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Should Boston change its budget process? City Council to consider charter ballot measure

Councilor Lydia Edwards (center) has filed an amendment to the city's charter that could change the budget process. The matter could potentially go before Boston voters next fall.
Councilor Lydia Edwards (center) has filed an amendment to the city's charter that could change the budget process. The matter could potentially go before Boston voters next fall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Boston City Council this week is poised to vote on whether to put before voters a proposal that would change the city’s budgeting process and give the council more power over Boston’s purse strings.

Under the measure, the council would have the ability to amend the mayor’s proposed budget, but not increase its total amount. The city’s current strong-mayor structure means that the council can vote to approve or deny the mayor’s proposed budget, but can transfer funds only if the mayor requests it. For years, the set-up has frustrated councilors.

“The up-or-down vote is infantile and it does not allow for a true, robust, transparent back-and-forth over a $3 billion budget,” said Councilor Lydia Edwards, who filed the amendment. “That frustration existed before this year’s budget.”

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Last June’s $3.61 billion operating budget vote was a contentious one, and came amid a pandemic and calls for the dismantling of structural racism. Some councilors thought the budget fell woefully short of the moment, but it passed by an 8-5 vote.

At the time, Edwards, who voted in favor of the budget, pledged to work to restructure local government to change the way the city allocates funds and the council’s budgetary powers, saying that “a lot of people are frustrated by the fact that this budget doesn’t answer the cry for systemic change. I agree.”

The charter amendment proposal, slated to be discussed at Wednesday’s council hearing, would also create an independent office of participatory budgeting, with a board that would oversee a binding decision-making process open to Boston residents. That process would decide how at least .5 percent of the budget is allocated, starting in fiscal 2024, and would increase to 1 percent of the budget by fiscal 2029.

The charter amendment would also allow the council to influence the budget for the Boston Public Schools. Specifically, it would allow the City Council to amend the the city’s school district’s budget, increasing or decreasing the total amount, but not allocating for specific things within that budget, according to Edwards’s office.

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The elephant in the room when it comes to the budget process, said Edwards, is that “whoever the mayor is has way too much power . . . over the money.”

“The everyday people of Boston need to have a bigger voice,” said Edwards in a Monday phone interview.

The council could approve the amendment at Wednesday’s meeting. It would need need a simple majority approval of the council to move forward, and Edwards said Monday she thinks she has the votes for that to happen. The mayor would have veto power over the proposal, she said, although Edwards added if Mayor Martin J. Walsh opts to go that route, he will lose her support.

“I cannot support a mayor that doesn’t believe people should have more of a voice,” she said.

Walsh’s office said it would review the legislation if the council passes it this week.

Edwards said the proposal was not controversial, calling it “pro-democracy, pro-transparency, pro-accountability.”

“It is a question to the voters of Boston,” she said.

Before it could land on next fall’s municipal election ballot, the proposal would also need the go-ahead from the state attorney general’s office, which would review the constitutionality of the measure.

In a Monday press release, local advocates hailed the measure.

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Armani White, the director of campaigns for the Boston-based Center for Economic Democracy, said the charter “both expands democracy and civic engagement through participatory budgeting and gives councilors, and therefore their constituents, increased power to advocate for resources in the midst of global pandemic.”

Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, thought it was important for the city’s charter to “reflect our values in democracy.”

“Participatory budgeting [and] resident and city council input to the budget will help the City of Boston better understand the needs of our residents,” said Chen in a statement.

In the wake of last summer’s budget vote, Boston’s budget continues to be a point of contention, with the City Council holding hearings on police overtime expenditures and examining police union contracts that are connected with the department’s budget, policies, and procedures.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.