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Boston City Council passes ballot question to change budget process

Boston City Hall.Craig F. Walker

For the second time in recent months, the Boston City Council on Wednesday approved a ballot measure that would ask voters to change the city’s charter and alter its budget process to give the council more control over spending.

The referendum would allow the council to modify budget appropriations. Under the city’s current structure, the council can approve or deny the mayor’s proposed budget but can transfer funds only if the mayor requests it. The system has frustrated councilors for years.

The council passed a similar initiative in December. City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who is spearheading the initiative, said Wednesday that the state’s attorney general’s office, which reviews ballot questions for constitutionality, had suggested some language changes that were incorporated into the latest measure. The council approved the updated question unanimously.

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“I want to be clear, she did approve us going to the ballot but we decided it made sense to take up her suggestions” to make sure there was no confusion about the legality of such a proposal, Edwards said.

The ballot measure would allow the council to amend the budget as long as it does not exceed the amount originally proposed by the mayor. It would also create an independent Office of Participatory Budgeting with an external oversight board. The office would “further public engagement and democratic involvement in city spending,” according to the proposal. Edwards has said the plan would allow for “greater transparency in how tax dollars are spent while maintaining fiscal responsibility.”

“This change would allow for the council to respond to public feedback with actions other than simply rejecting the budget,” Edwards wrote in a letter to the city clerk.

“In addition to enhancing discussion of any new proposed or desired spending this change would give the city council more nimble tools in responding to budget cuts in the time of fiscal austerity and allow for public deliberation on what services could or should be reduced without lasting harm,” she added.

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Edwards said Boston would be the first city in Massachusetts to take such a charter amendment before voters. Most proposed charter changes, she said, are sent to the State House.

‘We’re breaking the mold,’ she said.

The plan has drawn criticism. In January, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog group, said the plan would bring “great uncertainty and dysfunction to Boston, threatening its fiscal stability and ability to deliver basic services.”

On Wednesday, Pam Kocher, the bureau’s president, said her organization continues to be very concerned about the potential changes put forth in the measure.

“This is a major change to the structure of city government in Boston,” she said.

Under the proposal, the council could return a completely different budget to the mayor. Putting together a sustainable budget, she said, is a monumental process, and the council does not have the resources or knowledge to pull it off.

It would also likely result in councilors fighting amongst themselves and “horse trading like crazy,” said Kocher.

“It could devolve into chaos,” she said.

She also wondered whether Acting Mayor Kim Janey could sign off on such a proposal given that the city charter places limits on the authority of acting mayors.

The proposal is now before Janey. With her approval, it would go to the attorney general’s office for review. If that office gives the go-ahead, it would appear on the ballot for the city election on Nov. 2.

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A Janey spokeswoman said Wednesday the administration “will conduct a thorough review of the council’s city charter amendment to have a full understanding of its impact in order to inform the mayor’s position on the matter.”

Last June’s $3.61 billion budget vote was contentious, coming during the pandemic and calls to address structural racism. Some councilors said the city’s budget fell woefully short of meeting the needs 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 city government to change the way it allocates funds 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 budget process for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, is already underway. Janey has presented a $3.75 billion operating budget and the council’s ways and means committee has already held numerous hearings.

Police funding has been a focal point of debate. Janey’s budget includes a projected $22 million cut to police overtime, or roughly a one-third reduction.

Her $400 million plan for police represents a reduction of $4 million from the amount approved during last year’s budget process and is $21 million below what the department will actually spend this year. Some advocates have said they want to see deeper funding cuts to the city’s force.

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