Election override vote set for Wednesday

Walsh's departure date remains unclear

Pressure is mounting on the Boston City Council to set aside a special election that would be triggered by the city charter if Mayor Walsh vacates his seat before March 5, a scenario that appears likely as Biden cabinet nominations are moving through US Senate confirmation hearings at a quick pace.

On Tuesday, a Home Rule Petition that would override the requirement for a special election was largely embraced by councillors and citizens who logged on to testify during a virtual hearing of the council’s Committee on Government Operations. The panel’s chair, District 1 Councillor Lydia Edwards, confirmed that there will be a vote on the petition during next week’s (Feb. 3) regular meeting, following a working session scheduled for this Friday at 2 p.m.

If approved by the majority of the council, the petition, put forth by Councillor Ricardo Arroyo, will also need the support of the mayor, the Legislature, and Gov. Baker, who has indicated he would sign such a bill if it was sent to him.

A spokesperson for Walsh told the Reporter on Tuesday that the mayor “has not taken a position on the bill, but he will follow the will of the Boston City Council.” 

In his opening comments on Tuesday, Arroyo criticized a legal memo written by a council attorney last week suggesting that announced mayoral candidates Councillors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell –and Council President Kim Janey, who will be the acting mayor once Walsh resigns— might face conflict of interest violations if they registered a vote on the home rule measure.

Saying the memo was based on “a faulty application of law,” Arroyo also noted that his proposal is not the first of its kind, that it follows very recent precedent set in Lawrence. In that instance, a home rule petition filed to override a special election to replace Mayor Dan Rivera, who resigned early this month to take a new role as president and CEO of Mass Development, was signed by Gov. Baker after it had gained all the interim approvals.

Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the NAACP’s Boston branch who supports the petition, also referred to the “questionable legal counsel that has been shared with this body. What I’ve seen is not legal analysis; it is a complete misread of the law on its face,” she said. “We have to call it out as an attempt to oppress and subjugate.”

Janey, who spoke strongly in favor of Arroyo’s petition, pointed to a State Ethics Commission opinion that all councillors could vote on the matter, saying, “For anyone concerned about conflicts of interest, the Ethics Commission has the final say and can offer advice to anyone who has questions.” 

She offered her views on the merits of bypassing a special election: “Hosting multiple elections would cost millions and jeopardize the health and wellness of our city, especially in the communities disproportionately impacted.” A special election is “at best foolish and at worst dangerous,” she added.

Campbell, who announced her mayoral bid last fall and recently came out in support of the measure, confirmed that she would participate in the vote. Wu, who has also declared for mayor, supports the measure, but she did not participate in Tuesday’s hearing.

Other councillors who spoke up included District 3’s Frank Baker, who said he’s “totally undecided” on the matter, but added: “I’m thrilled that people have found the financial light.” 

District 2’s Ed Flynn said he has heard constituent concerns around a special election during the pandemic, and that he is open to “learning and weighing the details.” At-Large Councillor Michael Flaherty said his “chief concern is that our residents have a voice in this process while balancing the public health needs, while balancing financial cost to our citizenry.” And At-Large Councillor Julia Mejia expressed “full support” of the petition, as did Councillor Kenzie Bok, although she said the councillors shouldn’t try to “silence concerns” about the “mixed political motives” at play in the debate.

Nearly 100 participants at the online hearing raised concerns about the cost and safety of holding four elections during public comment. 

“Holding two additional elections in indoor venues creates an unnecessary risk for spreading Covid-19 and would cost about $3 million,” said Cheryl Clyburn-Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, a nonpartisan voting rights policy organization. 

Said Mimi Ramos, executive director of New England United for Justice, a community organization in Dorchester and Mattapan, “We need decisive and swift leadership from the City Council to pass the home rule petition within the next week. This is about putting our community’s health and well-being before politics.”

During a panelist discussion, Michelle Tassinari, State Director of Elections said, “The Secretary of the Commonwealth has indicated his support to not have the special election in these circumstances. It is important to recognize that these are different circumstances than any other year.”

Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said the organization “concurs with arguments presented in the proposed Home Rule Petition” if Walsh resigns before March 5, citing financial and operational burdens, voter fatigue and reduced civic engagement, and disruption to city government and service delivery.

A few state officials testified in support of the petition, including state Representative Russell Holmes. 

 “This is not a city issue for me … it’s fundamentally about special elections and how systemic racism disenfranchises our communities,” Holmes told the Reporter in a phone call on Tuesday. He pointed to a piece of legislation he proposed in 2019 that called for cancelling special elections across the board. 

Holmes said the petition will pass if it’s advanced to Beacon Hill. “After seeing what happened in Lawrence … everyone can really see clearly that right now is not a great time for elections with Covid,” he said.

Rep. Dan Hunt also supports the measure. “If Mayor Walsh is confirmed as Labor Secretary, it’s more democratic to have an open election in the fall to allow for voters to fully vet the candidates. That said, it’s unfortunate the council hadn’t addressed this issue previously,” Hunt said.

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