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Everett finally abandoning its bicameral government

Last city in the US to do so

Everett will do away with its 18-member Common Council and seven-member Board of Aldermen, shown together in session, in favor of an 11-member City Council starting in 2014. Everett will do away with its 18-member Common Council and seven-member Board of Aldermen, shown together in session, in favor of an 11-member City Council starting in 2014. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / December 8, 2011
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If you stand around long enough in downtown Everett, there’s a chance you’ll bump into an elected official. In this city, where 38,000 people are squeezed into 3.4 square miles, everyone seems to know at least one of the 25 members of the bicameral City Council - a form of government that has been in existence here for more than 100 years.

Established to mirror the state and federal legislation system, bicameral governments were once popular in New England but began to be phased out early in the last century. Everett remains the last municipality in the United States to have a bicameral City Council.

Beginning in 2014, the bicameral government will become a footnote in the history books. Last month, residents voted to abolish the 25-member, dual-branch Common Council and Board of Aldermen and replace it with a streamlined 11-member City Council.

The vote - which also included prohibiting future city councilors from signing up for the city’s health plan - came after the city established a commission to look into changing the city’s 119-year-old charter.

“We’re all talking about downsizing and tightening our belts. It’s time,’’ said Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria, who believes that the city will save money by eliminating 14 government positions and health premiums for 13 council members.

Everett now pays the 25 representatives a total of $150,000 a year - the 18 Common Council members each earn $5,500 annually, and the seven aldermen make $7,200. The city also pays out another $181,000 a year for health premiums for the 13 councilors who signed on to the city’s health plan.

Beginning in 2014, the city will save at least $181,000 annually after it stops offering health insurance to councilors. Other potential savings are unclear. When the new City Council is elected in two years, the council will vote to set its own salary. The current pay for city councilors in surrounding cities shows no regional consensus: In Chelsea, councilors earn $8,000 annually; in Melrose, $5,000; in Revere, $15,460.

In Everett, some councilors looked toward the city’s distinction of having the last local bicameral government as a badge of pride. Until 1967, they shared a fraternal bond with Waterville, Maine - which was the only other city in the United States with a bicameral local government - communing with picnics and summer softball games. But Waterville abolished its bicameral system in 1968, leaving Everett as the sole city to cling to a form of government with roots in Colonial America.

Everett City Clerk Mike Matarazzo said the lore of standing out and having the last form of anything in the United States helped keep the bicameral system in place.

“There’s something about being the only one in the country. It was a distinction,’’ said Matarazzo, who served for 18 years on the Common Council.

If it was a distinction, it was also a platform for aspiring politicians who used the Common Council and Board of Aldermen as a stepladder to higher government. George Keverian, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and former lieutenant governor Sumner Whittier were first elected to the Common Council. And for the last 75 years, every elected mayor of Everett first apprenticed in the bicameral system.

There has always been some tension between Everett’s 18-member Common Council and its seven-member Board of Aldermen. Aldermen have the upper hand, and approve licenses and most mayoral appointees. Still, the two branches work together to approve all major spending and the city budget. Each body meets separately every two weeks, and since each branch requires two votes to approve any new ordinance, the process of crafting one piece of legislation - such as a proposal to install a new stop sign - could take up to a month. In recent years, residents became more critical of the legislative process, with some calling it duplicative and inefficient.

“The people saw this bicameral government as a place of bickering, gridlock, and confusion. When you have 18 in one branch and seven in the other, there’s no consensus,’’ said Paul Schlosberg, a former city councilor who served as chairman of a city charter committee that recommended eliminating the two-branch system. “With the new City Council you’ll be able to pinpoint responsibility, where one branch can’t blame another. It makes it easier for the public to see who’s making the decisions.’’

DeMaria, who served on the Common Council and the Board of Aldermen before being elected mayor, said he believes the role of the 18-member Common Council hasn’t changed in decades. The council comprises three representatives from each of the city’s six wards; six aldermen are also elected by ward. This allows one resident from every 10 streets of a neighborhood to serve in city government.

“It was not really about initiating legislation,’’ said DeMaria, who called the Common Council representatives extended city workers. “They are extended cops, firemen, DPW workers. They are the guys that get the potholes fixed and the dogs out of the park, and who call the police when kids are in the park too late. That’s their role.’’

Some councilors who led a group that opposed charter change say the move will cost Everett more in the long run, and also will remove the extra eyes and ears that city officials have in neighborhoods. Under the new charter, just one member of the new City Council will come from each ward and the rest will be elected citywide.

“Why would you fix something that is not broken?’’ said Rosa DiFlorio, who has served six years on the Common Council. “I thought it was the best form of government. You had checks and balances.’’

Rosemary Miller, who is beginning her third term on the Common Council, said the new City Council members will expect more than the $7,200 salary the current aldermen earn.

“When you have less people doing the same amount of work, they’re going to expect more money,’’ said Miller.

Miller said if salaries increase, the city will pay more for pensions when council members retire. To be eligible, elected officials must serve at least 10 years. Currently, the city pays out $21,282 annually for pensions for six former councilors and aldermen: William Apruzzese, Warren Clifford, Gilbert Dell Isola, Joseph Marchese, John Ragucci, and Peter Simonelli.

Michael Marchese, president of the Board of Aldermen, also opposed the change. He called the bicameral system “an inexpensive way for people to have access to government officials.’’

But residents like Conrad Casarjian dismissed Marchese’s assertion and said it was time to count every penny spent.

“It’s time we stop subsidizing unneeded politicians’ income,’’ he said. “There was a strong vested interest in maintaining the system because everyone had the ear of some politician, and everyone was related. It was good for exerting one’s personal influence on the political scene.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.

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