Pushback by Columnist Al Norman: Greenfield would benefit from an all-at-large City Council

  • AL NORMAN

Published: 1/18/2022 2:44:48 PM
Modified: 1/18/2022 2:43:43 PM

In 2002, the Greenfield Charter Commission recommended a Charter that reduced our Town Council from 27 to 13 members, and replaced the five-member Board of Selectmen with a mayor. The Town Council was restructured to consist of four “councilors at large” elected by the “voters at large,” and nine “precinct councilors” elected only by the “voters in each precinct.” This meant that a voter in Greenfield was allowed to vote for only five (38%) out of 13 Councilors.

As of Nov. 1, 2021, Greenfield had 13,019 registered voters. The average “precinct councilor” represents roughly 1,454 voters. City councilors currently serve four-year terms, elected in staggered terms, to prevent a complete council turnover at one time. In the 2021 election, voters elected councilors in Precincts 5,6,7,8, and 9, plus two at-large seats.

The 2021 election illustrated why “precinct councilors” are no longer an effective and useful way to select our city legislators. Of the five precinct councilors who ran, none of them had opponents on the ballot. Two councilors eventually had write-in opponents, whose names were not on the ballot. None of the precinct councilors who were elected received more than 300 votes. Of the two at-large seats, one was an unopposed incumbent, the other was a write-in. The write-in candidate received a total of 215 votes. Thus six of the seven councilors who began their terms this January, took office with less than 300 votes — just over 2% of the registered voters. The paucity of candidate races and the lethargic voter turnout were warning signs of electoral malaise. Many voters have unplugged themselves from local politics.

There are two major reasons for this incredibly small margin of victory for precinct-based candidates: low voter turnout generally in an off-year election, and the fact that voters in Precincts 1,2,3, and 4 could not vote for any of the five precinct candidates — because the voters live in the other precincts. The fact that many of these candidates were running unopposed, did not help motivate voters. People were elected city legislators with an insignificant level of voter support — in part because we carve up our electorate into 9 precinct subparts, and disenfranchise almost half the electorate by not allowing them to vote outside of their precinct.

It’s time to remove the invisible lines that divide our voters into precincts, to ask all candidates seeking a council seat to run at large, and to affirm they represent all the voters of our city — which they say they do already. All candidates would have to gather 100 signatures to run instead of 50, which is far less than the hundreds of signatures voters would collect to mount a referendum challenging a City Council vote by the councilors they elected.

It’s time to treat our small city as one community, one constituency, where all our elected officials look after the needs of the whole city, and are elected by voters throughout the city. It is tenuous to argue that if one part of the city has a specific need, that only the councilor who lives in that precinct will respond to its needs. Our population level today is not much different than it was in 1950.We are small enough to work together on the needs of the entire community, and to engage voters in electing everyone who sits on our local legislature. If a member turns a deaf ear to the needs of any part of Greenfield, he or she can expect their constituents across the city will vote them out of office.

Shifting to an “all-at-large” council empowers and engages all voters, and responds to the reality that a number of precincts have found it hard to attract anyone to run for the council, forcing write-in campaigns. When our next election rolls around, if four seats are open, the top four vote-getters would be seated on the council.

The City Council is currently reviewing the City Charter. With a few minor word edits to sections 2-1 and 7-4, and at no expense, we can move to being “all at large.” Each Greenfield voter will have 13 councilors who they helped elect — ready to respond to local constituency issues.

We can retain precinct lines for administrative purposes, but we will give all voters a more prominent role in electing all their representativesand give all candidates a chance to run on what their ideas are, rather than what their address is.

Greenfield resident Al Norman has worked on local, county and statewide electoral campaigns for four decades.


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