A home rule petition that will be considered this month by the Boston City Council would extend the terms of individual councillors from two to four years. The measure, introduced by Dorchester’s Frank Baker, is already being billed as a way to save city dollars by eliminating costly, low-turnout “off-year” elections when the at-large and district council seats are the only contests on the ballot.
For our part, we believe this measure would mainly serve to insulate incumbents from citizen review and slow the churn of progressive change on the city council. We hope our delegates at City Hall will leave the current cycle as it is.
As a general rule, it is exceedingly hard to challenge and unseat incumbents. However, as last week’s municipal election demonstrated, voters can, and do, use these off-year cycles as opportunities to review job performance and – in some instances – to swap out longtime incumbents for new voices. Two newcomers to the council, Annissa Essaibi-George of Dorchester and Andrea Joy Campbell of Mattapan, will be seated in January after unseating Stephen Murphy and Charles C. Yancey, respectively.
Off-year municipal elections offer an opportunity every two years for voters to focus solely on the work of the council. Often diminished – and unfairly so – the council serves a vital role as a check and balance to the mayor’s administration. Our councillors are the ones we call to seek relief from quality of life troubles on our streets, to show and up and take tough stands at zoning board meetings to protect neighborhoods from out-of-whack developments, or to challenge a city administration’s decisions when that is warranted.
While it is true that the body has limited legislative powers, it can, and does, serve a critical function in crafting policy. The executive office – the mayor – needs a full four year term to establish itself, build an administrative team, and develop a track record that can be fairly measured. For councillors, who are not charged with assembling all of the those moving pieces, but rather with giving oversight, a two-year term is sufficient time for them to perform their duties.
Giving voters a bi-annual opportunity to review, and, when necessary, to change the roster of our representation in the council chambers keeps the council fresh, relevant, and responsive. There has been a healthy churn at the council level in recent years, in part because incumbents choose to move on, or to seek other offices. But voters have also used these mid-term elections to unseat the last three at-large councillors who have been un-elected: Albert L. O’Neil (1999), Felix D. Arroyo (2007), and Steve Murphy (2015).
Last week’s election is the best evidence yet that these off-year elections, although perhaps burdensome for individual elected officials and their campaign committees, serve an important role for the public. The council should look for other ways to modernize the city charter and to encourage a more robust turnout among the electorate. Removing one of the electorate’s precious opportunities to weigh in directly on their representation would be the wrong call.