The Boston City Council Wednesday voted in favor of a ballot measure that would ask the city’s voters if they want to change the municipal budget process to give the council more sway over taxpayer dollars.
Under the proposal, 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, in a set-up that has frustrated councilors for years.
The charter amendment proposal 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.
“Today’s vote is saying ‘We’re leaning into the people of Boston having more of a say in how their money is spent,’” said Councilor Lydia Edwards, who filed the proposal. “That, to me, is part of our job.”
She called it a direct response to “the moment that we’re in,” adding that the council should “open up the table to everyday Bostonians.”
The council, in a virtual hearing, passed the measure by a 10-3 vote during Wednesday’s meeting, which was conducted via Zoom. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in a statement after the vote, said his administration “intends to look very closely and carefully at what the council passed today.” He did not speak to whether he would support the measure. ”I take seriously the responsibility of ensuring the City of Boston’s commitment to fiscal management,” said Walsh. “Our ability to deliver critical services such as affordable housing, clean streets, open space, basic city services, public health, and so much more, all depend on careful, responsible, and responsive fiscal stewardship.” The initiative would need a sign-off from the state attorney general’s office, which would review it for constitutionality. If it is approved, it could land before Boston voters on a ballot next fall.
Wednesday’s vote came months after the council passed a $3.61 billion operating budget in a much-scrutinized decision. Some councilors, advocates, and residents thought that budget fell woefully short of the calls for the dismantling of structural racism. Rejecting that budget, however, would have brought with it potential layoffs and service reductions, according to city authorities, as a temporary budget, known as a 1/12, would have seen the city fund services at last year’s levels, but Boston would still have been on the hook for this year’s costs.
Councilor Kenzie Bok, who voted in favor of the charter ballot measure, said Boston residents expect the council to represent them more robustly than the current municipal structure allows.
“What’s end up happening is a highly ritualized process in which most negotiation and adjustment of the budget happens in a kind of informal way because formally all that we do, as everyone knows, is reject the budget so that an updated version can be introduced by the mayor, and then, as we all experienced there is an up or down vote,” said Bok.
“And I think we all felt the limitations of that,” said Bok.
Another “yes” vote, Councilor Julia Mejia, said “This is an opportunity for us to put the people first.”
Not everyone was sold.
Councilor Frank Baker, one of the three councilors to vote against the proposal, was concerned that the charter amendment, should it become a reality, would affect the city’s bond rating, which was recently affirmed as AAA, the highest possible credit rating.
“I think if we’re saying that this isn’t going to affect our bond rating, we’re being unrealistic,” said Baker.
He added, “I don’t have that much faith in this body to be able to not be 13 different fiefdoms and destroy the city budget. I’m very, very concerned going into this.”
The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city government watchdog, is also opposing the proposal, saying in a statement this week that it would not be in the city’s best interest and would bring uncertainty to Boston’s fiscal future. Competing powers and lack of accountability, said the bureau, would lead to instability. Additionally, the budget process is complex, and the City Council structure and central staff “is not prepared to complete this type of analysis and evaluation.”
“The Boston City Council should focus on exercising its current authority to influence spending and ensuring accountability,” said the bureau.
For Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, the participatory budget piece of the measure was an easy “yes,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting, but she had concerns about some other aspects of the proposal, saying that she was “really anxious about the dynamic that it will create for this body.”
“We will then be debating, on the floor, in the chamber, jobs in one department over jobs in another department, and I worry so much about that impact on our city,” said Essaibi-George, who ultimately voted “yes.”
Councilor Matt O’Malley said this past summer’s budget vote was the most difficult one he has made during his decade on council, “because there was no alternative that I felt would satisfy the myriad needs that we need as a city.” O’Malley voted to pass the operating budget.
“I did not have an alternative, quite frankly, none of us had an alternative,” said O’Malley, who supported the charter proposal at Wednesday’s meeting.
That, he said, is a criticism of how Boston’s government is structured.
O’Malley said he trusts the institution of the City Council, and he thought the charter amendment is not as “nearly as impactful or potentially cataclysmic as some would suggest.”
“It actually sets some really defined parameters on how we could be a more active counterweight with the executive,” he said. “But the bulk of the power, make no mistake, remains in the executive branch.”