Lowell activists push for change in city voting system
Seeking more equitable representation, increased participation
By Jennifer Myers, firstname.lastname@example.org
LOWELL — As 2010 came to an end, the beginning of a revolution was brewing in a downtown pub.
A dozen of the city’s most well-known political and neighborhood activists gathered at the Old Court and the brainstorming began: How can the city provide more equitable representation to all 105,000 residents while increasing voter participation?
Should city councilors be elected by district rather than at-large? Should terms be lengthened or term limits enacted? Should compensation be increased? What is the best strategy to present their ideas for change to a City Council whose members may have their seats threatened by some of those changes?
In November, City Councilor Patrick Murphy filed a motion aimed at increasing civic participation through a charter change. It has been referred to the rules subcommittee and the city’s activists want to ensure that it does not die there.
Centralville Neighborhood Action Group member Jack Mitchell, who organized the late-December gathering, said now is the time to harness the energy born of the work former ONE Lowell executive director Victoria Fahlberg did in 2009 in her quest to bring “choice voting,” the system utilized in city elections from 1943 to 1957, back to the city.
Opponents argued the system was too complicated.
“Victoria’s proposal was narrow and not everyone liked it, but the thing that cannot be forgotten is that the status quo was not preferred either,” said Mitchell. “While the discussion is still hot, we should open it up to all options.”
Several of the neighborhood group leaders support district representation.
“Districts better represent the people who live in the neighborhood,” said Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group President Taya Dixon Mullane. “There is something to be said for having a city councilor living three blocks from you.”
“If a city councilor lives in an area, they have more of a dedication to see that we are treated equally, both as citizens and businesses,” agreed Sacred Heart Neighborhood Improvement Group President Carol McCarthy.
Fahlberg said the downside to district representation is that it can create powerful “ward bosses” who are nearly impossible to remove from office.
McCarthy suggested that term limits, under which a councilor would have to leave office after two terms, but could run again after sitting out for a term, could quell that possibility.
“If someone in there is good and honest and votes well, I would hate to lose them because of term limits,” argued Centralville Neighborhood Action Group President Ann Marie Page.
Page said she likes the members of the current City Council but doesn’t think they are very well-balanced, geographically, with four of the nine councilors living in the city’s Belvidere neighborhood, two in Pawtucketville, and one each in the Highlands, Sacred Heart and downtown.
No matter the road that is taken to get there, “the key is education, getting out into the neighborhoods and gathering input from the people about what they want from their government,” said Mitchell.
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