City Council Holds Hearing on Potential Suspension of Special Election for Mayor

The City Council Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Councilor Lydia Edwards, held a hearing on January 26 regarding a home rule petition filed by Councilor Ricardo Arroyo “which will amend the city’s charter” should there be a vacancy in the office of mayor, she said. In the case of this home rule petition, the Council chair will become the mayor “for the remainder of the term,” Edwards added.

Currently, the city charter says that if the mayor leaves before March 5, the City Council is “required to call for a special election to fill that vacancy,” Edwards said at the hearing. Should there be a special election, there will be a primary and a general election, as well as a primary and a general election in November as well, for a total of four elections.

Several councilors, elected officials, leaders of organizations, and members of the public called on the Council to pass this home rule petition, saying that the special election is unnecessary during the pandemic and will be risky to the health of Boston residents as well as an unnecessary expenditure for the city.     

The home rule petition was filed by Arroyo on January 13, following the news that Mayor Marty Walsh has been nominated as President Joe Biden’s labor secretary. Walsh’s position has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and it is unclear when the mayor will leave for Washington.

“We have to do this now because we are not sure of when, or honestly if the mayor will leave before March 5,” Edwards continued. “But what we can can control is whether we as a community want to have a special election or not, and that is what this conversation is about.”

Edwards said that she believes “this moment needed to be clear” and “transparent,” and also said that “this legislation is not proposed to help or hurt anybody,” nor is the process.

“Today’s hearing is a result of questions being answered,” she said.

Councilor Arroyo, the lead sponsor of the docket, said that “having multiple elections for the office of mayor” this year would pose a “serious threat to the health of our residents and communities.”

He called it a “wasteful and costly expenditure for the city at a time when our revenues are down,” and said that this home rule petition was “created to address a looming emergency.”

Arroyo said that the charter says that there are two options: “Option A” says that if the mayor leaves before March 5, there needs to be a special election, and “Option B” says that if the mayor leaves after March 5, the acting city council president becomes mayor for the rest of the term.

This proposal says that the city should choose Option B, even if the mayor leaves before March 5, Arroyo said, adding that this would follow precedence set by the city of Lawrence. “We are not rewriting the charter,” he said.

“We want to ensure the health of our residents,” he said. “It’s for equity on all bases…,” as well as “the stability of the city and ensuring that we’re not doing multiple turnovers and multiple transitions in the middle of a state of emergency in the same year.”

City Councilor Ed Flynn said he has heard from residents on both sides of the coin, and Councilor Michael Flaherty said that he wants to ensure that “our residents have a voice in this process,” while still addressing the health of residents and the cost of the elections.

“The January 6 insurrection serves to remind us that our democracy is fragile and must be protected,” said City Council President Kim Janey, who is poised to become Acting Mayor. She said she does not want multiple elections, and it is “rare that people in our city agree,” but she listed a host of organizations who have come out in support of not holding a special election for mayor.

“A special election is at best, foolish, and at worst, dangerous,” Janey said.

Councilor Julia Mejia said that holding multiple elections in the middle of a pandemic is “completely irresponsible.”

Councilor Kenzie Bok said that “democracy isn’t just about casting ballots.” She said she supports the cancellation of the special election, as it will also help candidates who are trying to grow their campaigns. She said that she wants to focus on the voters of Boston, but doesn’t agree that cost is a factor in the cancellation, as she believes that if residents really wanted the special election, money should not hold it back. She said her decision is based on what she has heard from her constituents.

Councilor Frank Baker said he is “totally undecided on where I’m going on this,” and Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is a mayoral candidate, said that she also agrees with the cancellation of the special election.

“Does four elections in a pandemic make us more democratic?” Councilor Edwards asked. She said that “balancing democracy and safety in electing our next mayor” is what the focus should be.

Edwards allowed public comment before panelists were invited to speak, as she said the public requested to be heard earlier in the hearing.

Numerous members of the public spoke out in favor of cancelling the special election, with many of them citing the health and safety of black and brown communities, who have already been hit disproportionately hard by the virus.

Dianne Wilkerson, who is a former State Senator, said that “Black communities in the city all have a positive [test] rate of over 11 percent,” well over the citywide average of a little over seven percent. “I support the petition that would allow Boston to forego the special election…” she said.

“We need stable leadership during the pandemic,” said Priscilla Fint-Banks, cofounder of the Black Economic Justice Institute, adding that she believes the special election “will create more havoc…” in the city. “Having four elections in five months during COVID-19 is insane,” she said.

As a panelist, Eneida Tavares, Chair of the Board of Election Commissioners, said that “It is the role of the election department to ensure that elections are properly managed ad conducted in accordance with city, state, and federal laws. Regardless of whether or not this petition is adopted, the Election Department will continue to administer lawful elections as they come, just as it has done since the incorporation of our city in a way that works towards ensuring equitable access to all registered voters so that they can fulfill their sacred right to the ballot box.”

She said that the city’s Election Department will continue to follow all guidance related to COVID-19 “for all upcoming elections,” and cited that the department held three elections last year, two of which were in the midst of the pandemic.

Others, like Pam Kocher, President of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Beth Huang, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, and several others, said that a special election should not be held this year, and called for the speedy passage of the home rule petition.

“Today, we’re taking the unusual step of trying to convince you that skipping a series of special elections would in fact be the most democratic decision you would make,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, Executive Director of MassVOTE. “It may be unusual, but these past 10 months have been the definition of unusual.”

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, said that “we consistently fight for citizens to be able to access the ballot box. We have consistently fought for more voice through the ballot box. For the NAACP Boston Branch to take a position that adding an additional voting cycle to this year’s regular cycle is neither wise nor fiscally prudent is not a decision we take lightly, but hear me when I say this: it was not a hard decision to make.”  

Councilors asked questions of the various panelists, and Councilor Flaherty asked the Election commission how the process would work should there be a special election this year, including how poll workers would be protected, making sure registered voters could vote, how the polls would be staffed, and what the cost of the election would be.

Sabino Piemonte, Head Assistant Registrar of Voters for the Boston Election Department, said that running a citywide election costs between $700,000 and $750,000, before the extra precautions needed for COVID-19. He added that this is just for one election, and would be doubled to have a primary and a final election.

Piemonte said that “everybody and anybody involved” in the election process would take precautions related to COVID-19, including special distancing precautions and PPE.

“In regards to absentees and vote by mail,” Piemonte said that voting by absentee ballot “requires a special circumstance for you to receive a ballot.” Residents must either: be absent from the city during the election, have a medical or religious belief that prevents them from going to the polls, or “anything that prohibits you from going to the polls to actually vote in person,” he said.

The vote by mail extension expires on March 31, Piemonte said, so “we will need special legislation in order for that to carry in to a special election if it was to take place later on in the spring [or] early summer.”

Flaherty also asked if signature collections required for candidates to be on the ballot could potentially be waived or reduced to protect both candidates and residents during the pandemic.

Piemonte said that there is “nothing in the city charter that would allow us to do anything of that magnitude, but we are working with our legal team to come up with a possible calendar in case there was a special election call in the near future.”

Following this hearing, there will be a working session on Friday, January 29 at 2pm, where the council will discuss the language of the home rule petition in much more detail, followed by a council vote at its February 3 meeting at noon.

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