City Councilor Patrick Murphy has a motion on tonight’s City Council agenda to “discuss larger Charter Changes to increase civic participation (including combined districts, at large system, term limits) at Rules Subcommittee.” Because the motion simply asks that these items be discussed at a future subcommittee meeting, I assume tonight’s discussion on the matter will be brief and procedural. In the interest of providing some historical context, here is a brief review of past attempts to alter the city’s method of electing its representatives.
In the 2009 city election, there was a question that asked voters to endorse a weighted vote system called “choice voting.” By this method, voters would still select up to nine councilors, but they would rank them one through nine. One of the motives behind the initiative was to increase the chances that a candidate with a small core of highly committed voters would be elected as opposed to another candidate who had broad-based but only moderately committed supporters. That referendum was defeated 57% to 43%.
In 1993, there were four non-binding questions on the ballot:
• Question 1 – Do you support keeping the present Plan E form of government? Yes-8,234. No-8,779.
• Question 2 – Do you support a change in the city charter to provide for an elected mayor as chief executive instead of an appointed city manager? Yes-10,0441. No-6,760.
• Question 3 – Do you support a charter change that would provide for district councilors instead of elections at large? Yes-6,841. No-9,213.
• Question 4 – Do you support a limit on terms of all elected officials in the city of Lowell to a maximum of 4 two-year terms in office? Yes-11,946. No-5,093.
Nothing ever came of any of these questions, probably because that year also saw the election of six new city councilors, a transition that completely changed the city’s direction. Presumably, the almost entirely new council and the new direction satisfied the voters’ desire for change.
Finally, in 1971, a previously elected charter commission after several years of work proposed a change from the city manager form of government to one with an elected strong mayor. That recommendation was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin.