Local Government in Lowell: 1826 to 2022

Lowell’s political history begins with the grant of its town charter by the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1826. The charter brought a standard town-type government with selectmen and town meetings. But the city’s explosive growth as a center of textile manufacturing demanded a more activist system of government and so in 1836 the state legislature granted Lowell a city charter. This brought a more complex governmental structure consisting of a mayor and two legislative branches: a six-member Board of Aldermen (elected citywide by plurality vote) and a 24-member Common Council (with four elected from each of six wards).

A charter amendment in 1875 increased the number of aldermen from six to eight and mandated at least six wards but no more than twelve and allowed not less than two nor more than four common councilors per ward. The mayor, aldermen and councilors were all elected to terms of just one year.

The rapid turnover of elected officials due to short terms and frequent elections deprived city government of continuity. There were other structural problems with the system. While the mayor was the chief executive officer of the city, he shared executive powers with the six aldermen who operated much like a board of selectmen would in a town. To enact something, the mayor, the aldermen and the common councilors would all have to support the measure, so each body had a veto on the acts of the other. This often led to stalemates in city government.

Partly in response to this situation, Lowell voters passed a referendum in the 1896 election that made major changes in how power was allocated within city government. Under the new system (set out in Chapter 415 of the Acts of 1896), executive power was exclusively granted to the mayor although the council still had to approve all expenditures.

The structure of government was not the sole challenge facing Lowell’s elected officials at this time. A bigger issue was the cost of government which kept rising due to major investments in school and sewer construction. Certainly there were patronage hires both real and imagined but their actual impact on the city’s budget was surpassed by the major infrastructure improvements undertaken as Lowell and America transitioned to the modern era.

In 1910, a group of Lowell residents began pushing for a change in the city’s charter to the commission form of government. This system had originated in Texas ten years earlier and, by the time Lowell was considering it, had been adopted by more than 500 cities in the United States.

As proposed for Lowell, this new system would retain an elected mayor but would replace the larger city council with four elected commissioners who would exercise direct control over the functions of government. Early proponents wanted the commissioners to be appointed by the governor, but the plan quickly evolved to allow direct election of commissioners by the city’s voters. The business community, the local Chamber of Commerce, and leading figures in the Progressive movement all supported the measure. In a referendum on the November 7, 1911, state election ballot, Lowell residents voted 6,856 to 5,563 to adopt the commission form of government.

Although it was proposed and enacted as a reform measure, the commission form of government in Lowell had its own flaws. Individual commissioners were protective of their own departments and personality disputes made compromise elusive. Because the commissioners (including the mayor) ran their departments on a day-to-day basis, there was an impression that much of the commission’s activities were done in secret rather than in open meetings.

Also, during the first ten years of the commission government, only twelve different individuals held office either as mayor or as one of the four elected commissioners. Many residents saw this as undemocratic and those who were interested in holding office themselves felt excluded.

This rising discontent led to the creation of a 15-member commission to explore possible changes to the charter. This commission recommended that city residents change the form of government to one consisting of a mayor with full executive power (including the power to hire and remove all department heads and board members) and a 15-member city council with six councilors elected at large and nine councilors elected from the city’s wards (one councilor elected per ward). A special election was held on October 18, 1921, with the sole item on the ballot being the referendum question about changing the city’s charter. With turnout just over 50 percent, the new charter passed by 631 votes with 8,534 voting to change and 7,903 voting to retain the commission system. An election for the new offices would be held that December and the new government would take office in January 1922. Because the commission that proposed this new structure was led by former Mayor James B. Casey, the new system became known as the “Casey Charter.”

Not everyone accepted the change. Immediately after the first election under this new mayoral system, a group of residents began a drive for yet another charter change . This one would adopt Plan B, a system of government from the menu of city government options established by the state legislature in its 1916 “Act to Simplify City Charters.” Plan B was very similar to the new “Casey Charter” that had just gone into effect, however, it granted the mayor greater power over appointments to city jobs, boards and commissions, and made the mayor a member of the school committee.

In the November 7, 1922, election, a majority voted to adopt the Plan B Charter with 11,504 in favor and 9,854 opposed. Just six weeks later, on December 19, 1922, voters returned to the polls for the first election under Plan B. On the ballot were the office of mayor for a two-year term; six councilors-at-large for two year terms; and nine ward councilor seats, each for a term of one year. There were also six school committee seats, two for one year, two for two years, and two for three years.

Plan B remained in place for 20 years until Lowell voters again opted to change the city’s form of government. In the state election held on November 4, 1942, Lowell residents by a vote of 16,477 in favor to 14,135 against chose the Plan E charter which granted full executive authority to a city manager elected by nine city councilors who were elected citywide by proportional representation. Councilors would also elect a mayor from amongst themselves by majority vote. The mayor would be chair of the council, would be a member of and chair of the school committee, and would also be the ceremonial head of the city.

Under the proportional representation method (similar to what is today called “ranked choice voting”), voters would number their preferred candidates 1 through 9. When counting the votes, each ballot was allocated to the candidate marked number 1 by the voter. At the start of the count, election officials would establish a “quota” number which was calculated by dividing the total number of ballots cast by the number of seats to be filled in the election and then adding the number 1 to the result.

As soon as a candidate reached that quota in the number 1 votes cast for him or her, that candidate was deemed elected and no further ballots were attributed to that candidate. Any additional ballots on which that candidate had been marked number 1 were deemed excess and were distributed to whomever the voter had marked as number 2.

Once those excess ballots were distributed, the candidate with the least number of ballots on which he was ranked number 1 was eliminated and that candidate’s ballots were redistributed in accordance with the number 2 candidates marked on each of those ballots. That process continued until there were only nine candidates left. At that point, those nine were deemed elected.

On November 2, 1943, the city held its first election under Plan E. More than 29,000 residents voted. There were 100 candidates for city council. Because counting the votes in a proportional representation system was a lengthy process in the pre-computer age, the outcome of the November 2 election was not known until November 11, 1943 (and it was only then that the 200 city election workers who had been toiling at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium began counting the school committee votes).

Lowell saw ten years of relative stability in city government but that was shattered by a contested finish in the 1953 election that was ultimately decided by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court six months after the election. With that turmoil as a backdrop, Lowell voters wanted change in the next election. The target became not Plan E, but proportional representation. A referendum appeared on the November 8, 1955, city election ballot proposing that “plurality voting” replace proportional representation as the method of electing city councilors and school committee members. Under plurality voting, the nine city councilors would all be elected at large with each voter able to vote for nine candidates. The top nine vote getters would be elected to the council.

Proportional representation lost overwhelmingly with 21,498 voting to get rid of it and 13,989 voting to keep it. However, proponents of proportional representation challenged the legality of the referendum. State law required that a copy of the question be mailed to all voters before the election. The city had failed to do that so on March 12, 1957, a Superior Court invalidated the referendum vote.

The “out with proportional representation” forces did not give up. Over that summer, they collected sufficient signatures to get the same question on the 1957 ballot. On November 5, 1957, the voters of Lowell once again rejected proportional representation with 21,214 voting to replace it with plurality voting and 12,881 voting to retain it.

In the November 1959 city election, voters elected nine councilors at large from across the city. That system remained in place until 2021 when the current hybrid system of eleven councilors with three elected at large and eight elected from districts took effect.