Let voters decide on Boston City Council terms
Well, of course, most members of the Boston City Council would prefer to run for that $99,500 a year job (scheduled to increase to $103,500 in 2020) every four years rather than every two. Who wouldn’t? Running for office — any office — is a lot of work.
But democracy is like that. It requires commitment on the part of both candidates and voters.
So why not let the voters of Boston decide just how long a term their city councilors ought to serve? Secretary of State Bill Galvin, himself a Boston voter, proposed just such a referendum in an interview with Globe reporter Milton Valencia.
And Galvin does have standing on the issue. He was among those who pushed for a referendum several decades ago that created the current City Council structure.
“The idea of not having the people vote on it is absurd,” Galvin said. “The point is the voters created the current system, the voters have always had control . . . so to do something without the voters is wrong.”
The council voted 11-2 earlier this month to go to four-year terms after the 2021 city elections. The proposal is now before the Legislature as a home rule petition. Of course, that’s just what happened in 2016 during the council’s last attempt to end the two-year election cycles.
Not surprisingly, state lawmakers in both the House and Senate — who also have to run for office every two years — were not very sympathetic. While many home rule petitions are easy votes on Beacon Hill, this one died on the vine.
The reasons offered by councilors for making the switch to a four-year term have been less than compelling. Councilor at Large Michael Flaherty said councilors “would have more time to focus on their work, because there’d be less of an onus to continue campaigning.”
Well, doesn’t a diligent councilor do both — often at the same time? Every appearance at a community meeting or zoning hearing or public discussion about schools is a way of telling voters, “Yes, I’m on the job, and I’d like to stay on the job.” And that’s the way politics is supposed to work.
Flaherty also raised the point that, since each election costs the city about $800,000, extending the terms would save $1.6 million. Well, then why not six- or eight-year terms — that would save even more, no? Yes, democracy has its costs.
Council President Andrea Campbell said she was for longer terms to “strengthen” the council. But, let’s face it, absent a change in its charter, Boston will remain a strong-mayor form of government — except with longer serving councilors.
Only Councilors Michelle Wu and Josh Zakim opposed the measure this time around. Wu, who also opposed the change in 2016, said on her Facebook page that extending terms to four years would “raise the barriers for new candidates to challenge incumbents.”
And that it surely would, while the current two-year terms, wrote Wu, make councilors “more accountable to constituents and pushes us to be the most nimble level of government.”
Wu certainly has a point — one that won her the praise of Common Cause back in 2016, which opposed the measure then on the grounds that it would “increase the power of incumbency and decrease political turnover.”
If Council members are serious about following through on their home rule petition, they ought to take the good advice offered up by Galvin — and agree to an amendment that would let voters decide. Surely that’s not too much to ask.