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Vacant Expressions in Springfield…

Springfield City Council Chamber (WMassP&I)

As 2010 faded into 2011, Springfield and its largely Forest Park neighborhood-based Ward 6 faced a tumultuous transition. Councilor Keith Wright had resigned from the seat only a year after his and seven other ward-based seats were created in the city’s 2009 Council reorganization. The city Law Department quickly deemed “the person with the next highest number of votes from the most recent municipal election” would be the legal replacement for the seat.

Amaad Rivera, whom Wright defeated in 2009, would serve out the rest of the latter’s term. Angry residents, mostly those that opposed his candidacy the election before, raised residency questions, which were unfortunate in light of minimal evidence. The Law Department also faced flack with armchair declarations that the City should hold an election for a replacement, something it is not legally empowered to do.

Councilor Edwards, running for the Hampden Senate Seat (WMassP&I)

Now that as many as three Councilors could exit before the term is up, Springfield faces an even less democratic outcome than Ward 6’s conundrum in two of the city’s poorest wards. At the same time, if such an outcome does not conjure any outrage, it could confirm that bias played a larger role than admitted during Ward 6’s transition of power.

The possibility exists in part because two councilors are running for other offices.  One, at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, is unlikely to upset the balance as the existing system would settle his vacancy.  However, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards is running for State Senate.  Were he to succeed and vacate his seat, the city’s convoluted replacement process would kick in.  Additionally, Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs has been unwell of late.  Should he resign to concentrate on his recovery, his seat too would enter the snake pit of Springfield’s municipal succession laws.

Congress and the Massachusetts General Court both have procedures in the US and state Constitutions (or statute) to fill vacancies in either body. The municipal legislatures, which are creatures of the Commonwealth, are no different.

Beacon Hill (WMassP&I)

These rules exist at the discretion of the legislature, which has the authority to create and empower all of the commonwealth’s 351 communities. Unfortunately, those general laws written to clarify municipal succession have the potential to smack directly into another precept of Massachusetts law: home rule. Complicating matters further is the insanely complicated and, at times, contradictory nature of Massachusetts municipal government.

In Springfield, for many years, the laws lived in harmony. Under its charter passed in the 1959 and the general laws governing municipalities with Springfield’s Plan A charter, the top nine vote-earners in a municipal election won the Council’s nine at-large seats. Vacancies would be filled by the remaining Council members.

That changed in 1965 and was extended to the School Committee a few years later when Springfield requested the legislature remove the Council from the decision.  That council prerogative is standard under many home rule charters and other plans if less than six months remains on the Council term. Under the 1965 and later 1992 revision, should a vacancy arise, the 10th (and so on) highest vote-earner from the prior election would, if still otherwise willing and eligible, fill an empty seat.

This worked for forty-five years because the Council was elected in a list election wherein the nine highest placing candidates in the general election are elected to the Council. This system continues today, albeit with the top five placing candidates winning five instead of nine at-large seats and the vacancy-filling system likewise works.

The decision to place succession in the hands of the next highest vote-getting candidate for at-large seats made sense for many reasons. It was more democratic and left a pool of enough replacements to potentially fill every seat. Under state law, no more than two individuals can appear on the November municipal ballot or twice as many candidates as seats contested. This system saves the city the expense of holding a citywide election for such seats, which by design are not really a contest between two specific individuals.

However, ward seat elections are one-on-one contests in the general election as required by law. Still, the existing rules that applied to Springfield’s all at-large council and current at-large councilors applied to ward seats, too. Therefore, the next highest vote-getter is necessarily the loser of the general election.

Fmr. Councilor Amaad Rivera (Facebook)

At the first full meeting in which Rivera was a member of the Council, then-Council President Jose Tosado urged the appropriate committees seek a legislative fix. They were not successful. The only fix proposed would do nothing to correct the problem and only would have codified the existing error.  Even so, it never made it out of committee.

Indeed, the problem is complicated by the fact that at the last municipal election only one ward seat was contested. Six other incumbents and Ken Shea running in Ward 6 were unopposed on the ballot.  Only Ward 8’s John Lysak had an opponent. Thus, there is no valid “second place” finisher to whom the Election Commission can award the seat.

To the contrary, an Edwards or Twiggs departure would actually require the city to reach further back into the law to fill those seats. According to Gladys Oyola, the city’s Election Commissioner, any vacancy among the Council’s ward seats, except in Ward 8, which was a contested election, would be filled by the Council.

Oyola does say that a write-in candidate would be no less eligible to fill a vacancy. In a series of interviews by phone, email and in-person, Oyola confirmed that a write-in could join the Council if he or she met other qualifications. The successor would need to be a resident of the ward, but they would also need to meet another key statutory requirement.

In Massachusetts the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot also governs write-in candidates’ capacity to succeed. A write-in candidate must receive as many votes as are required to gain ballot access in order to win an election. City Council candidates in Springfield must gather 100 valid signatures to get on the ballot. Oyola said that just as many write-in votes are necessary in order for that candidate to win an election or to qualify as a successor under the City Charter.

Councilor Twiggs (City Website)

No 2011 write-ins met that threshold. Consequently, none of the write-in contenders in ward seats last year are eligible to take a vacant seat. Virtually no write-in vied in Ward 3 & 4, Edwards and Twiggs’s respective wards. Even the two known and declared write-in candidacies of Maria Perez in Ward 1 and Melissa Guerrera in Ward 6 failed to reach that 100 vote threshold.

The only refuge then is to return to the city’s Plan A charter as adopted in 1959 and written in the General Laws, which calls upon the City Council to select a replacement. Westfield experienced this earlier in the year. Councilor Peter Miller of Ward 3 resigned, but had won reelection unopposed last year. No write-ins qualified, thus kicking the decision back to the full Council, who picked Ann Callahan. That choice would necessarily be more contentious in Springfield as the largely white City Council would select replacements in possibly two predominantly minority wards.

Neither Edwards nor at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, running for Clerk-of-Courts, can be compelled to resign their Council seat. Ashe has indicated he would resign from the Council if elected, clearing the path for Justin Hurst, the 6th place at-large candidate in 2011, to succeed him. Mindful of the city’s ward succession process, however, Edwards has said he would want to use his leverage to encourage the Council to select somebody who would serve Ward 3 best.

By far the best option would be a home rule petition to change this situation, although it could be solved through charter revision. But how should a change look? It is clear that in 1965, the city was leery about giving the Council appointing power except in rare circumstances. Yet, the second-place finish to win system is not quite attractive either.

Worcester City Hall (wikipedia)

Springfield can look to its peers for a solution, however. Boston and Worcester both hold elections when one of its Council district seats open up, although Worcester does permit the “loser” in the past election to replace a district councilor in some cases. Lowell and Cambridge do not elect councilors by district.  New Bedford and Brockton, the state’s sixth and seventh cities hold special elections to fill vacant district seats.

In none of these cities is a Plan A charter operative. Boston’s charter, though Plan A like, is actually a heavily modified charter approved by the legislature in 1909. Worcester uses a council-manager home rule charter based on Plan E and New Bedford and Brockton use Plan B charters, which come from the General Laws and include district seats. At-large vacancies in all four cities are filled by picking the highest vote-earning non-winner from the previous election as in Springfield.

Springfield’s neighbors are no more helpful. Of Hampden County’s other cities, only Chicopee holds elections to fill vacancies and only in limited circumstances.

The Boston City Council Districts Circa 2003. Boston elects nine district councilors and four at large councilors in a fashion similar to Springfield.

The Boston City Council‘s history, notably, parallels that of the Springfield Council. When the City Council of Boston was formed in 1909, it was an all at-large nine member body. More than seventy years later, that body changed to one much like Springfield’s today. Before that change in 1983, like Springfield, Boston directed Council vacancies to be filled by the next-highest vote earner. However, ten years would pass after the city established district seats before it chose special elections as the means to fill district seat vacancies, rather than handing it to winner of second place in the last election.

This election season has highlighted the need for reform in this area. Ward representation is a continuing experiment in Springfield. Although it has not totally lived up to its promise, it has moved the city in a more positive direction. Handcuffing that progress to the politics at 36 Court Street does little to empower the communities ward representation was supposed to help.

With the Legislature adjourned, no legislation is likely to get through and change this before the decision could get kicked to the Springfield City Council. Still it remains troubling that over a year and a half after Rivera’s ascension to the Council caused such a stir nothing has been done. Springfield is too big a city to place such decisions into the hands of serendipity and caprice, and whatever the turnout, it should not be forsaken because democracy is too expensive.