Would more elections in Boston, during the COVID-19 era, make the city less safe or more democratic?
That was the dilemma city councilors wrestled with Wednesday, after President-elect Biden tapped Mayor Marty Walsh to serve as Labor Secretary. Councilors sparred over a proposal to skip a potential special election.
Boston's city charter states that if a mayor doesn't finish their term, the city council president would step in as acting mayor. That person would be Kim Janey, who'd be the city's first ever Black mayor and first woman mayor.
But the timing of Walsh's departure matters. If he leaves his post before March 5, the charter calls for a special election that "must occur on a Tuesday between 120 and 140 days after the city council calls for the election."
Whoever wins that race would succeed Janey. And that person would serve until next January when the winner of November's regular mayoral election takes office.
In that scenario, Boston could have four mayors in 12 months.
But if Walsh leaves anytime after March 5, Janey will serve out the rest of the term until whoever is elected in November takes the helm next near. Dilemma diverted.
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo filed a home-rule petition that seeks to divert from the city charter's guidance, and said adding elections during a global health crisis is less safe and will cost more money.
The petition would have to pass muster with the Legislature and get a signature from Gov. Charlie Baker for the change to take effect. Earlier this week, Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin — who runs statewide elections — signaled his approval for the rule change.
"Having multiple elections for the office in the same year in the midst of a pandemic is a serious threat to our residents and communities," Arroyo said. "It will contribute to the disenfranchisement of people of color, disabled and low income communities."
Councilor Julia Mejia agreed, saying "there are people who benefit more from the current construct."
"If we have a special election after a special election, we're going to let a few thousand politically active people decide who will be the mayor for the next four years," she said. "We already know what's up. Don't get it twisted. We know who comes out in droves in special elections."
The meeting veered toward contentiousness when it was time for City Councilor Frank Baker to speak.
"Point of interest Madame Chair, I don't know what's up," Baker said. "So can someone break that down for me?"
Baker made known his qualms about the petition to skip a special election.
"There's a reason why, right now, why people don't like politicians. Because we're doing things like this," Baker said. "Where we, because we have the power to manipulate elections, are now going to manipulate elections. And even though we say it's about finance and it's about COVID, it's about who is our person in the race and how does it benefit them directly."
But this debate might be a moot point if Mayor Walsh leaves his post after March 5, said City Councilor Matt O'Malley, who prefaced by saying he's been called "a cheerful follower of rules." But should Walsh leave before March 5, O'Malley said Boston should follow the city charter.
"There are certain powers vested in an elected mayor that do not transfer to an acting mayor," he said. "And having an acting mayor for a longer period of time [which happens if the city skips the special election] could potentially result in some complications as a result of that."
City Councilors Mejia, Kenzie Bok, Liz Breadon, and announced mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell added their names to Arroyo's petition. Janey, announced candidate Michelle Wu and the rest of the council did not.
The measure now moves to the Committee of Government Operations for a "robust" hearing, said City Councilor Lydia Edwards. Once out of committee, the petition would need seven councilor votes and the mayor's signature before heading to Beacon Hill.