With pressure mounting, the Haverhill City Council is poised tonight to consider changes to the city’s charter, possibly including electing city councilors and school committee members by neighborhood or a much larger overhaul of city government.
Two items are before councilors, including a request by Mayor James J. Fiorentini that councilors place a “binding referendum” on November’s final election ballot, asking the state legislature to provide for district City Council and School Committee representation. The School Committee question proposes both a change in the number of people elected, but also changes the term length and gives the mayor and City Council control over school voting districts.
“I continue to believe that this city is best served if every neighborhood has a neighborhood city councilor to best address their needs as well as four at-large city councilors,” the mayor wrote in a letter dated last Friday. Fiorentini, who originally asked for electing councilors mostly by ward, conceded “The COVID-19 situation has also convinced me that we need neighborhood representation on the School Committee.”
Meanwhile Council President Melinda E. Barrett, Vice President Colin F. LePage and Councilor John A. Michitson are asking for a discussion of a larger review of local government. Michitson has previously suggested powers of the mayor under the current charter should be curtailed.
There have been several unsuccessful efforts over the past 50 years to make changes to the city charter, but the recent effort appears to follow the City of Lowell’s 2019 decision to settle a federal voting rights lawsuit and elect “all or a majority of elected seats by individual districts.” Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights filed the suit against Lowell in 2017, saying “Although the city is approximately 49% minority (Asian-American and Hispanic/Latino), both its nine-member City Council and its six-member School Committee are all-white and have been so for virtually all of Lowell’s history.”
Lawyers for Civil Rights also sent Haverhill what it calls a “demand” letter last month that stopped just short of threatening outright legal action.
Under the mayor’s proposed orders, Haverhill voters would be asked to vote yes or no to home rule petitions for the election of at large and ward city councilors and school committee members. If approved by voters, the petition would be forwarded to the legislature for enactment.
The City Council petition calls for 11 city councilors—two more than present—elected every two years. One from each of the city’s wards would be elected and four more from anywhere in the city. On the School Committee side, there would be nine members, including the mayor, with five members elected from districts to be defined by the City Council and mayor and three from across the city. Besides raising the committee from seven to nine members, each would be elected every two years rather than the current four years under Fiorentini’s proposal.