Council Begins Discussion on Changing Citywide Ward Voting

City Clerk Sergio Cornelio presented a proposed Charter Change to the City Council on Monday for the body to seriously begin considering a potential change to the way ward councilors are elected – changing from a city-wide vote to a ward-only vote for those six seats.

There would be no change to the at-large Council system, but there would also be a similar change to the six Ward School Committee seats that would mimic the change to the ward council seats.

The issue has come up time and again at the Council over the past years, and it has been underscored by the threat of a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit from the Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston (LCR) group. On Monday, Councilor Wayne Matewsky brought the matter back to the floor so that Cornelio could present the proposed changes. The current system of city-wide voting for ward council seats is a bit unique, and was brought in only a few years ago under the new City Charter. But LCR contends it dilutes the minority vote and discourages potential minority candidates from running.

Matewsky said it is time to seriously consider the matter, and change to a ward-only vote for the six ward council seats.

“I think it’s only fair,” he said. “to get 10 percent of the vote in your ward and be the councilman there strikes me as unfair. The City of Lowell was sued by this Civil Rights group and I think it cost them $1 million…I really believe a ward councilor should be elected from the ward…We’re trying to right what’s wrong.”

Councilor Michael McLaughlin said he would vote for it reluctantly.

“It’s not my suggestion; I like it the way it is and it gives us a better understanding of the whole City and how it’s running…I don’t like this, but I understand it and I’ll support it reluctantly.”

Others like Councilor Peter Napolitano and Councilor Fred Capone were not in favor of the change.

Napolitano, more than anyone else, talked for years about fundamentally changing the Charter – and invested time and money into getting the change made and before the voters. The voters approved the current Charter by nearly a 90 percent vote a little less than 10 years ago. He said it wouldn’t be fair to change something at the Council that the voters wanted.

“The voters set up the charter the way it is,” he said. “They made the decision to vote us citywide…This isn’t Boston where you have racially insulated neighborhoods like Roslindale, JP, South Boston or Roxbury. Everett is not a place where you have ethnicities or race in just one neighborhood…I invested a lot on getting people educated on the need for change. Voters set it up like that. Now to make a change without them doesn’t seem right. I’m not comfortable with it.”

Said Capone, “This body should not decide the charter. The voters should decide. It should be up to the voters.”

Councilor Anthony DiPierro said it was time to make a decision one way or the other. The time to talk, he said, is over.

“I think we should be ready to take action,” he said. “We’ve spoke about it for hours over several years. We don’t need a long history on the Charter…I’m tired of talking about it quite honestly. Let’s take this into consideration and be ready to vote in the future.”

School Committeeman Frank Parker, who represents Ward 3, said he would be in favor of returning to a system with ward-only voting for School Committee.

“I’m a product of the bicameral system and it was a Ward race and position that allowed me to serve this community both as a Common Councilor and then on the School Committee,” he said. “I look forward to running as a Ward candidate again.”

The proposal would change only the ward council seats and the School Committee ward seats. It would also change the numbers of signature one needs to get on the ballot. While at-large seats would stay at 250 signatures, a ward seat would require just 150 signatures to get on the ballot. Similarly, a final change to the Charter would be that to recall a ward councilor, there would need to be a petition signed by 20 percent of the voters in the ward only rather than city-wide.

LCR Boston attorney Oren Sellstrom said on Tuesday they continue to watch and monitor the efforts to change the system in Everett – as they did in their winning battle against the City of Lowell. He said they are encouraged Everett has come up with a proposal and are seriously considering it. However, he said they are ready to use the courts if need be.

“We are encouraged to hear that the Everett City Council is considering a voluntary change to the City’s electoral system, as it appears that the City’s current system illegally dilutes the vote of Everett’s communities of color,” he said. “Maintaining the current system would open the City up to a lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act…If the Everett City Council were to affirmatively reject a proposal for voluntary change, that would only strengthen any voting rights claim. LCR and Everett’s communities of color continue to closely monitor the City’s actions and will explore all available legal options to ensure equal voting opportunity for all.”

The Council is looking to bring the matter back to the floor potentially in two weeks.

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