for all local elected officials, including councilors and mayors.  

"It kind of forces a changeover," he said.  

Elias, who in his eighth term is the longest serving member on the committee, opposed that idea saying having long-term members was important for continuity.

"In order to know where you're going, you have to have people who know where you've been," Elias said.

City Clerk Linda Tyer addressed the charter committee on a variety of core issues from her experience as clerk as well as a city councilor for five years previously.

Tyer said the current charter, the bulk of which dates back to 1932, is "unwieldy, uses a lot of outdated language and concepts, and is often very difficult to interpret."

With regard to voting and elections, Tyer urged against some ideas discussed in previous sessions such as attempting to revise council wards and moving municipal elections to even years to coincide with state and federal elections.  

Tyer said the wards are redrawn every decade based on Census data and are in compliance with state guidelines. The map for state and federal elections cannot be altered by decision at the local level and Tyer said any attempt to have a separate map for local elections is "fraught with peril."  

"No city or town in Massachusetts has two separate maps," she said.  "I encourage you to abandon any discussion of a separate map for local elections."

Moving the election year would make the entire process more expensive, more complicated, and more confusing for voters, she said.  

"You'd essentially have to have separate poll workers, separate voter lists, separate ballots, separate tallies. It's literally two elections held on the same day," said Tyer, who also said it could become a problem as there are instances when a resident may be eligible to vote at a certain location for the local election, but not for state or federal, and this would create further confusion and real-time problems at the polls.

Tyer did recommend changing the signature requirements to run for at-large council seats from 300 to 150, comparable to those needed to run for state representative, while keeping the threshold at 300 for mayor. Tyer also proposed that the inaugural swearing in for School Committee be combined with that of the mayor and City Council.

This concept proved favorable with all members of the School Committee, who cited cost, efficiency and symbolic considerations.  

"I think some of the School Committee members have felt like we've been a little bit of a second-class citizen when we don't get sworn in with everyone else," Amuso said.

The timetable for the conclusion of the committee's review of the city charter remains somewhat uncertain. The group is expected to release a preliminary report within six months of its September formation and supply its final report to the city by September 2013.

However, Stephen McGuldrick, a consultant hired to assist the committee in the process, has urged the panel to try to have its work done by April 2013 so that proposed changes can be on the November 2013 ballot.

Any changes proposed by the special committee are to be taken as recommendations by the City Council. To take effect, they must be approved by the council and the mayor and put before the voters at the following municipal election. Only if affirmed would the charter then be sent to the state Legislature for final approval.

The next step in the charter review process will be a public hearing to be held at City Hall on Jan. 2, 2013.

Tags: charter review,   Pittsfield School Committee,   

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