SURPRISE! Springfield Will Actually Hold a Special Election for Ward 5…
UPDATED 6/2/22 7:23PM: To include an update that the Springfield City Clerk confirmed the map the election would use.
When word got around that now-former Ward 5 City Councilor Marcus Williams was resigning, councilors winced at what lay ahead. Last year, they had to appoint a replacement for Senator Adam Gomez after he resigned his Ward 1 seat. At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman, who assumed the role of Council President upon Williams’s resignation, prepared for a flood of prospective candidates.
Little did anybody in City Hall realize, councilors’ role in filling vacant ward seats no longer existed. On May 19, Governor Charlie Baker signed An Act Further Regulating the Filling of Vacancies on the City Council of the City of Springfield. The Senate passed it days before, following House passage in February. The Council sent the original petition to Beacon Hill on May 3, 2021 not long after filling Gomez’s seat.
City Clerk Gladys Oyola-Lopez informed Lederman on Wednesday in a letter the Council office released.
“Today a member of the State Senate informed me that the Home Rule Petition to ‘Fill Vacancies in the Offices of the City Council in the City of Springfield’ was signed into law,” she wrote. “As a result, I am issuing an order to the Board of Election Commissioners to schedule a Special Preliminary Election for City Council in Ward 5.”
The language in the bill amendment to the charter would likely pencil in a special preliminary and general election for late summer.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Lederman acknowledged councilors had thought the home rule petition had yet to pass, but welcomed the surprise.
“I know I speak for many Councilors when I say we are relieved that the people of Ward 5 will have the opportunity to choose for themselves their representative,” he said in his statement.
Councilors would have an arduous choice among several well-known community figures airing interest.
“City Clerk and Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola is preparing the details for this process in accordance with the law, and the Board of Election Commissioners will rightfully handle the process from this point forward,” Lederman continued.
Among those details Oyola-Lopez is preparing are likely deadlines to pull papers for the special election and return signatures.
Prior to passage of this bill, vacancies in ward seats were subject to a historical oversight the return of ward representation brought about. When the legislature approved a ballot question for Springfield to bring back ward seats, it did nothing to fill ward vacancies.
As originally adopted in 1961, the charter let the Council itself to fill vacancies on the then-all at-large nine-member body. This changed in 1965—and modified in 1992 to include the School Committee—to fill vacancies with the highest vote recipient after those that won seats in the preceding election. This worked then—and now with the Council’s current five at-large seats—as runners-up are not clear losers and have an imprimatur of democratic support.
The Council’s eight ward seats added in 2010 were necessarily one-on-one contests. Voters clearly rejected the runner-up in the prior election. A year after the city restored ward representation, there was a ward vacancy. The runner-up process filled it. Another vacancy occurred when a retiring councilor died. The late E. Henry Twiggs’s successor had been elected and councilors just ran out the clock on the term.
This was controversial enough. However, if there was no qualified runner-up, the charter defaults to the original 1961 language. The Council fills the vacancy. Technically, this could happen with at-large seats if vacancies exhausted the list of runners-up. Yet, in 60 years, this has never happened. It only took a decade of ward representation for the Council to need to fill a ward seat.
For Gomez’s, councilors settled on his father, Gumersindo, in what many admitted then was an arduous decision. The elder Gomez ultimately did not seek his own term. Maria Perez, who had also sought the appointment, won the seat without opposition in the regular 2021 city election.
With Williams bailing, councilors girded for this to play out again. Then Oyola-Lopez heard from the State Senate. As the bill took immediate effect, Oyola-Lopez—who also runs the Election Commission office—immediately informed the Council and the Board of Election Commissioners. The latter have a meeting Friday to set a date for the election.
“I am excited to see this work has come to fruition and the people are going to elect their representative and not be appointed by the city council,” said Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila. He and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton were the lead sponsors of the home rule petition.
The Council had attempted to pass home rule petitions to establish special ward elections as early as 2014. Both Boston and Newton hold special elections for district-based vacancies. What Springfield sought had a precedent.
Earlier drafts would have put a question before voters. It also included the specials for vacancies in the School Committee’s district seats. After haggling with Senate Counsel, the bill passed the upper chamber only to die in the House. At the time politicos suspected chicanery thanks to influence from Springfield forces with Beacon Hill ties.
When the Council revisited the issue in 2021, it opted to leave the School Committee out of the bill. It was not clear the Committee wanted special elections for vacant district seats. While councilors could have included the Committee with its permission, they did not do so. The new draft also ditched the referendum allowing the change to take immediate effect. When the legislature approved district Council special elections for Boston in 1993, that law also took immediate effect.
The Springfield legislation is relatively short and reflects years of redrafts. Special elections only occur if at least 210 days remain in the term. In Williams’s case, he and the rest of the current Council were not even up for election until November 2023. As Oyola-Lopez noted in her letter, the term has well more than 210 days left.
Within 15 days of notice of vacancy, the City Clerk must inform the Council and Election Commission. In that window, the Clerk must also order the Election Commission to select a Tuesday for an election between 62 and 76 days after that order.
That date will become the special preliminary date. A general election date will automatically occur 28 day later. If fewer than three candidates certify for the special election ballot, the law cancels the preliminary.
Notably the law lets the Election Commission set the date of the special. The Council, by contrast, sets special mayoral election dates. Indeed, the Boston Council sets its special election dates. Springfield councilors will still likely approve the election warrant, which formally orders elections in the city.
Vacancies that occur less than 210 days would remain unfilled until the regularly scheduled general election. The language is somewhat ambiguous, but it is possible the winner of a vacant seat could take office upon certification of victory. Usually, that person wait for the new term to begin the following January.
Another paragraph ensures the special election is conducted consistent with the charter. This section likely authorizes the printing of ballots and circulating of signature sheets.
Before the city discovered its charter had changed, councilors were expecting a crowd to seek the appointment. Whether that still happens with a special election and not an appointment is uncertain.
Ward 5 includes much of 16 Acres and parts of Pine Point. It is among the city’s higher turnout wards. Racially diverse and lacking clear institutional centers of gravity, there few assumptions about who would have an advantage. That may encourage just as many candidates as an appointment would have.
One open question is redistricting. The city redrew ward lines after the 2020 Census. These maps were not in effect for the 2021 municipal election. Specials are usually held under district lines in effect at the previous election. After this story originally posted, Oyola-Lopez confirmed the election would use the old map.
At first glance, the city could save money if it held either the preliminary or general special election for Ward 5 alongside the state primary election on September 6. However, the state will use maps legislators drew after the Census for its elections that day. In other words, the Ward 5 in the state election may not match the Ward 5 in effect during the 2021 municipal election.