The Boston City Council is set to vote Wednesday on a new map of city council districts, capping a contentious, rushed process in a bid to avoid delays in this fall’s elections. But even after more than six hours of confrontational testimony and bitter debate during a hearing Tuesday, it remained unclear exactly what that proposed map will look like, and how much support it will draw from councilors.
“I know it doesn’t feel like it, but I do feel like we are closer,” said Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who chairs the committee leading the process, as she gaveled the hearing to an end just before 8:30 pm Tuesday. “I’m going to be taking into account public testimony, conversations with my colleagues, and we will be voting on a map tomorrow.”
The council is on a tight timeline to redraw the boundaries of the city’s nine council districts after a federal judge earlier this month blocked a previous map from going into effect, finding that the council had likely considered race in an improper manner when it drew the lines last fall. That gave the divided, often dysfunctional council less than a month to craft a new map that passed legal muster — a rushed process that has brought personal grievances and political accusations into the council chamber again, in what has proven perhaps the most bitter and personal debate yet.
Hours upon hours of debate Tuesday devolved into thinly veiled snipes and direct condemnations, with some councilors stating flatly that they could not support the draft map under consideration and accusing their colleagues of working in bad faith. The map proposal leaves many council districts all but untouched while making more significant shifts in Dorchester, Mattapan, and the South End, an effort to roughly equalize the population in each district to account for swells and shifts captured in the decennial census.
The stakes are high. If councilors do not approve a new map on Wednesday, the city may need to delay this fall’s elections, according to a timeline laid out by Mayor Michelle Wu. Wednesday is the last scheduled meeting of the council before that deadline.
But even amid the time pressure, many councilors were digging in their heels Tuesday, with some suggesting slowing down the process to spend more time assessing the map’s impacts.
Working off a proposal authored by Louijeune, councilors over the last few days have collaborated to make tweaks and shifts, moving and trading precincts in an effort to balance population and unite communities with shared needs and interests. Notably, the current draft proposal would return to Dorchester-based District 3 a number of majority-white precincts at the southern tip of the neighborhood, a particularly contentious area that had been shifted into a neighboring district under the blocked map.
A number of stubborn points of disagreement persisted Tuesday, particularly along the border of Districts 4 and 5 in Mattapan, and around a pair of precincts bordering West Roxbury and Roslindale. At least five of the 12 councilors seemed to have some reservations about Louijeune’s draft proposal.
District 5, which contains parts of Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Mattapan, was drawn as a so-called “opportunity district” where people of color could come together to elect their candidate of choice. Some councilors, residents, and advocates warned Tuesday that the proposed change — which would shift some of Mattapan into neighboring District 4, which also includes parts of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale — could risk that status.
Tanisha Sullivan, who heads Boston’s chapter of the NAACP, called the proposed changes “an active attempt to roll back the hands of time” and warned that her organization was “actively monitoring this particular process.”
Louijeune said she would consider all feedback from her colleagues and the public and present a map at the council’s meeting at noon on Wednesday. But a number of her colleagues repeatedly questioned her methods — and motives — during the afternoon and evening on Tuesday, suggesting that political considerations were playing too big a role in a process meant to center voter empowerment.
“Certain communities have been heard,” while others have been ignored, said Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who represents parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, Fenway, and the South End. “Why do certain councilors . . . get more of a say?”
She alleged the process had been unfair, dominated by horse-trading and backroom deals. “This is that dirty stuff that we talk about,” she told Louijeune as the hearing stretched into the evening. “And you don’t need to do that, to get those votes tomorrow. You can do the right thing.”
Louijeune was hardly the only councilor under attack at Tuesday’s meeting. Councilors informally grouped themselves into factions for the hours-long session, with a more conservative bloc of white councilors sitting on one side of the chamber and many progressive councilors of color facing them on the opposite side.
Councilor Julia Mejia suggested some of her colleagues were “switching things in the interest of not what is best for this community but what is best for certain people.”
“Who is carrying water for who here?” she demanded. “That’s what I want to get at.”
As the hearing started Tuesday afternoon, at-large Councilor Michael Flaherty said the body must make sure “that there’s no sort of political agendas and any sort of political nefariousness at play” in moving district borders “as some form of payback or retribution.” He referred specifically to an area on the border between Roslindale and West Roxbury, Ward 20 Precinct 8, which includes the home of Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden.
Without naming him, Flaherty seemed to be implying misdeeds by Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who currently represents that precinct, but has proposed shedding it and placing it instead into a neighboring district consisting of West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. Arroyo lost to Hayden last fall in a bitter primary election.
Flaherty said the map must avoid “doing anything additional to that precinct but more importantly to the Suffolk County district attorney.”
Speaking later in the hearing, Arroyo rejected the suggestion that politics played any role in his push to move the precinct, gesturing toward where Flaherty had been sitting and dismissing “whatever conspiracy theories were getting thrown over there.”
“Folks who want to make this about whether or not I believe that 20-8 is better for me personally or 14-14 is better for me personally, that’s not what I’m here representing,” Arroyo said, citing another precinct in Mattapan.
As the hearing wore on into the evening — Council President Ed Flynn ultimately ordered pizza for everyone — emotions surged. Councilor Frank Baker, who represents Dorchester-based District 3, was visibly frustrated at the end of the meeting, lamenting that the council risks missing its deadline “if we can’t agree on two precincts.”
“Is this what we want to do? We want to push the election back?” he demanded.
Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.