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Mass. attorney general gives go-ahead to Boston ballot question that could restructure budget process

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who has spearheaded the initiative.
Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who has spearheaded the initiative.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

A proposal that asks Boston voters to restructure the city’s budgeting process and give more power to the city council has received the go-ahead from the state attorney general’s office, clearing the way for the question to feature on the Nov. 2 ballot for the city’s general municipal election.

“We find no conflict between the proposed charter amendment and the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth under our standard of review,” the attorney general’s office said in a letter to Boston city councilors on Friday.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who has spearheaded the initiative, hailed that development in a Friday statement.

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“Democracy won with this decision,” she said.

In a statement, Edwards’s office said, “With this decision the initiative will officially be on the ballot in the fall. Our office will be meeting with the Elections Commission to draft the actual question that will appear on the ballot.”

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.

Indeed, there has been much City Hall jockeying over the operating and schools budgets in recent weeks, and there were real questions about whether the council would reject them before the start of the next fiscal year, which would have plunged the city into financial uncertainty. It took an extraordinary $31 million supplemental appropriation for Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s budgetary proposals to garner enough council support to pass the budgets on the eve of the new fiscal year this week. Ultimately both the schools and operating budgets were passed by a 10-2 margin.

The budget jousting was also contentious last year, under then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh. A group of councilors voted against the operating budget because they did not feel it went far enough to dismantle racist systems. But that budget passed, too, by an 8-5 vote.

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The council unanimously passed the ballot measure in May, and it had approved a similar initiative in December. Janey signed off on the ballot question last month.

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.

The measure would also create an independent Office of Participatory Budgeting with an external oversight board. Janey has said there is an additional $1 million in this 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.

The proposed change in the initiative does have its critics. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog, opposes the charter amendment proposed in the ballot measure, saying that it would “change the fundamental structure of government,” sow crippling dysfunction in the city’s operations, and foster a budgetary focus on special interest groups. Earlier this year, the bureau called on Janey to reject the measure.

On Friday, Pam Kocher, the president of the research bureau, highlighted a part of the attorney general’s letter that stated that the “public education regarding the impact of the charter change is vitally important.”

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The attorney general’s office, said Kocher in an e-mail, is encouraging the Council “to engage in additional outreach and education efforts for the voters before the change is presented for a ballot vote.”

“The Research Bureau sees this aspect of the matter as critical to achieving the transparency Boston voters need and deserve,” she said.

Kocher also argued that the attorney general’s office, in its letter, “was unable to conclude definitively whether or not the Council’s utilization of the ballot process creates a conflict with state law.”








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