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Should Brookline become a city? Residents weigh in as charter campaign advances

The front of Brookline Town Hall, a stone building.
Brookline Town Hall. Photo by Clare Ong
May 27, 2024
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As Town Meeting members prepare to gather for their spring session, two parallel efforts to consider the future of Town Meeting itself are gathering steam.

The Brookline City Charter Campaign is making a final push to collect enough signatures to put a question on next year’s municipal ballot that, if successful, would create a charter commission to consider whether Brookline should change its form of government, including potentially becoming a city.

Such a commission is the legally required first step in the process of deciding whether to change a community’s form of governance. So far, the campaign has collected signatures from about 5,000 voters, according to campaign chair Rebecca Stone. It needs certified signatures from 15% of the town’s registered voters, or just over 6,000 people.

If the charter commission campaign secures enough signatures to be on the May 2025 town ballot, the yes-or-no question of forming a charter commission would be put to voters along with the names of potential members of the proposed nine-person commission.

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The campaign’s goal  is to collect enough signatures by the end of this summer to ensure an adequate cushion against the possibility that some signers no longer vote in Brookline, according to Stone.

“We are energized to get it done,” Stone said. “We hope that the enthusiasm we’ve been met with can be matched by a little more enthusiasm, and a lot more help.”

Separate moderator’s committee hears feedback from residents

Meanwhile, a separate Moderator’s Committee on Forms of Government held a public hearing last week to hear from residents about their thoughts on Brookline’s form of government. The Moderator’s Committee was formed by Town Meeting last year to consider making non-binding recommendations about whether Brookline should change its form of government.

Currently, Brookline has a five-member elected Select Board that serves as its executive branch, an elected 263-person Town Meeting as its legislative branch, and a town administrator who is hired by the Select Board to lead the town’s staff.

Stone told the Moderator’s Committee that “accountability, responsiveness and political agency all are weaknesses of Brookline’s current town structure.”

Voters who have signed her campaign’s petition are confused about who makes decisions and who they can hold accountable for those decisions, Stone added. “They want clearer lines of responsibility and authority. When voters have that, decisions have a face and a name.”

Of the 11 people who testified at the Moderator’s Committee hearing, four supported considering becoming a city and four advocated for staying a town. The others did not express a clear opinion one way or the other.

Joseph Ross, a long-time former Town Meeting member, testified in favor of retaining Town Meeting.

“A large 250-member legislative body is more representative of the town than a small city council would be,” Ross said, arguing that its members are also less susceptible to influence from interest groups than a city council might be.

He suggested tweaks around the edges, such as allowing Town Meeting to convene more often.

“Thinking outside the box, I’m sure we can figure out how to bring our Town Meeting form of government into the 21st century,” he said.

Ronni Shapiro, a 40-year town resident, spoke in favor of a charter commission.

“It just seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with looking. A commission … might tell us that we’ve got the best government in the world. They might also tell us there’s a few other ways of doing things,” she said.

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