By Harry Kane
A special public hearing was held back on May 14 to listen to the perspectives of concerned residents regarding the filling of vacancies for aldermen leaving office with less than one year left on their term.
The hearing was productive, and a decision to adopt a rules change was instituted. However, the vacant seat dilemma continues to vex some Somerville residents. They wonder whether a charter change is necessary to once and for all solve the problem.
Nine Aldermen listened to the testimonies from concerned residents regarding both the new rules change and the possibility of a charter modification. While the rules change, known as rule 20, was adopted on May 14, a discussion about a charter change is ongoing.
The first resident to speak was Cesar Urrunaga. He had some qualms with the 40 percent threshold. This refers to subsection A of the proposed methods that would necessitate a charter change.
Proposed subsection A reads, “A vacant position shall be filled by the defeated candidates for the office of alderman at large in the preceding municipal election by their order of finish, provided that such defeated candidates received at least 40 percent of all ballots cast for the office of alderman at large.”
In other words, if an alderman steps down early, this proposed change to the charter would allow for the second place runner-up to become alderman, if he or she had received at least 40 percent of the votes in the election. Urrunaga proposed that the percentage should be 20 percent, instead.
Resident Joel Bennett said he was concerned about the recent School Committee selection process. When Ward 1 School Committee Member Maureen Bastardi became alderman there was a vacancy that needed to be filled in the School Committee. A special selection process was held, resulting in the selection of Steve Roix. However, the process took several months and during that time the School Committee in Ward 1 was without representation.
Bennett said he thought the process was “really good,” but that out of respect, “an alderman isn’t someone that can be appointed.” He continued by saying that there is a “process” for becoming an alderman, and that the appointment of an alderman “just doesn’t feel right to me.”
Resident Paula Woolley liked the idea of an interim appointment. She said that it would “remove abuse” from the system. The interim appointment scenario, which has been heavily discussed, would not allow the appointed alderman to seek election after the term was over. This idea, however, may not be viable.
The consensus by the residents was that the aldermen have had an unfair advantage in the past when appointing their successor. Woolley added, “A charter change would be a good disincentive to a candidate leaving early.”
Ward 3 Alderman Thomas F. Taylor said, “There’s no guarantee that the person is going to win,” in response to the question of whether an incumbent has a better chance after being appointed.
In response to that, Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah L. Gewirtz replied back that the power of incumbency is not to be underestimated, and that 97 percent of incumbents win reelection. “That person goes into that election with a huge advantage,” she said.
Matt Rusteika sits on the board of the Progressive Democrats of Somerville. He said that the most unsettling element was the informality of the process. He added that it is “slightly disenfranchising,” and that it is most important that the process be codified.
In the end, the Board of Aldermen voted for the adopted rules changes, with some minor adaptations to the original proposal. In section 3 of the rules changes, language was added to allow for more public engagement in the process, giving residents from all wards the chance to submit questions for the candidates in a vacancy scenario.