Lawyers Pleased with Approval of Haverhill Elections by District, But Call for Fewer At-Large Seats

(Jay Saulnier file photograph for WHAV News.)

The group demanding greater opportunities for electing minority representatives to Haverhill boards says the recently approved ballot questions still calls for too many citywide—or “at-large”—city councilors and School Committee members.

Lawyers for Civil Rights said it is pleased Haverhill voters approved ballot questions in favor of electing officials by wards and districts, but it believes either all officials of the two bodies should be elected by district or, if necessary, with fewer at-large members.

“While it is certainly not unusual for cities to have a mix of district and at-large seats, the split between the two is critical, since at-large seats tend to replicate the problem of an all at-large system. Courts have thus repeatedly cautioned that a ‘hybrid’ system must not include so many at-large seats as to dilute a minority population’s equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director, and Oren M. Sellstrom, litigation director, of Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights.

They noted that while the group is “gratified” by Haverhill voters’ choices, it was “neither necessary nor appropriate” to have the majority vote on minority rights. In a Monday letter to Mayor James J. Fiorentini and the City Council, lawyers asked for a meeting with city officials that would include representatives of the Latino Coalition. The group said the boundaries of districts can be decided next year, but a home-rule petition should be sent to the state legislature before the end of next month.

They added the solutions approved by voters—seven districts plus four at-large City Council seats and five districts plus three at-large School Committee seats—still would violate the federal Voting Rights Act. They note courts typically seek a “remedy…to create ‘majority-minority’ districts, to allow residents equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.”

The group expressed concern the proposed School Committee plan “has an almost even split between district and at-large seats, which is highly problematic.” Instead, they urged the city elect seven School Committee members by district, one at large and the final seat going to the mayor. Similarly, the lawyers suggest, the City Council remain at nine members, but with seven elected by districts and two at-large.

As WHAV has previously reported, it was never clear who decided the School Committee should be comprised of members from five districts to be determined by the mayor and City Council, while city councilors would be elected mostly by ward. Lawyers for Civil Rights asked that plan—especially since the ballot questions were non-binding—be scrapped.

“We note that having one five-district system (for School Committee) and one seven-district system (for City Council) is very likely to lead to voter confusion and significant administrative problems,” they said, recommending both be seven-district systems.

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