Consensus Forms Around Nine-Member, Mostly Ward-Elected Haverhill Council, School Committee

Haverhill City Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan. (WHAV News file photograph by Jay Saulnier.)

Both the Haverhill School Committee and City Council should elect representatives from each of Haverhill’s seven wards, limit both bodies to nine members and preserve candidate choices made by voters earlier this month.

The overall consensus emerged last night during a joint meeting of Mayor James J. Fiorentini, City Council and School Committee as they took the first steps to change the city’s charter to comply with voting rights laws. City Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan spoke first, saying he and most of his colleagues share voters’ beliefs that this is the right move and the right time to make it.

“We know that we have to make change. We’re willing to make the change and I think that we could certainly do the job with seven ward councilors and two at-large and with seven ward School Committee men and one at-large and the mayor,” he said.

Sullivan said nine-member committees are preferable to having up to 11 people since the extra members would qualify for salaries and benefits. He added the smaller configurations would also satisfy lawyers who seek fewer at-large members and avoid reconfiguring the Council office and chambers to fit more people. Council President Melinda E. Barrett quipped the Chambers need to be rebuilt anyway since they are not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act rules.

The group, squeezed into the City Council chambers, agreed to a suggestion by Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien that a “task force” be named to consider all elements. Fiorentini, in consultation with Barrett and School Committee President Scott W. Wood Jr., would name the task force members. Contrary to earlier plans, the new group won’t be expected to complete its work until January.

Manny Matias, president of the Haverhill Latino Coalition, took officials to task for not consulting the group when ballot questions were crafted and meetings, such as this one, were scheduled. Councilor William J. Macek said it was never clear earlier that Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights is actually representing the Coalition.

While most councilors agreed that the seven and two combination would likely work, Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua and Barrett both argued four at-large councilors might be a better combination.

“I like the four at-large because this is a very big community. If you only have two at-large, then you have only two people to go to and that’s a heavy lift for two people to cover 70,000 people,” she said.

Bevilacqua said most issues that come before the Council are citywide issues such as street paving and water and sewer. For that reason, he supports the seven and four combination.  Sullivan interjected, however, that ward councilors would still represent the entire city, not just their neighborhood.

Most School Committee members said whatever path the City Council takes should be mirrored by the School Committee. Committee member Richard J. Rosa expressed the consensus.

“With regards to the School Committee, I think it should also be ward representation. One, I think it would be incredibly confusing to have districts and wards. In fact, it could end up that you and your neighbor could have the same city councilor and two different school committee members,” he explained.

Rosa also pointed out that voters just elected three committee members to four-year terms. He expressed concern about any action that would rescind the will of the people.

Macek responded it is his belief that a provision can be added to its home rule petition allowing the three newly elected committee members to complete their four-year terms.

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