1971 City Election: Rejecting Charter Change

After electing five new city councilors in 1969, the voters continued to make changes in 1971 when 33,000 voters went to the polls in heavy rain and ousted three incumbents, Sam Pollard, Armand LeMay and John Mahoney while overwhelmingly defeating a proposal to change the city’s Plan E form of government to an elected strong mayor system. The nine councilors elected, in order of finish, were:

Ellen Sampson (incumbent)
Robert Kennedy
Richard Howe (incumbent)
Phil Shea (incumbent)
Gail Dunfey
Paul Tsongas (incumbent)
Charles Gallagher
Leo Farley (incumbent)
Brendan Fleming (incumbent)

The three newcomers all had unique stories: Robert Kennedy was the chair of the city’s charter change commission; Gail Dunfey was a just-turned 21 year old student at Lowell State Teachers College who was took advantage in the recent drop in voting age from 21 to 18; and Charles Gallagher who had resigned as Lowell City Manager the preceding summer.

Also on the ballot in 1971 was a proposal to convert the city’s form of government from a city manager to an elected strong mayor. In 1969, voters by a five to one margin had approved the creation of a nine member charter commission that had met weekly ever since. The charter commission, which consisted of Kennedy and attorneys William Geary, George Eliades Jr, John Bowers, Peter Coulouras and James Curtis and three others (can anyone help with their names?). In March 1970, the commission recommended by a five to four vote, that the city adopt a strong mayor system of government. That was the proposal that was on the ballot in 1971.

On election day, voters defeated the charter change proposal with 22,172 votes against and 9088 votes for. In a post-election column analyzing the outcome, Lowell Sun columnist Frank Phillips wrote that not only the scale of the defeat of the charter change but the defeat itself was unexpected given the wide margin by which voters had approved the charter study in the preceding election. Phillips identified a number of factors that contributed to the defeat. Two weeks before the election, a several groups including the Lowell Sun and the League of Women Voters came out against the proposal. Until then, no organized opposition had emerged. Another factor was that most of the entities supporting the measure were associated with “established political groups” creating a fear among voters that “the politicians were trying to take over.” Also relevant was the hiring of out-of-towner Jim Sullivan, the city’s first “professional” City Manager, which gave the average voter confidence that city government had already changed course for the better.

Perhaps the most interesting observation by Phillips was this:

The charter proposal had been strongly opposed by the city’s ethnic minorities, who feared they would lose much of the representation now afforded them under Plan E and its strong City.

2 Responses to 1971 City Election: Rejecting Charter Change

  1. Marie says:

    After some research I’ll take a stab at the names of the other three commissioners:
    Roland Demarais, Dick Barrett and Jackie Bowers.

  2. Bill says:

    Marie is correct. When the question to create a Charter Commission went on the ballot, the candidates for it were listed alphabetically. If the question passed (which it did), then the votes for the commissioners were counted. All nine commissioners who were elected (I think about 20 ran) all had names beginning with letters B-K (Barrett through Kennedy). Many voters clearly picked the first nine names they recognized.
    The actual charter failed because of an effort led by the Sun to keep the City Manager form of government and pointed to Jim Sullivan as an example of what a professionally trained Manager could do as opposed to a srong mayor who would be a politician first.