Lowell Adopts Plan E – 1942

The following originally appeared in part in the 2022 book, Lowell Irish 200It was also distributed last Sunday as my Substack newsletter on Lowell politics. 

In the state election held on November 4, 1942, Lowell residents voted to change the city’s charter. By a vote of 16,477 in favor to 14,135 against, the residents of Lowell 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 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.

The Lowell Sun reported that “Plan E was the most controversial local issue in many years. It was opposed by organized city workers, but was adopted with general support in every ward in the city with Republicans and Democrats flocking to its standard and its promise of better government in the years to come. . . This is the start of a crusade to clean up a city which for years has been strangled by rotten, cheap and sometimes petty politics.”

One factor that may have helped Plan E prevail was that two weeks before this election, Mayor Ashe along with the city’s purchasing agent, Walter S. Connor, were both convicted of conspiracy by a jury in Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge. The charge involved alleged kickbacks in the purchase of city paving equipment and the padding of bills for paint and other supplies purchased by the city. Ashe was sentenced to one year in the House of Correction although Judge Vincent Brogna stayed the imposition of the sentence pending the resolution of Ashe’s appeal. However, just a month later, Ashe began serving his sentence. He seems to have withdrawn his appeal and also reached a plea agreement for concurrent jail time on an additional charge pending against him of bribery that arose from repairs to the Varnum School. With Ashe in jail, Councilor Joseph J. Sweeney became acting mayor.

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).

The day-by-day coverage of the vote count by the Lowell Sun showed that many voters grouped their preferred candidates based on membership in similar ethnic groups. For instance, when Acting Mayor Joseph J. Sweeney (Irish) achieved the quota and had his excess ballots reallocated to others, the biggest beneficiary was Bart Callery (Irish). Similarly, when Albert Bergeron (Franco) was eliminated, the bulk of his ballots went to Leo Roy (Franco), allowing him to reach the quota.

After the long period of calculating the ballots, the nine new city councils elected in 1943 were:

  • Joseph J. Sweeney (St. Patrick’s Cemetery, 1963)
  • Woodbury F. Howard (Edson Cemetery, 1962)
  • Leo A. Roy (St. Joseph’s Cemetery, 1968)
  • Russell Scott (Westlawn Cemetery, 1949)
  • Walter E. Clement (Edson Cemetery, 1975)
  • William C. Geary (St. Patrick’s Cemetery, 1962)
  • Maurice D. Condrey (St. Mary’s Cemetery, 1972)
  • Bartholomew J. Callery Jr. (St. Patrick’s Cemetery, 1991)
  • Harold W. Hartwell Jr. (St. Joseph’s Cemetery, 1975)

The new council was inaugurated on Monday, January 3, 1944. They elected Woodbury Howard (Edson Cemetery, 1962) mayor on the second ballot with five votes. Acting Mayor Joseph Sweeney got three votes and William Geary got one.

The council began voting for Lowell’s first city manager at the inauguration ceremony, but the process became deadlocked with four councilors voting for City Treasurer John Flannery; four voting for Attorney John Maguire, and one voting for Homer Savage. The council adjourned the election until that night when Flannery got the fifth vote. Councilor Leo Roy, who had voted for Homer Savage, joined Councilors Geary, Callery, Hartwell and Sweeney in voting for Flannery. Councilor Maurice Condrey stuck with Attorney Maguire. Mayor Howard and Councilor Clement did not vote while Councilor J. Russell Scott was absent having been rushed to St. John’s Hospital earlier in the evening with appendicitis.

Flannery had been City Treasurer since 1940. Prior to that, he had served as the permanent secretary of the Lowell Lodge of Elks since 1927 and before that he had worked for the United States Cartridge Company.