Councillors vote to lengthen office term, take up speed limits 3 home rule petitions aired

Two home rule petitions – extending the term of office for Boston city councillors and limiting candidates to running for a single office at a time – were voted through at the council meeting on Wednesday.

District 3 Councillor Frank Baker has proposed the petitions through the Special Committee on Charter Reform, which he chairs. Councillors postponed voting on the elections petitions, which have been in the works for years, last Wednesday and took them up again yesterday.

Limiting potential candidates to seek only one municipal office at a time would “streamline municipal elections and maintain the integrity of the municipal elections process,” according to the April 6 report from the committee chairs. Declaring which office a candidate intends to seek would also increase the fairness to voters, the committee concluded.

Former District 4 city councillor Charles Yancey ran simultaneously in 2013 for both his long-held council seat and for mayor. He lost the run for the mayor’s seat but kept his council post by a large margin.
The other election petition seeks to extend the councillor term from two to four years. Baker, elected in 2011 and re-elected twice, said the biennial election is a burden on city resources both of the financial and human variety. “There’s almost campaign fatigue out there,” Baker said. “We’re constantly in campaign mode.”

The council heard testimony on the cost and time commitment of the two-year election cycle at a Government Operations Committee hearing on March 2. A general citywide election costs about $800,000, according to the Elections Department. With a preliminary election, the cost rises to about $1.6 million, Baker said.

Turnout in non-mayoral year elections is consistently low; it hovered between 12 and 15 percent in 2015. In 2013, a mayoral year, it was pegged at about 40 percent. Aligning council elections with mayoral years would increase overall engagement in the municipal process, proponents said.

Another home-rule petition on Baker’s radar involves loweringthe default speed limit in the City of Boston.

Baker told the Reporter that complaints about speeding drivers using small neighborhood streets as cut-throughs are “constant.” He added: “People want stop signs and they want speed bumps, raised crosswalks. We’re not able to do that at this point.” A speed limit reduction is a logical step, Baker said.
The default speed limit in densely settled areas is currently 30 miles per hour. The petition asks that it be set at 20 miles per hour in “thickly settled or business district[s]” and 15 miles per hour in all school zones.

As to wider streets like Commonwealth Avenue, where higher speeds are appropriate, Baker said the city will need to post appropriate signage noting the speed limit.

Current law allows the city to adjust the speed limit on roadways – provided the limit change occurs after a comprehensive traffic study. Asserting the cost of a traffic study for every street in Boston would be “burdensome and cost prohibitive,” the home rule petition maintains that “the City of Boston… should be authorized to adjust the speed limits on streets within its control without a traffic study.”

Baker believes 30 miles per hour is an unsafe speed to allow in heavily residential or business areas. Given a higher legal speed, “the concern of the driver to get from Point A to Point B,” Baker said, “and flying through our neighborhoods is the way to do it.”

Both elections home rules passed during the council meeting Wednesday. The council unanimously voted through the role limiting simultaneous office runs, and City Council President Michelle Wu was the one dissenting vote on four-year terms. The speed limit proposal remains in committee.


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