Boston city officials are working to keep this fall’s municipal elections on schedule after a federal judge this week thrust the process into chaos by telling the city it may not use its new map of council districts. But even as Mayor Michelle Wu pursues procedural fixes to shore up that uncertain election, another perhaps more difficult obstacle remains: Boston city councilors must overcome their divisions and disorganization to approve a new map of council districts — and they must do it soon.
Wu wrote in a letter to the council Wednesday that she was moving to relax candidate filing deadlines, and told the body it had until May 30 to approve the new map for this fall’s contest. She will even present her own map proposal to the council, she said, a step that underscores the urgency of the process.
May 30 “is the latest date possible in order to permit the Elections Department to conduct a signature petition process, certify signatures, and print and mail ballots in time to conduct the September 12th Preliminary Election,” Wu wrote.
But if Wednesday’s council meeting was an early signal as to whether councilors will be able to meet that tight timeline, it was not a positive one.
With less than three weeks to go, the council has yet to formally discuss any new map proposals; its debates were as combative as ever. Councilors could not agree even on which legislative committee should take up the agenda items related to redistricting, turning a typically noncontroversial procedural step into a drawn-out dispute that enflamed old tensions.
Council President Ed Flynn first assigned the redistricting matters to the so-called Committee of the Whole, a group that includes every councilor and which Flynn leads as president. Under council rules, he said, that is the committee that deals with legal matters. But Councilor Gabriela Coletta, who represents East Boston, argued the matters should be placed in another committee — at-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune’s Committee on Civil Rights & Immigrant Advancement — both because voting is an important civil right and because Flynn could be seen as biased in his decision-making around redistricting.
Coletta and other councilors indicated there is mistrust of Flynn because he contributed financially to the lawsuit that challenged the city’s maps in the first place, in which the council is named as a defendant.
“We need to demonstrate to the residents of Boston that this upcoming process will be fair, without impartiality,” Coletta said. “Respectfully, contributing to a lawsuit, again, does not provide that perception of impartiality.”
The ensuing debate, which drew comments from most councilors, included thinly-veiled assignments of blame and personal attacks. Ultimately, the council voted 8–4 to overrule Flynn and assign the matters to the committee chaired by Louijeune. The vote mirrored the same 9–4 split by which the map passed last fall, with the four councilors who voted against the map last fall voting to keep the matter in the larger committee of the whole. (Former councilor Kenzie Bok has since left the body for a new role at the Boston Housing Authority.)
The dispute comes days after a federal judge blocked the council’s new district map from taking effect, ruling that councilors had likely prioritized race in an improper manner during last fall’s redistricting process. US District Judge Patti Saris wrote in her ruling Monday that “the ball is back in the City Council’s court” to craft a new map that passes legal muster.
Wu said Wednesday that she will submit to the council her own map proposal “that provides a robust opportunity for all voters to see themselves represented and reflected on the City Council and prioritizes placing whole neighborhoods together within individual districts.” But at least some councilors indicated they feel it is their role to draw a map.
“We as a council want to make sure that we have a say, and that a map isn’t just drawn from across the hall that we accept,” Councilor Erin Murphy said Wednesday, referring to the mayor’s office that shares the fifth floor of City Hall with councilors and staff.
The chaos stems from a lawsuit filed last year over the new district lines the council passed last year as part of the decennial redistricting process that follows the census. Responding to population swells and shifts, the new map shuffled thousands of voters from South Boston-based District Two into Dorchester-based District Three, and from District Three into Mattapan-based District Four.
One particularly contentious change: The council severed from District Three a cluster of majority-white, high-turnout precincts in the southern tip of Dorchester, an area that includes many of the city’s most conservative voters. Those voters would have been added to neighboring District Four, which also includes parts of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale.
While proponents said the changes were needed to empower communities of color and avoid illegally “packing” Black voters into District Four, critics argued the decisions improperly relied on race and unnecessarily split up communities, such as the Neponset neighborhood in Dorchester and a public housing development in South Boston.
Now that a federal judge has blocked the map, the city is scrambling to avoid further disruption.
Wu also moved Wednesday to relax election deadlines, a step that requires approval from both the City Council and the state Legislature. Her proposal “gives the Elections Department the tools they may need to facilitate the orderly administration of an election that provides potential candidates a full opportunity to run for office after district boundary lines are changed,” Wu wrote to the council in a letter. Her proposal would push back the deadline for candidates to file nomination papers by several weeks to June 20.
Under Wu’s proposal, the election schedule would remain the same, with a preliminary contest on September 12 and the general election on November 7.
But even with more flexible requirements for candidates, the election depends on quick action by the council.
“The timelines reflected in this proposed Home Rule Petition assume that a new map will be passed by the City Council on or before May 30, 2023,” Wu wrote.