Civil Rights Group Will Explore Legal Options Following Council Vote

The surprise rejection by the City Council on Nov. 23 of a Charter Change to prevent a Voting Rights Act lawsuit has one Civil Rights group looking at its legal options against the City if the matter doesn’t pass on reconsideration Dec. 14.

Everett’s electoral system came under fire more than two years ago due to the fact that ward councilors for the City Council and School Committee are elected by a citywide vote rather than a vote of the ward-only. That was a system put in place by the new City Charter in 2014, but a system that has been challenged elsewhere in Massachusetts – most recently in Lowell – as a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

On Nov. 23, the matter was at long-last coming up for a vote, and with the support of Mayor Carlo DeMaria, City Clerk Sergio Cornelio and Council Dean Wayne Matewsky, it was considered a shoe-in. But the shoe-in was shoed away as the Council surprisingly rejected the measure in a 7-4 vote – with a total of eight votes needed to prevail.

Those voting against were Councilors Peter Napolitano, Jimmy Tri Le, Fred Capone and John Hanlon.

Napolitano – who was rumored to be leaving the Council this month, though that couldn’t be confirmed – did file for reconsideration and it will be taken up again on Dec. 14. That said, those challenging the system did not find it heartening to see the rejection, saying it reminded them of the case in Lowell where that City fought the matter in court and lost after spending more than $1 million on legal costs.

“It is disappointing to hear that the Everett City Council appears to have decided to maintain an electoral system where all City Councilors are elected at-large,” said Oren Sellstrom of Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston. “This was a real missed opportunity. Federal courts have frequently ruled that at-large electoral systems have the potential to illegally dilute the vote of communities of color. In our successful lawsuit against the City of Lowell over their similar electoral system, one of the key reasons we highlighted to justify federal court intervention was that the City Council had refused to change voluntarily. Unfortunately, it appears that Everett is going down that same road. We will continue to work with our community allies in Everett and explore all available legal options to protect the voting rights of communities of color.”

Councilor Fred Capone said he doesn’t dispute the premise, but said in any Charter Change he believes it should go to a vote of the people on a ballot. That same sentiment was voiced by Napolitano at a recent Council meeting, as he was a major figure in re-writing the City Charter around 2010 and said the people needed to speak by voting on any changes.

Capone said he keeps hearing about people ready to sue the City, but he’s never seen any paperwork and would like to have them come to present their concerns before suing.

“I would like the group to come in and tell us what violation they see and have neighborhood meetings about this,” he said. “They should bring the issue to people’s attention and put it on the ballot.”

Councilor Anthony DiPierro has said he is tired of debating the issue, and was encouraged that a vote was taken, but said he was disappointed that it was rejected.

“I am disappointed that the ward voting change was voted down last week,” he said. “Aside from being the proper decision based on legal precedent, I think it makes councilors better representatives of the wards and brings more accountability to the table.”

Councilor Gerly Adrien said she had sat down with the Lawyers for Civil Rights before she ran for Council to understand their concerns. She said she believes it would be the right thing to do to approve the matter on Dec. 14.

“When I sat down with the Lawyers for Civil Rights about this piece before I even thought about running for City Council, I knew that the charter structure was wrong on the citywide voting structure for the ward seats,” she said. “I hope that the City Councilors would help save taxpayers funds by voting Yes to make these changes on the charter or risk being sued.”

Clerk Cornelio confirmed that the matter had been reviewed by outside legal counsel and studied by several inside and outside City Hall. The determination was that the changes – the largest being the change to ward-only voting for ward seats – were appropriate. He said the reconsideration process would play out on Dec. 14, and the Council would need two-thirds of those present to vote in the affirmative to approve the change.

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