Following a much-scrutinized operating budget vote last month, Boston city councilors are looking at ways to change the budget process, including one proposal that would alter the city’s foundational charter and give the body more power over the city’s purse strings.
Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, is advocating for a charter change that would see the council “hold equal budgetary authority,” as the mayor. She wants to put the issue before voters in a ballot referendum next year.
On June 24, the council passed Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s $3.61 billion operating budget by an 8-5 vote, drawing vociferous opposition from several councilors who said the spending plan fell woefully short of the moment and the movement to dismantle structural racism.
But the councilors were effectively limited on voting the measure up or down.
Edwards was among the councilors to vote “yes” for the operating budget. During a speech before the vote, Edwards pledged to work to restructure local government to change the way the city allocates funds and the council’s budgetary powers.
In a phone interview, Edwards said Boston is an outlier when it comes to “the lack of control the legislative body has over the budget.” She said councilors found the budgeting process that led to the operating budget vote frustrating, saying “many of us would have loved to come up with different ideas” that would have reflected the needs of the city’s various districts.
“If we really want to reflect what the voters need and want, we have to change the system,” she said.
The council has the power to accept or reject the mayor’s proposed budget. It can also reduce the budget — but has no authority to add to it. Councilors can transfer funds only if the mayor requests that. Edwards’s proposal would see both the mayor and council have the power to “to originate an appropriation order for the capital and operating budgets.”
The charter change “would allow for the council to respond to public feedback with actions other than simply rejecting the budget, including the increase or reallocation of funds,” said Edwards in a letter to the city clerk.
According to Edwards’s office, the council is required to hold a hearing on the measure within three months of her filing it and take final action on the matter within six months. Her office said the measure does not require mayoral consent, per the subsection of law the proposal was filed under.
The council would have to approve the proposal by a simple majority and from there it would go to the state attorney general’s office for a constitutionality review, according to Edwards’s office. If the AG’s office signs off on the measure, it would feature on the ballot for next year’s municipal election ballot, which will include the city’s mayoral contest.
Pam Kocher, president of Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog, said her organization would be curious to learn more about what Edwards has in mind “in terms of a model.” Kocher called a charter change “an extensive, thorough process.”
“We’d want to see how she’d like it structured and we’d want that to be very thoughtful,” said Kocher.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, who voted against Walsh’s budget and whose district is largely comprised of Dorchester and Mattapan, as well as parts of Roslindale and Jamaica Plain, said in a Monday statement, “The current budget process does not allow for detailed debate and real change.”
She added, “In the long term, giving the Council the ability to meaningfully shape the City budget is critical to tackling systemic inequity and ensuring our budget is responsive to and inclusive of the needs of our residents and neighborhoods in an equitable way.”
In other budget-related council business, a group of councilors wants to take a look at “more inclusive and imaginative approaches” to the process, according to a Monday statement. Specifically, four first term councilors want to explore the possibility of “zero-based budgeting,” where “an organization asks anew each year what allocations would best achieve its central goals, rather than incrementally altering the prior year’s budget,” according to their hearing order.
A trio of councilors also want to examine “models of participatory budgeting that could enable members off the public to take a more active and decisive role earlier in Boston’s budgeting process.”
“We need space for earlier budget conversations that can move from shifting marginal dollars to envisioning whole new programs, and we need a more robust role for the public beyond offering testimony on a mayoral proposal,” said Councilor Kenzie Bok, the chairwoman of the council’s ways and means committee, in a statement. Bok, who represents Mission Hill, Fenway, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the West End, was another yes vote for the mayor’s budget.
Such proposals will be discussed at this Wednesday’s meeting.