What is the city charter?

January 8, 2010
By

By John Ruch

Review of Boston’s city charter—the laws that are the basis for city government—was an issue in last fall’s mayoral campaign and now may happen in a new Boston City Council effort that will be headed by local Councilor John Tobin.

“It’s the ultimate form of democracy,” Tobin said of the charter review. As the Gazette first reported last month, Tobin and Council President Mike Ross, who represents part of JP, have been working on a possible charter commission to rethink the charter. This week, Ross announced that Tobin will head a new council charter committee to put the idea before residents in a “listening tour.”

But what is the city charter?

You’re probably imagining an old document hanging on a wall somewhere in City Hall. As one city employee told the Gazette with a laugh, “That would be too simple.”

In fact, “The Boston City Charter is not a single document, but a collection of laws…” So explains the shortest available summary of the city charter, a document that runs 24 pages long. (For a copy, visit the City Clerk’s office or see www.cityofboston.gov/cityclerk.)

The following is an even shorter summary:

What is a city charter?

A city charter is the bundle of laws that give a city its authority (typically granted by the state) and explain how the city operates. Like a state or federal constitution, a city charter establishes the form of government the city will have. For example, Boston has a mayor and a city council because the charter says it must. A city charter also includes a wide variety of details, from how elections are held to when to begin the fiscal year.

What is Boston’s city charter?

Boston’s city charter is complex and includes hundreds of laws that fill state law books. The basic parts of the Boston city charter are two state charters describing its form of government, one from 1909 and one from 1948-49. The charter also includes special Boston-only laws imposed by the state, and so-called local-option and home rule laws proposed by the city and approved by the state. Finally, all state laws that apply to all cities are considered charter provisions.

When was the city charter last reviewed?

The last complete review of Boston’s form of government appears to have been 1949, when city voters approved a wide range of charter changes. Insiders sometimes call the city charter “Plan A,” because that was the particular slate of charter reforms approved by voters a half-century ago.

Other major changes to the city charter included laws that expanded the number of city councilors (1982) and made Boston School Committee members appointed rather than elected (1991).

Particular laws that are considered charter provisions are added or changed frequently. For example, the new taxes on hotel visits and restaurant meals are authorized by local-option laws that function as charter provisions.
Why review the city charter?

Many cities and towns in Massachusetts and across the country regularly review their charters. The idea is to make sure the government is working well, and to reform it if it is not. The review is typically done by a charter commission that includes members of the public and holds public meetings. While there are many ways for citizens to change specific parts of their government, a charter commission is a chance to take an overall view.

In Boston, charter review has been suggested mostly by city councilors, who naturally would propose giving more power to the City Council. Another possibility is ordering a re-drawing of the city’s voting wards and precincts, which apparently has not been done since the 1909 charter document.

A charter commission could suggest almost any kind of change. An updated charter could even include a requirement for regular charter review.

Tobin’s charter committee will discuss the various methods of changing the charter, then seek input from residents about what they might like to see. A full charter commission may then form. Any extensive charter reform package would require approval by voters on a citywide ballot.