Boston council votes to waive special election requirement

Boston Statehouse

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh spoke to reporters Monday at Faneuil Hall after swearing in the city’s new police commissioner. (Courtesy/Jeremiah Robinson/Mayor’s Office)

BOSTON (SHNS) – A City Council vote Wednesday moved Boston a step closer to skipping the special election its charter would require if Mayor Marty Walsh resigns before March 5, as appears likely.

A day before Walsh, President Biden’s pick for labor secretary, is set to appear in front of a U.S. Senate committee for his confirmation hearing, 12 of the council’s 13 members voted in favor of a home rule petition that would dispense with the special election requirement and allow Council President Kim Janey to serve as acting mayor until the city’s voters choose a successor to Walsh in the regularly scheduled fall election.

Annissa Essaibi George, one of three councilors currently running for mayor, voted present. The other two declared candidates, Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, voted yes with the rest of the council. Janey, who is considering a run and may have an advantage as acting mayor, voted with the majority and has described the idea of a special election in these circumstances as “at best, foolish, and at worst, dangerous.”

Ricardo Arroyo, the councilor who filed the petition, said that given the COVID-19 crisis, it would be irresponsible for the city to potentially hold four elections — a special, the regular November contest, and preliminary elections preceding each — in a matter of months.

He said that multiple mayoral elections during a pandemic and in such a short time period would present “a serious threat to the health of our residents, our city workers and our communities, and will contribute to the disenfranchisement of people of color, disabled and low-income communities, and would be wasteful and costly as an expenditure for the city at a time when our revenues are down and so many of our critical services are in need of increased funding.”

Boston’s charter stipulates that if a mayor vacates the office more than 16 weeks from the date of the next election there must be a special election 120 to 140 days later.

The petition, which needs approval from Walsh, the state Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker to become law, would amend the charter to specify that if the mayor’s office becomes vacant in 2021, no special election would be held to fill the vacancy, and a mayor will instead be elected in the next municipal election.

Baker has indicated he’d sign the petition if it reaches his desk and last month inked his signature on a similar home-rule bill allowing Lawrence to bypass a mayoral special election this year.

Without offering an opinion specifically on whether Boston should hold a special election, Baker said on Jan. 14 that he signs home-rule petitions “as a general rule.”

The chair of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, Lydia Edwards, said Wednesday that the committee received “copious amounts of public comment” on the petition and that “99.99 percent of the people who testified” at a hearing last week wanted to do away with the special election.

“Slight concerns” were expressed about following the city’s rules as written, Edwards said.

In past meetings, councilors had discussed the politics surrounding the petition, with Matt O’Malley raising concerns that the move could be viewed as the council “putting the thumb on the scale” for a mayoral hopeful, and Frank Baker questioning how it would look if the Legislature acted quickly on this bill while ignoring others filed by the council.

Councilor Baker on Wednesday suggested re-establishing a special committee on the city’s charter and possible reforms. He also called it “beyond reprehensible” that someone leaked an internal legal memo regarding the home-rule petition to media outlets.

Arroyo said that he was not the person who provided the memo to The Boston Globe but that whoever did “was within their rights to do so, whether you agree with it or not.”

MassVOTE Executive Director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford said a special election “would have undoubtedly led to voter fatigue and confusion, while posing an unnecessary risk to public health as the COVID19 pandemic rages on.”

“This is especially true for the city’s Black and brown, low income, and immigrant residents, who have suffered most from the pandemic, and have long faced systemic barriers when it comes to voting,” Clyburn Crawford said.

The next stop for the petition is Beacon Hill where legislative leaders nearly a month into the new session have yet to assign lawmakers to committees or announce leadership appointments. The petition will most likely face a public hearing before the Joint Election Laws Committee.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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