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Janey green-lights ballot measure that would give City Council more power over Boston’s budget process

The Boston skyline.
The Boston skyline.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Acting Mayor Kim Janey on Monday signed off on a ballot question that would ask voters to give the City Council more power over the city’s purse strings.

Janey’s approval means the measure to change Boston’s budget process is one step closer to reality. The proposal now heads to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which will review it for constitutionality. If that office gives the go-ahead, it would appear on the ballot for the city election on Nov. 2.

“On my first day as mayor, I promised to bring new voices to the table and include those who felt shut out by City Hall,” said Janey in a statement. “Signing this charter amendment delivers on that promise and creates a path forward for city budgeting that is more democratic, inclusive, and transparent.”

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The referendum would allow the council to modify budget appropriations. Under the city’s current strong-mayor structure, the council can approve or deny the mayor’s overall proposed budget but can move money between line items only if the mayor requests it. The system has frustrated councilors for years.

The council unanimously passed the measure last month, and it had approved a similar initiative in December.

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. The proposed system would allow the mayor to approve or return the budget with amendments a week after the council votes on the budget. The proposal would enable the council to override the mayor’s amendments with a two-thirds vote.

It would also create an independent Office of Participatory Budgeting with an external oversight board, and on Monday Janey announced she was proposing an additional $1 million in next year’s budget for the creation of such an office. The office would “further public engagement and democratic involvement in city spending,” according to the proposal.

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Not everyone is in favor of the proposed ballot measure. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog, opposes the charter amendment proposed in the ballot measure, saying in a statement last week that it would “change the fundamental structure of government.” That group called on Janey to reject the proposal.

“The proposed change in the budget process, in an attempt to give shared budget authority to the Mayor and Council, creates a dysfunctional government system that would not allow the city to carry out its most basic functions,” read the bureau’s statement. “Instead the focus in the Council would be on special interests and meeting those expectations.”

At a Monday morning news conference outside City Hall, Councilor Lydia Edwards, who is spearheading the effort behind the ballot measure, batted away such criticism, saying the bureau is “embedded and invested in keeping the system as it is, we are not.”

“We are going to say, ‘We will re-write the rules, because we’re at the table,’” she said.

Andres Del Castillo, co-director of housing advocacy group Right to The City Boston, thought it was important that residents feel seen and have opportunities to directly engage with the budget process.

“Generations of Bostonians have been fighting for a better voice, a more representative voice,” he said.

In terms of fiscal responsibility, Councilor Kenzie Bok, who chairs the city’s ways and means committee, said the amendment is set up to “keep Boston on the same strong footing it’s already on.” She noted that almost every select board in the state has amendment power and thought this proposal would bring more transparency to Boston’s budgetary process.

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“It’s not this radical, new idea we’re talking about here,” said Bok.

The city is in the midst of budget season for next fiscal year, which starts July 1. In April, Janey unveiled a $3.75 billion operating budget. Since that time, the council has held numerous budget hearings and working sessions.


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