Haverhill Forum: Besides Ward Councilors, Voters Could Opt for Mayoral, School Committee Changes

Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights. (WHAV News photograph.)

Although Haverhill’s mayor made his pitch last night for ward councilors during a downtown forum, it became clear to those in attendance that a charter change could also alter the School Committee as well as the mayor’s powers.

The forum, “Exploring the Possibility of Neighborhood Representation,” was sponsored by Greater Haverhill Indivisible and Latino Coalition of Haverhill. Mayor James J. Fiorentini told the approximately 100 people there he will soon ask the City Council to approve asking voters to elect one city councilor for each of the city’s seven wards and four more from the city at large. Voters could be asked to make the change as early as this November.

Responding to questions from Shawna and Brian Kelley, City Councilor John A. Michitson noted the new City Council could still be hamstrung by Haverhill’s “strong mayor” form of government.

“If you really want to give those 11 people a real opportunity to make a difference in their city, then we have to look at the power between the mayor and the City Council. We really ought to be taking a good look at that as well,” Michitson said.

Under the current charter, only the mayor can submit a budget and councilors are limited to making cuts to it. Michitson, who said he and his father tried to bring about a charter change in 1999, said he would still support Fiorentini’s request to give the city’s neighborhoods their own Council representative.

City Solicitor William D. Cox Jr. told attendees there are three ways to change Haverhill’s form of government—asking voters to simply vote on one of five other state-allowed charters, create a charter commission or going to the legislature for a “special act charter.” If choosing the latter option, the city could ask the legislature to approve a home-rule petition, have voters submit an initiative petition requiring at least 6,647 signatures or the current City Council can place the question before voters.

“We would put before the City Council very shortly a request that they submit to the voters this November a question—a home-rule petition—which would provide for an expanded City Council that would include ward councilors from the seven wards and four at-large councilors,” said Cox.

Panelist Oren Sellstrom, the lawyer that sued Lowell and ultimately delivered that city’s new ward council system, said electing all representatives from anywhere in a city has the potential to dilute the vote of communities of color. Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, was joined by the group’s Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal.

It was MassInc’s Ben Forman who planted the idea of also electing the School Committee by neighborhood. He pointed to research showing school committees in Gateway Cities do not reflect the same diversity as its student populations.

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