Police oversight and building committees fill the agenda for the Charter Review Committee.

When we last left off with the Charter Review Committee, the plan for their Nov. 23 meeting was to tackle Articles 6 and 7 of the Greenfield City Charter. However, they only got through part of Article 6, which lays out the structure, powers, and responsibilities of the city’s various departments, boards, and commissions.

The administrative organization of the city is pretty complex. That is not intended as a criticism—running a city is a complicated business. Any discussion of how the city’s administrative bodies may (or may not) be working is going to be time-consuming.

However, there were two areas in particular that took up large chunks of the meeting. The first was Section 6-7, “PLANNING AND CONSTRUCTION OF MUNICIPAL BUILDINGS AND OTHER FACILITIES”. The committee had a surprisingly (albeit not overly) long discussion about whether this committee actually exists, who might be on it, and how it may or may not conflict as a standing body with committees that the Mayor may call to oversee specific projects like the construction of the high school, the new library, etc.

I was struck during this part of the discussion by how much of our city charter is the result of very specific concerns among the group of citizens who originally wrote it. As has been mentioned more than a few times by members of the Charter Review Committee over the course of these meetings, the Charter is essentially Greenfield’s Constitution. I think we have this idea1 that such documents are abstract constructions, removed from and superior to the day-to-day details of town government and management. However, Greenfield’s charter is not quite twenty years old, and during this second ten-year review, both Committee Chair David Singer (who was on the original Charter Committee) and former Mayor (now City Councillor) Christine Forgey have made references to what was on the town’s collective mind when the Charter was drafted.

The second part of Article 6 that took up a good portion of the meeting was Section 6-11, “PUBLIC SAFETY COMMISSION”. I missed the public comment period that the Charter Review Committee held when they kicked off their work earlier this year, but from the discussion at last Monday’s meeting, it sounds like they received no small amount of community input regarding civilian oversight of the police. As noted during this meeting, it was a topic that was high in the public’s consciousness over the summer, both locally and nationally, but seems to have receded somewhat over the last few months as activists have focused their efforts elsewhere.2

Amidst that background, the Charter Review Committee had a lengthy discussion of changes to the Public Safety Commission that might enhance its role in providing oversight and review of the Greenfield Police Department. Among the suggestions raised at the meeting were expanding the number of people on the Commission, changing its mandate, and being more specific about the makeup of the Commission’s membership—i.e., make sure it is more demographically representative of Greenfield’s population and that it not be weighted toward former members of law enforcement.

In the end, while the committee made no final decisions regarding any Charter changes it might make to the City Council, the only idea that seemed to gain much traction was a suggestion that a group be formed to look into how public oversight of the police might work. Several members of the committee voiced a concern that such a body could become a forum for false and frivolous accusations against the police and should therefore be considered very carefully. Committee member and Precinct 6 Councilor Sheila Gilmour, on the other hand, noted that as a City Councilor and candidate for Mayor, she has heard from quite a few citizens with stories of police violence and overreach in Greenfield, while Committee member Erin Donnally-Drake noted the absence of any sort of general ombudsperson for the city. The discussion was more or less left there.

The Charter Review Committee will be holding its next meeting on Monday, December 7 at 5:30 PM. They still have a large chunk of Section 6 to cover, and then it’s on to Section 7, “ELECTIONS; ELECTION RELATED MATTERS”. I may be wrong, but that could be another deep-dive discussion, given the recent controversies around citizen petitions and initiatives.

  1. Or at least, some subset of us do, anyway…
  2. At this meeting, Sheila Gilmour and Otis Wheeler—both members of this committee as well as the City Council—noted that activists and other concerned members of the public seem to have decided that working with the municipal government was not going to get much done and had moved on.