Boston City Council debates special election to fill vacancy left by Mayor Marty Walsh

Mayor Martin J. Walsh speaks during Boston Talks Racism at the Cutler Majestic Theatre November 19. Photo by Crystal Milner/BU News Service

By Hannah Green
Boston University News Service

BOSTON—As Mayor Marty Walsh awaits his Senate confirmation to serve as President Joe Biden’s labor secretary, city leaders are already debating the election process for his replacement.

Tuesday evening, Boston’s city council held a public hearing to gather testimony about a petition intended to streamline this process.

As it stands, Boston City Council President Kim Janey will take over as acting mayor once Walsh leaves office. A preliminary election in September, followed by the general election in November, will decide who holds the office for the next four years.

But if the Senate confirms Walsh before March 5, a different and more complicated process will take place. 

Boston’s city charter states that if a mayor steps down less than 16 months after a general election, a special election must be held. The winner of such an election would serve after Janey, but before the candidate elected this fall.

On Jan. 8, Councilor Ricardo Arroyo filed a home-rule petition to eliminate the special election this year, citing concerns about public health, disenfranchisement and government disruption. 

“What we have here as a council is an opportunity to react to harm that we can all see coming down the pike, and making sure we’re being responsive and proactive, rather than reactive, to that harm,” Arroyo said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Sabino Piemonte, head assistant registrar, said a special election would cost upwards of $700,000. Piemonte said additional funds would need to be requested to provide PPE and other safety equipment to poll workers and voters.

Eneida Tavares, chair of the board of election commissioners, said the city had the funds and bandwidth to organize a special election if needed.

“Regardless of whether or not this petition is adopted, the election department will continue to administer lawful elections as they come, just as they have since the incorporation of our city,” Tavares said.

While Tavares said Boston would be prepared for the election, community members and local leaders came forward in huge numbers to testify in support of Arroyo’s petition on Tuesday.

Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, a nonprofit working to increase voter participation, expressed support for forgoing the special election. 

“Today we are taking the unusual step of trying to convince you that skipping a series of special elections would in fact be the most democratic decision you would make,” she said. 

Crawford pointed out that state laws to increase voting accessibility, such as vote-by-mail, will expire at the end of March. She said it was impossible to know if this legislation would be renewed before the special election.

“As a result, we may force hundreds of thousands of Bostonians to turn out in-person as many as four times this year. That’s unacceptable because last week alone more than 7,000 Bostonians were infected with COVID-19,” Crawford said.

Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, expressed concern about government stability through several leadership transitions, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Consistency in leadership and action are necessary to address the public health crisis and its impact on our community,” she said.

Representatives from the Boston NAACP, Massachusetts Voter Table, and the Black Economic Council, among others, also spoke in favor of eliminating the special election.

As Boston gears up for an unknown number of mayoral elections in 2021, the question of personal bias from council members has been raised. 

City councilors Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi-George have already declared their mayoral campaigns, and Janey will be serving as acting mayor during the elections.

During a council meeting earlier this month, Councilor Frank Baker shared his concerns about councilors voting to help their own campaigns.

“There’s a reason why, right now, why people don’t like politicians. Because we’re doing things like this,” he said.

Conflict of interest laws does not apply to home-rule petitions in Massachusetts. Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP branch, urged lawmakers to remember this.

“It makes me scratch my head and wonder why it is that we would use this opportunity to call into question the integrity of these women,” she said. “In so doing, [this] not only results in potentially silencing them and their voices and stripping them of their power, but also those whom they represent.”

“Particularly when we see…week by week the city council voting on issues that have some sort of personal impact on you all—not the least of which, your salary,” she said. 

The city council will meet on Friday at 2 p.m. for a working session to finalize the home-rule petition. The petition faces a council vote on Feb. 3, after which the measure would need approval from Walsh, the state legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker.

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