REFORMING THE BOSTON CITY COUNCIL : CRITIQUE AND PROPOSAL

Andrea Campbell, City Council president, has so some news for you. He heard her. She didn’t say, buit will you enormously

Some of Boston’s City Councillors now advocate that the Council term move from 2 years to 4 years. Strongly I oppose this idea.

Look : before 1924, when the wards of Boston were last apportioned by the Suffolk County Apportionment Commission that hadn’t met since — despite the state law requiring it meet every ten years — the Council members were elected by Ward and had one year terms. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to revisit THAT.

Complaint # 1 made by the proponents : elections cost the City money. Less electing saves money.

Sorry, I’m not buying it. Democracy does occasionally cost money. Better that than dictation.

Complaint # 2 : four year terms would free the Council members from having to campaign constantly.

My response : (a) wanna bet ? (B) what’s wrong with the members having to campaign constantly ?

The Council is an advisory body, not a legislature. Its only power of any consequence is to approve the budget. I know that many Council members want to be a kind of Congress member — she-roic tribunes of Social Justice — maybe even of “environmental justice,” whatever that is — but no : the City works better with a strong Mayor, advised by a council whose most useful role is to suggest and negotiate. If that means less public attention on the members, that’s fine, especially in the era of social media, where loud speech by every interest group – the more radical, the louder — intimidates electeds in the direction of loud. (Note : Althea Garrison, who is now an at-large Councillor, opposes the measure.)

I should note that the same proposal would require a special election to fill a Council vacancy. Would that election not cost the money the proponent claims to save by not having elections every two years ? Of course it would.

So much for the four year Council term. That said, I do favor some city charter reforms. I’ve written already — about two months ago — that the Council ought to move from nine Districts to eleven. Boston having added at least 100,000 new people since the last census, if we want to maintain the 70,000 population mean for Council Districts, adding two members has to happen. In support, that 70,000 figure fairly well fits the sizes of Boston’s major neighborhoods, on a combination thereof.

As I noted above, before 1924 the City’s Council was elected from the city’s wards, which until 1934 were apportioned by population, more or less. In 1934, and ever since, the City’s wards have had no election meaning; no office is decided by ward boundaries. My suggestions for reform, then, are these : first, the Districts — ( 1 ) elect 22 Councillors, one from each of the newly boundaried wards ( 2 ) elect eleven, one each from two wards plus or minus ( 3 ) create eleven wards and elect three councillors from each; second, the compensation : instead of paying $ 99,000 salary to thirteen councillors, pay a small stipend to each — say, $ 25,000 — and boost the pay of council staffs : the idea being that the bread and butter work of researching issues and potential City policies is really staff work and that the Councillor should view his or her job as advisory and secondary to his or her earnings; third, the method of election : I strongly favor the current process, whereby the top two finishers face off in a final. I oppose the current fad for ranked-choice voting, a system which invites interest groups to crowd the ballot with six, seven, ten candidates all from more or less the same agenda group, the idea being that ten candidates working more or less together can amass more votes versus a disliked opponent than any one of them could win on her own. We saw a perfect example of this last November in Maine’s Second Congress District, where two similarly “liberal” candidates together won enough votes to defeat the “conservative” incumbent, as either one of them alone would likely not have done.

A friend this morning suggested an additional procedure : that the required number of signatures to nominate be lowered from about 1,800 to 1,000 and that it not take a mere three weeks to certify them.

I also favor an elected school committee, because school issues are a universe of their own and because the Mayor cannot be held to account on school matters alone. Boston’s many school constituencies need to be seen for what they are and do; that’s hard given the current appointed committee, overseeing a $ 1.7 billion budget that includes $ 100 million at least of capital planning. A school committee elected for three year terms, elected from districts conforming to the City’s currents seat-assignment District, with five committee people elected from the large assignment districts, four from the next in size, and three from the smaller zones, would be both representative and diverse in its viewpoints.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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