What you need to know about Boston’s ballot initiatives

By Jack Thornton
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — Nov. 2 marks the 2021 Boston mayoral election, but the choice between City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George will not be the only decision on the ballot. In addition to the concurrent city council elections, the ballot will contain three questions that have been approved by Acting Mayor Kim Janey for voters to decide.

Though only Question 1 is binding (meaning if it passes, the city charter amendment referred to in the question will be written into law), nonbinding initiatives have historically had major repercussions on Boston. 

Question 1: Shall this city approve the charter amendment proposed by the City Council summarized below?

Is this question binding: Yes

What this means: Currently, only the mayor holds the authority to draft a municipal city budget per section 48 of the Boston City Charter. While city councilors can reject a budget the mayor submits to them – or reduce the funds appropriated to a specific department – they cannot reallocate funds to different budgetary items and cannot themselves draft a budget. 

If the “Yes” vote wins on Nov. 2, the City Charter would be amended to allow the City Council to adjust the allocation of funds in the mayor’s budget. The mayor would be able to veto a budget submitted by the City Council, which could then be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote among the councilors. 

The amendment would also require the mayor and City Council to establish an independent Office of Participatory Budgeting with an external oversight board, with the expressed purpose of “[furthering] public engagement with public spending,” and creating “an equitable and binding decision-making process open to all Boston residents,” according to the city.

The proposed amendment is supported by City Councilors Lydia Edwards and Kenzie Bok as well as by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who said in a statement after approving the question that the amendment “creates a path forward for city budgeting that is more democratic, inclusive, and transparent.” 

Among those opposing the amendment is Pam Kocher, the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, who argues its passage could threaten Boston’s “fiscal stability and ability to deliver basic services.”

Question 2: Should a high voltage, electrical substation be built at 400 Condor Street in East Boston, along Chelsea Creek, near homes, parks, playgrounds, jet fuel storage, and in a flood risk area rather than in a nearby alternative safe and secure location such as non-residential Massport land at Logan Airport?

Is this question binding: No

What this means: In February this year, Massachusetts’ Energy Facilities Sitting Board unanimously approved the energy company Eversource’s plan to construct an electrical substation in East Boston. A substation is part of the electrical grid that can transform energy from high voltage to low voltage or vice versa.

Chelsea Creek accommodates 66% of home heating oil used in New England, 79% of gasoline used in Massachusetts, and 100% of gasoline used at Logan International Airport, according to Chelsea GreenRoots, a community-based environmental justice organization.

The proximity of the substation has led environmental groups such as GreenRoots to oppose its construction due to the pollution burden the community already faces from other industries. 

Both Wu and Essaibi George have opposed the plan for the substation to be built along Chelsea Creek. A communications representative from Eversource did not respond to a request for comment.

Question 3: Should the current appointed school committee structure be changed to a school committee elected by the residents of Boston?

Is this question binding: No

What this means: In 1989, then-Mayor Raymond Flynn proposed a citywide referendum to change the Boston School Committee from an elected body to having all of its members appointed by the mayor. That same year, the referendum passed, and after a 1991 vote from state legislators signing the measure into law, the first Boston School Committee appointed by the mayor took office in 1992. 

Thirty years later, Boston will again vote on whether or not its school committee members should be popularly elected.

Wu has expressed support for committee members to be largely elected by the people of Boston, while allowing for the mayor to appoint members concerning a specific area of education, such as early childhood or vocational education. 

Essaibi George does not support shifting the school committee back to an elected body, but believes the appointment power should be split between the mayor and the members of the City Council.

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