By Harry Kane
The Board of Aldermen continue to discuss proposed methods to fill vacancies once an alderman retires with less than one year of their term and prior to any regular election. But on May 14, a rules change was adopted, changing the process for filling vacant seats.
Following an early retirement, most aldermen appoint a new, qualified person to replace them. But now, with potential Charter changes being discussed among the BOA, and a rules change, the position would become more available to other residents of the ward who might want to become alderman. This new rules change ends the appointment process and replaces it with an alderman selection process that would be more democratic.
Typically in years past an outgoing alderman appointed their successor when he or she stepped down from their position. This had been the predominant form of selecting a new alderman in the past when the Alderman retired before their term ended. Prior to the recent outcry from the public regarding the appointment process, there hadn’t really been too much of a concern with the method of issuing in a new alderman in this scenario. After all, this method of appointing an alderman hadn’t occurred often enough to pose a problem. The sentiment held by concerned constituents seems to have shifted in the past few years.
If an alderman is unwell or unfit for the position and cannot fulfill his or her duties the alderman can step down from their position. This has happened five times since 1994, and two times in the past year. The former rule allowed for an alderman with less than one year remaining on their term to essentially appoint anyone to fill the position.
Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah L. Gewirtz says that the BOA has come to a consensus over a need for a rules change. At the same time, she says, “we decided we need to hear from the community.” There was a public hearing on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. to hear from residents about their concerns with the rules. Following the public hearing, the Board of Aldermen adopted the proposed rules changes with some amendments to the language.
Initially the proposed methods to amend the vacancies rule formulated by the Board of Aldermen included various items. The City Solicitor explained, however, that most of the changes on the proposal could only be made if there was a charter change, and that only a piece of the proposal was useable in the discussion for a rules change: item F, the only qualifying piece of legislation that could be amended in the rules committee. This would be a “short term” solution to the appointments dilemma, but the aldermen decided that it was a good first step in the right direction. “The portion of it that requires a charter change,” said Gewirtz, “is in the legislative matters committee.” She continued, “we’re gonna start with the rules and move onto the charter.”
A variation of the new rules changes were taken from Melrose, which have been in effect for a few years, according to the City Solicitor. In a hypothetical scenario, when the next alderman steps down from office early, the process for selecting a new alderman would start with an “immediate publication once in a newspaper of local circulation and for not less than two weeks on the city’s website’s homepage that the vacancy exists and that a replacement is being sought,” according to the proposal submitted before the BOA, known as Exhibit A. This initial sub-paragraph was discussed among the Board of Aldermen and they found that the topic warranted for further discussion.
In total there were eight sub-paragraphs that are part of Item F that would be made part of the rules changes for filling vacancies in the BOA. The policy change involves a 30 day vetting period of the applicants. “They would have to be nominated,” said Gewirtz. “What we talked about at the meeting,” added Gewirtz, “was that people would be nominated…that they would come for an interview…and there would be a period of time where the Board would deliberate and then someone would be elected by the majority of the Board.”
“In the absence of an election you really need to have a process as open as possible,” said Gewirtz. “We live in a democracy and we don’t want to be in a situation where people are getting appointed.” Gewritz makes the important point that the power of incumbency is strong. In the past, a good candidate who wanted to run for office but wasn’t friendly with the outgoing alderman had an “uphill battle” after the new incumbent is appointed, she said.
Ward 1 Alderman Maureen Bastardi felt “pretty good” about the potential rules changes that were discussed. Bastardi, herself, was appointed after former Alderman William M. Roche left Ward 1, and appointed Bastardi to take his position.
“My main concern would be the time a Ward would go unrepresented,” said Bastardi. “We all saw what happened with the School Committee Representative here in Ward 1. Though at the meeting I believe others had the same concern and it was addressed pretty well.”
Alderman Bastardi believes the Mayor needs to put together another Charter Review Committee. “I have expressed this to the Mayor,” she said. “A Charter change will take quite some time and if we are going to change the Charter we should look into other things that might need to be changed in it. I feel we have to be very careful and meticulous when it comes to a Charter change because it does take quite some time to change and we would be saddling any future Boards with the changes made.”