After cancelling meetings because of Halloween and the City Election, the City Council resumed its regular meeting schedule last Tuesday which also saw the debut of a new format for the meeting agenda. The biggest change was that City Council motions were bumped up to near the start of the meeting rather than the at end. The main reason for the change was that with the Council strictly adhering to its 10 p.m. meeting finish time, items at the end of the agenda either were not reached or were handled so hurriedly that any meaningful debate was precluded. On Tuesday night, at least, the new format seemed to help the meeting flow more expeditiously with fewer suspensions of the rules to take matters out of order.
An interesting discussion came from a motion by Councilor Kim Scott that would change the method of selecting the city’s Mayor. Scott pointed out that the November 2021 ballot contained a referendum that asked voters if they would like to have the ability to directly elect the mayor at the same time they cast their votes for City Council members. The result was 7,429 voting YES and 2,411 voting NO.
Currently, the Mayor is chosen by a majority vote of City Councilors at the start of each term. That has been the system since the Plan E form of government was introduced in Lowell in 1944. As I wrote last week, that system often has fractured new Councils even before they take office, so changing the systems might have a salutary effect on intra Council relationships.
Given the overwhelming vote in favor of changing the system, several Councilors expressed frustration that the change had not yet been made, but someone pointed out that any change to the system would require the consent of the plaintiffs in the Voting Rights lawsuit that resulted in the new hybrid representation system, since the settlement of that litigation is still under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court. Immediately after this 2021 referendum, the plaintiff’s asked that any change in the method of electing the Mayor be deferred until at least the end of the first Council term under the new system. Since that term will soon come to an end, the time seems right to resurrect this issue.
But as the Council discussion made clear, the details of any change are complicated. For example, Worcester is often cited as a model for Lowell. Worcester adopted its system in 1985 and has used it since. The chief executive of that city is a City Manager who is appointed by the City Council which consists of six Councilors elected At Large and five Councilors elected from districts. Worcester also has a Mayor who is a member of both the City Council and the School Committee and chairs both bodies.
In Worcester, the Mayor is elected directly by the voters, not by the City Councilors as is the case in Lowell. However, to be eligible to run for Mayor, a candidate must simultaneously run for and win at At Large seat on the City Council. That means candidates for District Council seats are not eligible to be Mayor. It also means that if a candidate wins the Mayoral race but does not win an At Large City Council seat, they cannot serve as Mayor.
During Tuesday’s discussion, the prevailing sentiment among Lowell City Councilors was that limiting eligibility for the Mayoralty to At Large Council candidates would be unfair to the residents of historically underrepresented districts since it would be unlikely that a candidate from their neighborhood would ever be elected Mayor.
But even if candidates for District Council were eligible to also simultaneously run for Mayor, the decision would still be made citywide which would allow the neighborhoods that have always dominated city elections under the old system also dominate Mayoral elections.
Notwithstanding the result of the 2021, referendum, Councilor John Leahy strongly defended the current system of Councilors electing the Mayor and even voted against sending the matter to the City Council’s Elections Subcommittee although that is what happened by a 9 to 1 vote (with Mayor Chau absent).
When you drill down to the details of how the Mayor of Lowell might be elected directly by the people, Councilor Leahy might gain some allies. The current system of electing a Mayor has its problems, but it might turn out to be the best of several problematic alternatives.
The topic of elections also arose with a Councilor Wayne Jenness motion to “analyze the city of Worcester’s election policies and procedures for potential improvements to Lowell’s to encourage greater turnout and civic engagement.” Councilor Jenness explained that while Worcester had much better turnout in its recent election than did Lowell, he was mostly concerned with improving Lowell’s low participation rate in which only 7,500 residents voted (as compared to 39,000 in the last Presidential election).
Councilors identified several things that could have been done but weren’t, ranging from not placing sandwich board signs advertising the election at busy intersections as has been done in the past, to having illuminated signs on election day soliciting snowplow drivers rather reminding people to vote. Some members of the public who spoke on this motion also pointed to chronic movement of polling places which left residents unsure where they should vote, having only a single ballot drop off box with that being in the lobby of the police station, and purging voting lists even of those who reported returning their census forms on time.
Another election issue that may not have been discussed Tuesday, but which needs some attention is the procedure for filling a vacancy that occurs on the City Council or School Committee. Under the all At Large system used previously, the next highest vote getter who was still eligible (meaning they still lived in the district and were registered to vote) would fill the vacancy.
The authority for filling a vacancy in that manner came from Chapter 230 of the Acts of 1954, a state law, which states the following:
In any city having a Plan E form of city charter and having plurality voting as provided by chapter six hundred and sixty-one of the acts of nineteen hundred and forty-nine, as amended, a vacancy in any elective body therein shall be filled forthwith for the unexpired term by the remaining members of the body concerned, who shall choose whichever of the defeated candidates who are eligible and willing to serve, and who received the highest number of votes for membership in the body in which the vacancy occurs at the last regular municipal election at which members of said body were elected.
That statute did not change when Lowell adopted the hybrid At Large and District model for electing Councilors and School Committee members. That was confirmed shortly after the first election under that system, the November 2021 city election, when newly elected District School Committee member Andy Descoteaux resigned in March 2022 for medical reasons, and the remaining members of the School Committee appointed Susie Chhoun, the second-place finisher in the race won by Descoteaux, to fill the vacant seat.
Almost immediately upon the adoption of the new electoral system, Councilors realized there could be a scenario where there might be no second-place finisher to fill a vacancy. Councilors voted to authorize the filing of special legislation that would (1) ratify the above method of filling a vacancy; and (2) would add a provision addressing the absence of a second-place finisher. The method proposed would be as follows:
“In the event that no such candidate exists (i.e., a second-place finisher), the vacancy shall be filled by a joint session of the city council and the school committee through a public application process.”
That’s the method used to fill vacancies on the Greater Lowell Vocational High School. It has been used several times and seems to work well. It seems more practical than holding a special election which is how a vacant state senate or state representative seat is filled.
The problem is that the special legislation has not yet been enacted. Back on July 1, 2021, State Representative Vanna Howard filed the proposal as House No. 3940, however, it was not passed before the end of the legislative session. On February 7 of this year, Representative Howard refiled the bill, joined by Representative Rodney Elliott, as House No. 3721. According to the legislative history of this bill, it was referred to the committee on Election Laws on April 6, 2023, and a hearing was held on June 21, 2023, but there is no further activity shown.
Given that this month’s city election yielded two Council District seats with no second-place finisher, and two At Large and three District School Committee seats without second-place finishers, it seems more urgent that this matter be resolved now, before an unfillable vacancy occurs as it inevitably will.