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Scramble to replace Walsh just got more complicated

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo drafted the petition to bypass a special election for a mayoral race, which would normally be required under city law.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The political scramble in the race to replace Mayor Martin J. Walsh just got a bit more complicated.

An internal City Council memo obtained by the Globe raises questions about whether declared candidates for mayor — as well as City Council president Kim Janey, who will immediately serve as acting mayor following Walsh’s departure — can vote on a home-rule petition to nix a special election, which would normally be required under city law. The memo questions whether the declared candidates have a conflict of interest in the matter.

The two councilors who have so far declared their candidacy for mayor, Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, as well as Janey, may not even be able to talk about the petition, according to the memo, which could raise enough legal questions to guarantee the petition’s demise.


But City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who drafted the petition to bypass the special election, challenged the accuracy of the legal memo and pointed to a letter he received from the state Ethics Commission on Friday supporting his position.

The letter, citing state law, says that public officials are excluded from financial ethics rules in certain matters, such as home rule petitions for special laws.

“It’s not an argument, it’s not my interpretation, it’s literally the law,” said Arroyo, a lawyer.

The legal jockeying underscores the high-stakes interests in the race to replace Walsh, who hasn’t even left office yet, and the immediate domino effect that will follow his departure.

The internal memo, dated Friday, was prepared by the council’s legal director and addressed to Councilor Lydia Edwards, who chairs the council’s committee on government operations. In a statement, Edwards said she sought legal advice to determine how the council can proceed “in a way that can’t be questioned later.”

The matter is slated to be aired during a hearing Tuesday afternoon.


“My goal has always been to have a hearing, review this proposal, and have a finished product ready for a council vote in a timely manner,” Edwards said.

Edwards said Friday that she has sought guidance from the administration’s corporation counsel, and the state Ethics Commission. It was not immediately clear when Edwards made her inquiry; Arroyo said he received his letter Friday.

The legal deliberations center on who can vote on Arroyo’s petition, as well as how many votes are needed for approval, and they are an early indicator of the political sensitivity over how best to replace Walsh, who has been tapped to serve as labor secretary for President Joe Biden.

The special election decision could be instrumental in deciding Boston’s next mayor.

If Walsh is confirmed and leaves before March 5, the city charter requires a special election to replace him, and one would probably be held in the early summer. Then, the city would still need to hold the regularly scheduled election in the fall. That means, technically, Boston could see four different mayors, through the course of four elections — two preliminary and two general — in the span of a year.

Arroyo called the March 5 deadline an unnecessarily arbitrary cutoff date, and argued that the requirement of a special election would be too costly and confusing for voters.

Holding one election as scheduled in the fall, he said, would give Boston’s most disenfranchised voters, mainly from Black and brown communities, time to weigh the gravity of the mayor’s race, and would give more candidates greater time to mount credible campaigns for office.


Wu and Campbell had announced their campaigns in September; Wu supported canceling the election, though Campbell has not committed to a decision.

But critics of Arroyo’s petition say it would be unfair to change city rules in the midst of the election season. Allowing Janey to serve as acting mayor until the fall election, they said, would also give her an unfair advantage of incumbency, if she chooses to run.

According to the council’s legal memo, Wu, Campbell, and Janey could have a financial interest in canceling the special election and should be barred from participating.

“This definition encompasses more than the act of voting,” the memo states. “Participating in a matter would also include deliberating at a hearing, offering opinions on a matter, and voting on said matter.”

The memo refers to the candidates who have already declared their runs, but it does not address candidates who are considering entering the race and could similarly have a financial interest: Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George is said to be seriously considering a run, and Councilor Michael Flaherty recently sent out a solicitation seeking campaign donations, saying he was also weighing the matter.

The legal memo states that the petition would still need seven votes, or a majority of the full council, to pass, even if some councilors do not take part in the vote.

Arroyo questioned that legal determination, saying it runs afoul of typical parliamentary procedure. He also pointed to the memo from the state Ethics Commission that directly contradicts the council’s internal memo. He said Wu, Janey, and Campbell, who represent Boston’s most historically Black communities, should be able to weigh in on the matter.


“Someone made an incorrect determination of the law,” he said.

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.