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Adrian Walker

Boston’s City Council wants fewer city elections. It should think bigger

City Council President Andrea Campbell.
City Council President Andrea Campbell.(Globe Staff/File/2018)

The Boston City Council has unveiled a legislative wish list. As you might expect, the councilors’ proposals are probably better for them than they are for us.

The centerpiece of Council President Andrea Campbell’s agenda is a proposal to lengthen council terms from the current two years to four. Like many politicians, many councilors would be happy to run for their jobs less often.

When I spoke to her Tuesday, Campbell insisted that longer terms would give councilors an opportunity to focus more deeply on their work.

“When I took on the role as council president, I told my colleagues it was important to use the platform not only to highlight inequities in the neighborhoods but to strengthen the council,” Campbell said. “We aren’t gong to change the [city] charter overnight, but I thought election reform was a good place to start.”

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But if councilors want a real bump in power, well, this is a weak way to pursue it.

For years — forever, really — city councilors have chafed at their lack of clout compared to the mayor. The idea that serving two-year terms leaves them in perpetual reelection mode is not a new one. Indeed, the council passed a similar home-rule petition just a couple of years ago, though it died a quiet death at the State House.

It’s tempting to support the call for an end to the off-year elections that struggle to draw even a fifth of the city’s voters to the polls. But there has already been (surprising) pushback from some councilors who say it would just make incumbent councilors even harder to beat than they are now, by allowing them more time to build ties with constituents and — especially — to raise money. Councilor Michelle Wu — Campbell’s predecessor as president — has already gone on record saying she thinks it’s a bad idea that could discourage challengers from seeking office.

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Campbell’s proposals also call for more early voting (great idea), special elections to fill vacancies for citywide council seats (meh), and banning people from running for two citywide offices at once, like city councilor and mayor (yes, people have actually done that).

I’m a fan of the current City Council, which has been far more willing to push ideas and to challenge the authority of the mayor’s office than some of its predecessors. The current councilors are eager to shake things up, which is all to the good. It’s far less small-minded and parochial than in years past.

That said, the city doesn’t need more deeply entrenched city councilors. Part of the idea behind creating districts in the 1980s was to lower the barrier for new candidates to enter the fray — by establishing geographically manageable districts that a challenger could compete in without raising a fortune. All of that would only be undermined by giving incumbents twice as long to build their empires. For all the whining about having to run every two years, they hardly ever lose now.

The real question — which no one pretends to have an easy answer to — is how to engage voters more deeply in elections where there’s no mayor’s race on the ballot.

Part of the solution to that will be more diverse slates of candidates who can excite voters. Already there are encouraging signs on that front — the council has gotten steadily more diverse and representative in the past few years, and will continue to. Why interfere with that?

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Truth is, all of these proposals are tinkering around the margins. Giving the City Council real clout can happen only by weakening the authority of the mayor.

If the councilors want to push real reform, they should begin by demanding more control over the city budget and by demanding term limits for the mayor. Other cities have that, but it’s a revolutionary idea here.

The council doesn’t need longer terms, but it does need to think bigger. There are far more satisfying fights to wage than this one.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker