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Boston City Council’s power grab won’t end well

Those coveting the mayor’s power over the city’s budget should run for the job, not diminish it.

Councilor Lydia Edwards listens to the discussion about Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s operational budget on June 23.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

There shouldn’t be any shortcuts to amassing power.

Sure, members of the Boston City Council are often frustrated by the city’s longstanding (dating back to 1909) strong-mayor form of government. The answer? Well, run for the job — as four councilors are doing this year.

The solution should not be an end run around what was always intended to be the difficult and cumbersome process of changing that system. And yet that’s exactly the path this council and the acting mayor have embarked on.

They need to be called out on that. More important, the power grab they are attempting — and its dubious legality — should be halted even before it gets to the November ballot.


The change — a proposed amendment to the city’s charter — would give the councilors sway not only over the city’s $3.75 billion annual operating budget as drawn up by the mayor but also a voice in the School Department budget, currently the responsibility of the School Committee.

“This budget process could very well devolve into dysfunction and even chaos as the Councilors would first compete amongst each other to get their issues included in a Council budget proposal and then put the Council priorities into competition against the Mayor’s,” the Boston Municipal Research Bureau predicted in a policy paper issued earlier this month. The final product, the bureau noted, would “likely be primarily a patchwork of district-focused requests from the 13 Councilors.”

And for a preview of what budgetary chaos lies ahead, look no further than this week’s massive council tantrum over the budget Acting Mayor Kim Janey submitted earlier this month.

But above all, the power shift inherent in this charter change and the resulting hodge-podge of competing interests has the potential to jeopardize the city’s AAA bond rating.


Councilor Lydia Edwards, a driving force behind the proposed change, has made her position clear. “Whoever the mayor is has way too much power . . . over the money,” she told the Globe back in December. “The everyday people of Boston need to have a bigger voice.”

Janey agreed, signing the measure earlier this month, saying it “creates a path forward for city budgeting that is more democratic, inclusive, and transparent.”

Of course, if Edwards and Janey and their colleagues truly believe that, they shouldn’t have taken so many shortcuts along the way.

Those points were made by Research Bureau President Pam Kocher in a letter to the attorney general’s office urging her to reject the ballot question. The one public hearing on the issue held by the council, Kocher noted, was in the middle of a workday, in August 2020, and was followed by two working sessions “at which only select groups were invited to offer input.”

But even more importantly, Kocher argued that passing this off as a mere amendment to the city charter and not a wholesale revision “would establish a dangerous legal precedent whereby fundamental changes to municipal governance . . . can advance without following the appropriate procedures that the General Court [the Legislature] intended for charter reform.”

A “revision” to the charter is a far more complex procedure, involving either a Home Rule Petition that goes to the Legislature for approval or the creation of an independent charter commission assigned to draft proposed changes that would then be brought before voters — a process estimated by the secretary of state’s office in a 1995 report as taking a year or two.


The issue of whether this is indeed an amendment or something more — and therefore whether it can properly go before the voters this November — is now before Attorney General Maura Healey, who has until July 5 to make a ruling.

“The Municipal Law Unit is responsible for undertaking this review and for issuing a written decision,” Healey’s office said in a statement, adding, the unit “may not take policy considerations into account.”

Not that Healey’s office has been infallible in the past, having been rebuked and reversed by the Supreme Judicial Court for its decision to approve a ballot question on the tax on higher earners (known as “the millionaires tax”) in 2018.

And there is a good case to be made — again in court, if need be — for this wholesale change to Boston’s city budgeting being something more than minor tinkering with the city charter.

During this past year, councilors have found any number of avenues to make their voices and preferences known — long before this proposed change. Turning the city charter on its head to legitimize a new system of political horse-trading can’t possibly end well.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.