On Nov. 2, along with electing our new mayor and City Council, Bostonians will have the opportunity to vote on Question 1, which asks whether Boston should adopt the charter amendment proposed by the City Council that would modernize our city’s budget process.
In 1910, due to racist fears about the growing political power of Irish immigrants, the Massachusetts Legislature stripped the council’s power and created the current strong-mayor system. The voters of the city didn’t get to weigh in. It’s time that Bostonians had a say in how the city’s government is structured.
Today, we have different expectations of elected officials and our government. A system that allows city councilors only a yes or no vote on a $3.7 billion budget and does not include direct participation by residents is outdated and undemocratic.
A yes vote on Question 1 would bring greater transparency and accountability to the budget process. Currently, all of the budget negotiations between councilors and the mayor happen behind closed doors. Boston residents should be able to see what their local elected officials are advocating for, especially when it comes to their tax dollars. By allowing the council to amend the mayor’s proposed budget — without increasing the total amount — Question 1 would bring those conversations into the open.
If approved, the ballot question would require the City Council and the mayor to create an Office of Participatory Budgeting. This office would first create a process for residents to directly choose how to spend a portion of the budget each year. There would be an annual review of how much of the budget would be set aside in order to keep the process fiscally responsible.
At a City Council hearing earlier this year, Justin Steil, a professor of law and urban planning at MIT, testified that there is no evidence that participatory budgeting has been shown to have a negative impact on bond ratings in the cities where it has been implemented. New York, Chicago, and Seattle all have some form of participatory budgeting. Here in Boston, a program called Youth Lead the Change allows young people to allocate $1 million of the city’s budget every year. If Question 1 is approved, the new Office of Participatory Budgeting would have until 2024 to create a process through which Boston residents will direct some of their tax dollars toward their priorities, like better schools, local business, and youth jobs.
A yes vote also helps ensure Boston’s fiscal stability for the long term, despite the concerns some have expressed about the effects this initiative would have on the city’s bond rating and fiscal health. The City Council would not be able to increase the total amount of the budget proposed by the mayor. The proposal also guarantees that we will have a new budget at the beginning of every fiscal year, which runs July 1 to June 30, ending the uncertainty we’ve had for the last few years going into the end of the budget cycle. Financial markets value predictability and certainty. Voters can help provide those values to Boston’s municipal finances with a yes vote.
An earlier concern voiced by opponents to Question 1 is whether the proper process was followed that led to the question being placed on the ballot. The amendment was vetted and approved twice by the City Council and the attorney general’s office. David Sullivan, the author of the secretary of the Commonwealth’s legal guide about this process, confirmed that the law was followed in a letter to the editor of the Globe earlier this year.
What has unfortunately been missing in much of the conversation about the question is the multiracial labor, activist, and taxpayer movement for transparency and accountability. We have to give credit where it is due. Chuck Turner and Mel King championed systemic reform through the city charter for decades. Today’s coalition is standing on their shoulders and is collectively pushing Boston to be more democratic.
We’re at an inflection point in our society. As we continue to face the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and reckon with how to ensure our systems work for everyone, Question 1 offers Bostonians an opportunity to make our city a more inclusive, accountable, and transparent place by allowing for greater participation and democracy in our budget process.
Boston will finally answer the question denied us over a century ago: Should the voices of everyday people matter and should there be a check on the powers of the mayor of Boston? I hope we say yes on Question 1.
Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards represents District 1 and spearheaded the Question 1 initiative.