Council votes in favor of Charter change on ward-only voting
Ending more than a year of discussion, the City Council voted 9-2 to make a Charter Change that would change how Ward councilors and School Committee Ward representatives are voted into office – making their seats be a vote of the ward only and not of the entire city.
Councilors John Hanlon and Fred Capone voted against the matter. The matter now advances to the State House as a Home Rule Petition for further review and potential approval.
Right now, in one of the few communities to have such a system, Everett ward councilors and Committee members are elected by a citywide vote instead of a ward-only vote. That means a candidate can actually win the vote of the ward, but lose the election. The Council and the City has been moving to make that change since receiving notice from the Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston that the system is likely a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act as it could dilute the vote of communities of color. They have indicated to the newspaper several times they are watching Everett’s moves on the matter, and are prepared to file a lawsuit if necessary to force the change.
They won a similar lawsuit in Lowell some years ago after a long and expensive fight in court.
The proposal in Everett had been voted down at the Dec. 7 meeting, surprisingly, but was called for Reconsideration by former Councilor Peter Napolitano, who has since resigned to pursue a City job. On Monday night, it was finally brought back to the body, where it was approved after about an hour of discussion.
City Solicitor Colleen Mejia said her reading is that the Council needed to make the change with a Charter Commission, but she also said that would likely lead to a lawsuit being filed. She said there are other opinions that support the idea of it being a legal change as a Home Rule as well. In the end, she said there’s no easy answer.
“I think you guys are between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “Either way you decide to act, the outcome is going to be the same. Either way would also be a valid way in the eyes of the state.”
Councilor Wayne Matewsky was the lead sponsor on the change, and said it’s long past time to take action on making this change.
“I think it’s the right thing now,” he said. “The truth of the matter is there are many people here that are open to this change. It’s the fair thing to do. If a candidate gets 1,000 votes in the district, and the other candidate gets 100 votes in the district, but wins on the citywide vote, that’s not how it should work.”
Capone said he has no problem with the premise, but feels any Charter Change needs to be in the hands of the voters.
“I understand where everyone is coming from, but for me the Charter is akin to our Constitution,” he said. “If we start chipping away at it, I don’t think we have the authority to change it…When you get to larger things, you have to be careful with it…Different lawyers have different opinions, but the statute reads changing of manner of election is not allowed. My reading is it’s a violation of the law and a violation of the public trust. Major changes to the Charter I will always vote ‘no’ because I believe it belongs in the hands of the people.”
Councilor Gerly Adrien said she understands the desire to let the people vote on the matter, but said the City risks a lawsuit for a violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act. She said there are at least two wards in the City that aren’t properly represented.
“We have wards in our city where there are communities of color, particularly Haitian – which I am proud to be of – and Latinos,” she said. “We do not have the right number of representation in our city to reflect the whole city, which is why this is illegal. For some of my councilors who do not understand, we are violating a federal right. We need to make sure we do this right from the beginning. I understand the Charter Commission formed this, but they were wrong. We need to change this or we will get sued like the other city.”
Councilor Anthony DiPierro said the former Charter Commission was too political, and this was a result of that. He said it’s time to vote.
“I personally think this change makes us more accountable as ward representatives,” he said. “There’s not a whole city to hide it. You need to be accountable in that ward and make sure things are done. It makes us better representatives. It’s simple…This is the right thing to do. We’ve been talking about it over a year and I’m tired of talking about it…You want to talk about a Charter Commission, I don’t even want to go there. The last Charter Commission was as political as it could be.”
Councilor Michael McLaughlin said it’s time to take a tough vote, and noted he had talked to hundreds of people about this and other recent Charter changes.
“If we’re going to get sued, I don’t want to send our City down a foxhole,” he said. “If we vote on this tonight, we’re not harming the City or the people. We’re asking the state to look at it…If they tell us we’re wrong, we go back. It’s time for us to stand up as big men and women and take votes…If we don’t do that tonight, we are doing a disservice to the men and women of Everett and we don’t deserve our paychecks at the end of the month.”
Hanlon said Everett is diverse across the board, and he doesn’t think there are any particular “pockets” of people who are being disenfranchised. He said the change needed to happen with a Charter Commission.
“Maybe they went into Lowell and found whole areas of that city that are Latino, so they had to change it,” he said. “Where do you find that in Everett? Where are these pockets of people? I see Haitians all over the city. I see Italians all over the city. I see Irish people all over the city. I see Latinos all over the city. So the point is where are these pockets that deserve this representation? I don’t find it bad that we want to change the charter, but we should be looking into electing a Charter Commission.”
The matter will be forwarded to the State House, and it will likely be scheduled for a hearing in the Joint Committee of the House and Senate.