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Voting Booth Next Step for Pittsfield City Charter

When Pittsfield residents head to the voting booths in November, there will be an item on the ballot voters haven’t seen in the city in more than 80 years.

This week, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patricksigned Pittsfield’s proposed city charter into law. It would replace the current charter, which dates back to 1932. City Clerk Linda Tyer says the process included a top-down review of the charter including fixing outdated provisions that conflicted with state law.

“There were conversations about should we still have a mayor and city council form of government?" Tyer said. "Should we have city manager and mayor form of city government? In the final analysis, the members who served on the committee made a recommendation that we should continue with current form of government which is an elected mayor, an elected city council, and an elected school committee.”

If approved, the law would modernize the charter’s language, lengthen the mayoral term from two to four years and provide a provision allowing school committee members to be paid upon approval of city government. Tyer called a charter a city’s version of a constitution and noted the change to the mayoral term.

“Primarily the reason people who were involved in the drafting of this ordinance, the reason that they felt they wanted to increase the term was to allow the mayor to have more opportunity for long term planning," said Tyer.

The process of creating a new charter began in August 2012, when an 11-member charter review committee was assembled, and worked over the following months to conduct the review and make recommendations with public input. This May, the city council unanimously approved a draft charter. Last month, a city committee testified to the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government in support of the bill that would allow the city to pursue a new charter. The committee included State Representatives Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Paul Mark, Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi, and state Senator Benjamin Downing.

“I felt like and I know the entire delegation felt like we had a strong case to make to move the bill expeditiously because the city had gone through just an extension process, and such an open process," said Downing. "There were many voices that were allowed to be heard.”

Democratic Representative Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield echoed her fellow lawmaker.

“They had 19 meetings of the commission, all were publicly televised and open to the public," Farley-Bouvier said. "They had two meetings specific for public input, people could come in and say what they wanted to. Any time it was discussed in front of the city council it was public, so that was something that was very impressive to me. When we went to Boston, had a hearing on it in front of the Committee on Municipalities, they were very impressed by the process.”

Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield, says it’s very unusual for a bill to be filed, passed by the state legislature, and signed into law by the governor within three months.

“Multiple members of the municipalities committee pointed out that in their districts just a simple change to the city charter or to town charters had led to significant political discord and in this case the city is completely rewriting their charter," he said. "I think there was a broad consensus and that’s a credit to the leadership of the city.”

The item titled Chapter 72 of the Acts of 2013 will be on the November 5 ballot. Tyre says the City Clerk’s office will make the charter available online for residents to view once the state sends the final version. Mayor Bianchi says he hopes to hold public meetings on the charter in the months leading up to election day. If approved, the charter’s provisions would not go into effect until January 2016.

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