Facing the possibility of a legal challenge, the Haverhill City Council agreed last night the time has come to let voters decide whether to make changes in the way councilors and school committee members are elected.
Voters will see two nonbinding questions on the final Nov. 2 ballot—the first asking them whether Haverhill should elect one city councilor from each of the city’s seven wards and four at large. The second would ask voters whether they agree with electing a nine-member School Committee with five members elected from districts to be defined by the City Council and mayor and three more from across the city. The mayor would continue to serve as the chairman. If approved, the legislature would be asked to accept the city’s home rule petition to make the changes.
Former Haverhill Mayor James A Rurak said Haverhill has changed over the last few decades and its elected leaders should look like the residents.
“We have 64,000 people—23.2% are Latinx and the total population of people of color is 30%. The population of people of color is concentrated around the central city and you can see that there are no councilors in the inner city of Haverhill,” he said.
He argued an inner-city-elected-School Committee member might have fought for hiring more Latino teachers and sooner.
Councilors were originally asked to put a binding ballot question before voters, but several members raised concerns that election of city councilors by ward and school committee by district might happen even without voters’ consent. The city, for example, might adopt the changes to settle a lawsuit, such as one threatened by Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights which is already working with Latino residents.
Councilor John A. Michitson noted the Council has the option of sending a petition directly to the legislature without a citizen vote, but said voters would be “infuriated” if denied the opportunity to decide. It will be worse, he said, if voters reject the changes and they are still implemented.
Councilor William J. Macek pointed out if the referendum is defeated, the city faces a greater chance of a lawsuit.
“Maybe it should be a nonbinding referendum question, in which case it won’t be as though the Council is voting against the people because we’re getting an opinion, so everybody feels they have a voice in our city,” he suggested.
Currently, members of both bodies are elected on an at-large basis, meaning each represents the city as a whole.
Haverhill Latino Coalition’s Manual “Manny” Matias suggested the city delay placing the question before voters and meet with proponents of the change. Alex Veras, a resident who has previously sought changes to Haverhill’s charter, noted change has come to cities across the state—by the ballot box in some cases and by direct appeal to the legislature.
Councilors Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien and Timothy J. Jordan objected to Mayor James J. Fiorentini’s characterization the City Council foot-dragged the process when it delayed approving the ballot question last year. Both noted proponents feared not being able to lobby voters because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jordan said 16 of 19 advocates consulted favored the delay.
Council Vice President Colin F. LePage questioned whether the School Committee should also be elected by the same seven wards as city councilors rather than five new districts. Others noted the five districts would likely be formed around the city’s biggest schools.
Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua was the only councilor to vote against the plans, saying true changes to the makeup of the city’s elected bodies would come from imposing term limits instead.
If voters approve, the changes would not take effect until the 2023 election.