Is two years too short?
Some communities lengthen mayoral terms from two to four years
THIRTEEN TIMES between 1983 and 2010, John Barrett III ran for mayor of North Adams and won. But Barrett said the constant drumbeat of running for election in the second year of each two-year term took its toll on his energy and his ability to focus on the job at hand.
Barrett is part of a growing movement that thinks two-year terms for mayors of Massachusetts cities and towns is bad public policy. Barrett and others say a shift to four-year terms would eliminate much of the political posturing that goes with a two-year term and send a message of stability and accountability to businesses who need reassurance that policies and processes won’t change in the blink of an eye.
“What can you reasonably get done and get judged by in two years?” asks Stephen McGoldrick, the interim director of the Collins Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who advises local communities seeking to change their governance. “When you’re there for two, it seems the bureaucracy is less responsive than if you’re there for four.”
In Massachusetts, 46 communities have mayors. Of those mayors, 33 have two-year terms, 12 serve four-year terms, and one, Greenfield, has a three-year term. Five communities have shifted from two-year to four-year terms since 1998 and three others—Everett, Newburyport, and Northampton—are changing this fall. Voters in Agawam will be asked this fall if they want a four-year mayor while efforts are underway in Quincy and Pittsfield to place a four-year mayoral term on the ballot. Braintree and Weymouth, the most recent towns to adopt a mayoral form of government, went right to a four-year term for the chief executive in 2008 and 1999, respectively.
Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, who will be running for his fourth, two-year term this year, says he is fine with whatever voters decide. “I knew the rules getting in,” he says. “I’m comfortable with the two years. But I think the four-year term has great merit.”
Koch says running for office every two years inevitably takes time away from doing the job of mayor. “It does divert some of your energy, some of your time, some of your resources,“ he says. “It’s not the 9-5, you live this job. You want to devote all of that energy to getting it done. If there’s a four-year term, there’s times a decision comes up that will have an impact for years down the line. If you’re in a two-year term, you start to think, ‘How’s that going to affect my reelection?’ You’re able to make better business decisions.”
The Quincy term extension drive is being spearheaded by the Quincy Chamber of Commerce, and Koch says the group’s involvement is an indication that businesses are looking for certainty in a city’s chief executive. Quincy is undertaking a $1.6 billion redevelopment of the downtown. Koch says the developer, Street-Works, expressed anxiety during negotiations about the perceived instability of a mayor running every two years and the potential for policies to change if a challenger doesn’t share the same vision.
“Folks dealing with the city don’t want to see horses change in the middle of a project,” says Koch, who is not taking a political stand on the ballot effort. “They wonder, could someone come in and unplug it?”
“That was a major project,” he says. “If there hadn’t been that continuity in government, it would not exist. Any mayor who gets anything done has to be there a minimum of eight years.”
The communities with four-year terms tend to be concentrated in and around Boston, while the vast majority of municipalities with two-year terms are outside Route 128. Barrett says the geographical arrangement may be linked to population density, with smaller communities outside 128 more cautious about change.“They’re smaller and they look at things more carefully,” says Barrett. “That’s a big decision for them to make.”
McGoldrick says that for many municipalities the two-year terms have been around so long that no one questions them. “I think these two-year terms are vestiges of the late 1800s and early 1900s,” he says. Voters “haven’t been able to muster enough energy to change them.”