In what some City Hall observers interpreted as a calculated political warning to Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the Boston City Council on Wednesday passed a rule change that would allow the body to remove its council president with a two-thirds majority vote.
The measure means that the council could hypothetically remove Janey from her role as council president, which she technically still holds even as she is the acting city executive. Such a move would remove her from her post as acting mayor, since that title is directly tied to her post as council president.
The proposal passed at Wednesday’s council meeting by a measure of 10-1-1. Among the 10 “yes” votes were three of Janey’s opponents in the crowded and increasingly pitched mayoral race: Councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu. Councilor Ricardo Arroyo was the lone “no” vote, while Councilor Julia Mejia voted “present.”
Councilor Lydia Edwards introduced the proposal toward the end of the meeting, saying the initiative was about transparency and accountability. She said that as the power of the council president grows, so too should accountability for that position.
“We are the body that made the City Council president, and make the City Council president. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” she said. “We therefore are the only body that can hold the City Council president accountable.”
Arroyo pointed out that the rule change did not include any reason or cause for the removal the council president.
“It just says that at anytime, for any reason, on a whim, the council can try to remove a president, who they already elected,” said Arroyo. “I actually disagree with that.”
Thanks to her post as City Council president, Janey became acting mayor in March, when Martin J. Walsh left City Hall to become the nation’s labor secretary.
Some members of the council are frustrated by what they see as a lack of communication and responsiveness from Janey’s office regarding an array of topics, according to two City Hall insiders. One source described the current relationship between the mayor’s office and council as “not good,” while another called it “really, really bad.”
The council’s move also comes as Janey is flexing her acting mayoral powers. She recently announced plans to launch a nationwide search for a new police commissioner, even though charter restricts an acting mayor’s power to appoint a permanent replacement — a move that drew protests from some of her opponents who wanted a search to wait until after the Nov. 2 general election.
In a statement, a Janey spokeswoman on Wednesday said, “Mayor Janey respects the work and dedication of the Boston City Council and supports the right of the City’s legislative body to determine its own leadership.”
Referencing Janey recently signing off on a ballot question that would ask voters to give the City Council more power over the city’s purse strings, the statement continued, “She is proud to set a new standard for executive leadership as Mayor of Boston and just this week signed a proposed ordinance that clears the way for greater participation by council members in Boston’s budgeting process.”
Michael McCormack, a former Boston city councilor, said the rule change sends a message to Janey that “you’re not the mayor, you’re the acting mayor.” Janey’s administration has made a point of scrubbing the “acting” part of her title from press releases, signage, even the backdrop to news conferences.
“It’s a shot across the bow, for sure,” McCormack said of the council’s vote.
McCormack thought some councilors must be looking at Janey’s position and the publicity advantage she has in the ongoing mayoral race, and think: “It could’ve been me.”
“I think it’s starting to grate on people,” he said. “I’m surprised that it’s taken this long.”
The city charter places limitations on the authority of acting mayor. The charter states an acting mayor “shall possess the powers of mayor only in matters not admitting of delay, but shall have no power to make permanent appointments.” Many observers have noted that Janey’s position as acting mayor has given her a leg up in the mayoral contest in terms of name recognition and the ability to attract media attention.
“I think they want to let Kim Janey know there’s a real race going on and you may or may not be the mayor at the end of this race,” said McCormack.
The preliminary municipal election is scheduled for Sept. 14. That contest will narrow the field to two, who will face off in the Nov. 2 general election.
Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said a generous interpretation of the rule change would be that the council cares about popular representation and so it is placing a check on an acting mayor, who by definition was not chosen by Boston voters to be mayor. A more cynical interpretation would be “this is a way to cut Janey off at the knees a little bit,” she said.
O’Brien noted that this iteration of the council has not “enjoyed being a weak council” in the city’s strong-mayor government structure, and that a trio of councilors who voted for the proposal on Wednesday are vying against Janey to become city executive.
“I can’t get into their heads, but the timing is certainly curious,” she said.
Wednesday’s vote came with less than a 100 days to the municipal preliminary election and smack in the middle of the city’s budget season. In April, Janey unveiled a $3.75 billion budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1. At Wednesday’s council meeting, the council rejected the mayor’s initial operating budget offering in what is a typical part of the annual budget process. Considering council feedback, the mayoral administration will now tweak its budget proposal and resubmit it, which the council will vote up or down.
“There are a number of really important initiatives that there’s new money for in this budget,” said Councilor Kenzie Bok, who is chairwoman of the council’s ways and means committee.