It was supposed to be a straightforward answer to a serious problem in the midst of a pandemic. Yet nothing is ever simple in Boston politics.
More than two weeks ago, City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo filed a home rule petition asking for a narrow and quick change in the city’s election rules: In the event that Mayor Marty Walsh resigns before March 5 to join the Biden administration, the city would bypass the special election that his departure would ordinarily trigger according to the city charter. That way, Boston wouldn’t have to hold two preliminary and two general elections for the same office in the span of a few months with the coronavirus pandemic still raging.
But a petition that should have flown through approval in the City Council — with ample support from civic leaders, elected officials, and voting rights organizations — has instead generated a mini Game of Thrones among councilors, some of whom seem more interested in weighing the relative advantages one candidate would have over another if the special election is canceled.
The political machinations threaten to upend a simple imperative in the COVID-19 era: Election rules sometimes need to be modified for public safety. The cynical gamesmanship of some councilors who want to force a special election displays misplaced priorities.
“Holding an election after an election after an election after an election is completely irresponsible,” said Councilor at Large Julia Mejia during a hearing on the petition Tuesday. “None of the arguments in favor of [holding] the special election have anything to do with public health or financial security or voter turnout,” Mejia said. “They have to do with power. But . . . this isn’t a conversation about power. It’s a conversation about people.”
Mejia is right. Yet the politicking is such that there’s even talk about hijacking Arroyo’s home rule petition as a vehicle to amend the city charter further, adding on measures such as making the change permanent or even forbidding an acting mayor from running for the job, a move blatantly designed to prevent City Council President Kim Janey from running. If some councilors really think that Janey shouldn’t be running for mayor while she is the acting mayor, well, they forfeited that consideration when they themselves elected Janey as president. They very well know that there’s always the potential for any councilor chosen for that role to step in as acting mayor if the mayor resigns or dies.
Of course, all these amendments would only act as poison pills, since they would threaten to derail the home rule petition’s approval in the Legislature. Attaching them, as councilors surely know, would be a way for them to claim that they opposed a special election while still ensuring that it happens anyway.
Then there was the controversy around a legal memo that Councilor Lydia Edwards requested that raised questions about the potential conflict of interest that councilors running, or thinking of running, for mayor would have if they vote on the home rule petition. So far, three councilors have launched campaigns: Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell, and Annissa Essaibi George. On Thursday, Essaibi George told WBUR that she thinks it’s “questionable at the least but very likely unethical” for her to take a position on the petition to scrap the special election, and that it is “inappropriate” for her to be involved in the discussion and vote.
That’s nonsense, to put it mildly. Arroyo asked the state’s ethics commission to weigh in on the matter, and its ruling is clear: Per state law, there is no conflict of interest for councilors to participate in the discussion and vote on the home rule petition. While Wu and Campbell both support skipping the special election, only Campbell said she would vote for the home rule petition as it was filed by Arroyo; Wu repeatedly deflected questions when asked by the Globe specifically about the vote.
The tentative date to vote on Arroyo’s home rule petition is Feb. 3. The legal memo and any potential amendments are nothing but smokescreens. A special election would only exacerbate COVID-19 health risks and disenfranchise voters. The city council should do its job, pass a clean home rule petition to deal with the emergency at hand, and let the political chips fall where they may.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.