Lawmakers may be pulled into Boston mayoral election debate

With Mayor Martin Walsh preparing to leave City Hall, the Boston City Council is considering changing the rules that require a special election if Walsh resigns before March 5 in order to avoid holding four elections over the next 10 months to choose a mayor.

The change to the city's charter, however, would also require the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker to sign off, and not even the council is unanimous that it should be done.

Walsh was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to become secretary of labor, but it's unknown how quickly the U.S. Senate will take up his confirmation. He gave his farewell "State of the City" address on Tuesday night.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo offered a petition at Wednesday's meeting to waive the requirement of a special election if Walsh leaves before March 5, citing the cost and ongoing pandemic as two of several reasons why it should be scrapped.

The charter requires that if a mayor vacates the office more than 16 weeks from the date of the next election there must be a special election 120 to 140 days later. The city already plans to hold a preliminary election and general election for mayor this year. Depending on when Walsh leaves and City Councilor President Kim Janey becomes acting mayor, the city could be forced to hold an additional preliminary and general election.

Members of the council on Wednesday were divided on the issue, and it was referred to the Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Councilor Lydia Edwards, for a full hearing.

"I don't think in good conscience we can move forward with four elections in one year in the middle of a pandemic," said Councilor Julia Mejia.

Councilor Matt O'Malley, however, said elections are exactly where the city should be spending its money to ensure that people can safely participate in the selection of its next mayor.

"Democracy costs money," he said.

O'Malley also expressed concern that the decision could be seen as benefiting some candidates. Better established candidates like Councilor Michelle Wu and Councilor Andrea Campbell, who are already declared, might have an advantage in a special election, while potential candidates still deciding might need more time.

"This action would certainly benefit some in a time where there is so much cynicism around politicians and I would hate to be seen that we're putting the thumb on the scale for anyone," O'Malley said.

Councilor Frank Baker also said his "gut" told him it would look untoward to change the rules of the game now. He also questioned the appearance should the Legislature act quickly on this home rule petition, while others filed by the council get ignored.

"Now the State House is going to slam this through in matter of weeks for us. No one thinks that looks inappropriate?" he said.

Councilor Kenzie Bok recognized that the political implications of eliminating the special election is "where we really get stuck here," but she said she felt the potential cost, health risks and ability for voters to fully vet the candidates likely warranted doing away with the special election.

O'Malley said one risk in not having a special election is that not all powers vested in an elected mayor transfer to an acting mayor, creating potential exposures the longer an acting mayor like Janey holds the office.

He did not specify what those powers are that don't transfer.

Bok also said the council should consider whether it wants the home rule petition to call for a one-time change, or if they might consider permanently eliminating special elections for mayor in an election year.