The Boston City Council sputtered through another discussion over redistricting Monday with the barbed back-and-forths that have come to define this iteration of the legislative body.
The hearing came a week after a judge barred Boston from using the map it approved last fall for new City Council districts, saying a legal challenge to the redistricting process could be successful in proving race played too heavy a hand in the process.
Now the chief question looms: can the City Council, known for nasty acrimony in recent months, work together to approve a new map, and do so swiftly?
“This body is becoming an embarrassment,” said Councilor Michael Flaherty, who as an at-large member represents the entire city, hours into the meeting. “We have to pull it together folks. Keep it simple. We have a court order. We have an injunction. We got to get to work.”
Kicking things off inside the council chamber at City Hall, the council stumbled over a foundational problem: what was the hearing of the civil rights and immigrant advancement committee going to be about?
Some councilors argued the discussion should focus on the judge’s decision. To widen the scope would potentially run afoul of the state’s open meeting law, a point that could be used against the city should there be future litigation over the redistricting process, they said.
Others argued the city is under a tight deadline to draw new lines ahead of the municipal election later this year, and that map proposals should be discussed. The meeting was recessed for more than an hour while the committee chair, Ruthzee Louijeune, discussed the matter with city attorneys.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we are going to proceed to talk about generally what people want to see in a map,” said Louijeune after gaveling the proceedings back into session.
And talk they did. Parliamentary procedures were debated. Committee assignments, past, present, and future, were disputed. For some of the city lawmakers, their frustration was obvious.
There are now at least three maps on Wednesday’s agenda for the full meeting of the council. One from Mayor Michelle Wu, one from Councilor Kendra Lara, and one from Louijeune.
Lara, during the extended recess, contended the mayor’s map fails at least three of the four traditional principles of redistricting and makes too many changes.
“They’re not compact (districts), they don’t preserve the district’s core, and they don’t preserve communities of interest,” she said.
For Lara, the judge was clear: there’s a population imbalance between Districts 2 and 3, and the line between Districts 3 and 4 was an issue in the recently nixed map. Her map, she said, would fix them, unifying South Boston, unifying Lower Mills in Dorchester, and keep Cedar Grove and Adams Village in Dorchester together, she said.
“When I was looking at the districts, I was doing my best to be surgical,” she said.
The judge’s order has already caused chaos in this year’s City Council elections, which were expected to be run using the new political map. Without a clear picture of the council district boundaries that will be in place come November, some candidates may be unsure which district they will even live in and thus would seek to represent.
On Friday, in a bid to bring clarity to the redistricting process, Wu submitted a proposed redistricting map, saying her goal is to have cohesive neighborhoods remain within a single council district.
With council seats up for election this year, there is little room for another extended debate over the boundaries. In a Monday statement, a Wu spokesperson said, “Today’s hearing shows there is still much work ahead to pass a redistricting map that reflects the consensus of the City Council.”
The spokesperson added “the Mayor has been in contact with Council President Flynn to encourage setting dates now for some special meetings in addition to the two remaining Wednesday meetings before May 30, so that the Council can be prepared to accept revisions and take additional votes as necessary.”
During Monday’s hearing, Flaherty said there were too many sacred cows during the council’s earlier attempts at coming up with a redistricting map.
“No one wanted to give, no one wanted to get,” he said.
Councilor Frank Baker, meanwhile, pointedly asked if District 3, which he represents, was going to get a fair shake this time around in the map-making process.
“Because we did not get it in the last one,” he said.
A little more than two days after Wu’s map was publicly released, it was met with pushback from a coalition of local progressive groups. The coalition, represented by Lawyers for Civil Rights, includes the NAACP’s Boston branch, MassVOTE, the Massachusetts Voter Table, the Chinese Progressive Association, and New England United for Justice. In a Monday statement, that group called Wu’s map regressive and said it “would eviscerate decades of neighborhood-driven work to create a new Boston.”
They called on the council to reject Wu’s proposal.
“The mayor’s map would take the city backward and raise significant Voting Rights Act concerns in the process,” read the statement.
The mayor’s proposal, advocates said, “unnecessarily and irresponsibly complicates the process.”
Southie and Dorchester’s Cedar Grove are the only neighborhoods that benefit from Wu’s proposal, the advocates asserted. Otherwise, the map needlessly divides and damages other neighborhoods “in what is akin to a ‘Make Boston Great Again,’ proposal.”
Wu’s administration has countered that swaths of the city, including most of the South End and most of Mission Hill, are unified in their council districts under her proposal, and that the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Chinatown are kept whole.