To hear Boston city councilors tell it, they face a looming deadline for completing the once-a-decade redistricting process — one that justifies the rushed vote councilors now expect to take next week on a set of new maps.
“Sadly we don’t have a whole lot of time to discuss this. In times past, they deliberated on these discussions for a good 18 months. And I think we’re really just getting into this very important conversation in a very short timeline,” said Councilor Liz Breadon at a redistricting meeting earlier this month.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who led the redistricting process before Breadon, had characterized early November as the “drop-dead” deadline.
But that’s simply not true, and the council’s push to pass the maps so quickly is a mistake. In fact, there is no upcoming legal deadline that justifies rushing the kinds of important discussions that Breadon said were needed. And considering the uproars over race and neighborhood cohesion that the process has already sparked, there’s good reason for the city to hit pause before finalizing maps that will be in force for a decade.
Drawing maps is complex under the best of circumstances, forcing lawmakers to weigh competing demands to keep neighborhoods together while creating opportunities for communities of color to have political power. It was made more complicated in Boston in August after City Council President Ed Flynn removed Arroyo from his role leading the redistricting.
Five different proposals have circulated in the council, the Globe reported earlier this month, and it’s still not clear exactly what map councilors will be voting on.
Deb O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bill Galvin, said that state law imposed no deadline on the city. Wrapping up the redistricting process soon “may be a political concern, but it’s not a legal concern.” A memo from the city’s law department concurred, finding that “there is no express statutory deadline in 2022″ for the council to finish redistricting. While that memo said it would be “prudent” for the council to finish this fall, the fact is that candidates can’t take out papers to run until the spring anyway.
Indeed, the supposed deadline of Nov. 7 mostly serves to protect the the incumbent councilors themselves. That’s because under the city charter, candidates for City Council need to have lived in the district for a full year to run for a district council office. And if the redistricting results in any incumbent councilors living in the same new districts as colleagues, they want time to establish residence in a new part of the city.
But the convenience of nine Bostonians isn’t a good enough reason to short-circuit the process for the other 650,000.
There’s another reason to pause: The way the council has handled the process thus far practically invites a lawsuit. Councilors originally planned to vote on a map this week but postponed after a complaint that they had violated the open meeting law. That complaint asked the council to hold at least five “properly noticed” hearings across the city, which seems like a reasonable request.
Longer term, there’s no way for councilors to draw their own legislative maps that won’t at least appear self-serving. And as a matter of principle, politicians shouldn’t get to pick their constituents. In other jurisdictions, independent commissions have proven a good way to handle redistricting, and that’s something Boston should consider for the next redistricting after the 2030 census.
In the meantime, Mayor Michelle Wu should veto any City Council map that’s sent to her without the public process that residents deserve and send it back to the council for the kind of debate that councilors themselves have acknowledged hasn’t happened.
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