Councilor Edwards files Charter Reform for budgeting, taking message to the voters

In a follow-up to the City Budget debate from two weeks ago, Councilor Lydia Edwards this week filed an amendment that will allow councilors and the public to have more of a say in the budgeting process – something that has been prohibited since 1909 when the strong mayoral form of government was ushered in.
That said, her request to make these changes won’t be hashed out at City Hall, or in the State House – as so many of Boston’s governmental changes are – but rather in the public square amongst the voters.
“The budgeting process was taken over from the Council in 1909,” she said. “We’re now 111 years after that. Should we still be governed by a 1909 decision? I’m asking the voters of 2020 if that makes sense. I think they will say there needs to be more back and forth…It creates a space where more people have a voice in budgeting than they ever did before…The message I received on this year’s budget was to treat it like the $3 billion decision it is. I agree with them. I’d love to go back and forth with the Mayor’s Office line by line on the budget. Right now, the Council cannot do that.”
The Charter reform package is a follow-up to that debate, and what Edwards calls her “first crack at the wheel.” She said there were so many people from the general public on all sides of the issues that got involved with the City Budget this year – particularly related to policing and public health. The shocking thing for most was how limited the power of the Council was to make specific changes. While the Council can vote against or change large sections, they cannot make line item changes to the budget – such as cutting the specific appropriation for Police Overtime.
That limit on power was set up in 1909 and is known as the “strong mayor” system. Most who have challenged structural change in Boston City Government have done so through the Mayor’s Office and/or submitting Charter Changes to Beacon Hill for the State Legislature to approve.
Instead of that, and in a controversial move, Edwards has taken another avenue that calls on the people to make the decision in a City ballot initiative. That ballot initiative, if approved by her colleagues on the Council, would appear on the City Election ballot of 2021. If voters approved the measure at the ballot box, the change would affect budget deliberations in 2022.
“This has never been done before,” she said. “Boston has amended its charter, but always gone to the State House. I’m not doing that. I don’t want the permission of Chicopee or Springfield state elected officials for our changes. I’m going directly to the voters. I’m not even going to the mayor either. I’m only asking my colleagues to get the question ready and go straight to the voters in 2021.”
If approved by the Council, it would have to go to the state Attorney General’s Office, which has told Edwards they would need about four weeks to review the question and certify it for the ballot.
If Boston voters approve this amendment next fall, the Boston City Council and the
Mayor would share power over the City’s budget. This includes the ability to create proposals for the city’s capital and operating budgets, change line items within the proposals, allocate parts of the budget for a participatory budget process (voter direct allocation), and amend the budget for Boston Public Schools.
Additionally, this change would also give the Council tools to more quickly respond
to the need for budget cuts in times of fiscal austerity and allow for public deliberation on what services could or should be reduced without lasting harm. This change also allows for earlier budgetary deliberation should either the Mayor or Council desire to do so.
Edwards said the entirety of the change would focus on a more transparent budget process at the Council level, and more meaningful participation for the public within the process. One thing, however, she is excited about is participatory budgeting. That would allow the Council to set aside a portion of the budget to be decided upon by the general public – likely in a vote of some sort. She said it could be anything really, free public Wi-Fi, dog parks or some other public amenity.
“For us, it would be a pass through and it will go to the people of Boston to vote on – giving them the ability to shape the budget,” she said. “It teaches people to be more engaged and learn to vote. They will think more about that vote than maybe they might think about voting for politicians. It’s exciting. I want things to be more democratic.”
The proposal would allow for every Bostonian living in the city 12 and up to have a vote on that portion of the budget.
Edwards said she hopes to have a working session on the Charter reform in August, and hopefully vote on the question at Council soon after. That would automatically send it to the AG’s Office for review.
Following a study last week by Suffolk University into housing discrimination based on race and housing subsidy (Section 8), Councilor Edwards said she and Jamaica Plain Councilor Matt O’Malley have partnered to call for an ongoing testing program in the City of Boston operating out of the Fair Housing office.
That program would constantly monitor through undercover operations – as in the study – how real estate professionals and property managers are acting towards minorities and those with subsidized housing certificates. The study by Suffolk University, which covered all of Greater Boston, found vast amounts of discrimination against black housing applicants and those with subsidies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.