HAVERHILL — A group of civil rights lawyers in Boston says the city isn’t moving fast enough or doing enough to change its decades-old at-large electoral system, demanding more district representation and less at-large representation than proposed.
The group contends it wasn’t necessary nor appropriate to put the matter to a popular vote, yet the lawyers are gratified that voters’ decisions on two ballot questions last week appear to guarantee change will occur.
Haverhill voters approved the two nonbinding ballot questions that asked if they would like the city to change its form of representation from the current at-large City Council and School Committee to a combination of at-large and district representation.
Question 1, adopted 5,548 to 2,999, asked voters for their opinion on increasing the size of the City Council from nine to 11 members, with four elected at-large and seven district councilors. They would continue serving two-year terms.
Question 2, approved 5,410 to 2,996, asked voters for their opinion on increasing the size of the School Committee from six members with the mayor as chairman to nine, with five elected by district, or ward, and three at-large members, plus the mayor as chair. The question would also change the terms from four years to two.
Since both questions were nonbinding, they served only as an advisories to the council.
The Lawyers for Civil Rights has been threatening to bring a voting rights lawsuit against the city if it does not voluntarily change its decades-old, at-large electoral system to a mixed system of district and at-large representation.
In a letter to Mayor James Fiorentini sent in July, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said that on behalf of minority voters led by the Latino Coalition of Haverhill, electoral change is necessary to ensure the city’s compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.
In a letter sent to the City Council and mayor Monday, Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, said his group believes the best alternative for complying with the Voting Rights Act is for the council to be composed of seven district and two at-large councilors.
The School Committee would have to consist of seven district members and an at-large member, plus the mayor serving as chair.
“This alternative would align the two systems so that each would have seven district and two at-large representatives,” Sellstrom said. “It would reflect the will of the voters, who expressed a clear desire for the city to move away from an all at-large system, while also complying with the VRA and minimizing voter confusion and administrative issues.”
Sellstom said the city should approve and send a home rule petition to the Legislature asking for approval of this configuration by the end of the year. A home rule petition, if approved, would allow the city to change its charter in regard to City Council and School Committee representation.
“This timing would not only maintain a forward trajectory, but would also allow the city to coordinate these local changes with the reprecincting process that is currently underway due to the release of 2020 Census data and redistricting at the state level,” he said.
Fiorentini said he does not agree with Sellstom’s assertion that there was no need to put the ballot questions before voters.
“This is a democracy and the public should have had a chance to vote and they did,” he said. “The council did right by putting it on the ballot.”
Fiorentini said voters in Haverhill have spoken and support of district or ward representation and that he would like to proceed as quickly as possible since he backs the idea as well and has been pushing for the change for years.
“I would have to study what they want,” Fiorentini said in reference to the Lawyers for Civil Rights. “We will file a home rule petition, but whether it will be tweaked or not, I just don’t know yet. I am leaning toward the hybrid model, as I think the School Committee version needs tweaking.”
Haverhill is one of just a small number of communities in Massachusetts that has yet to adopt a system of electing city councilors from wards. Lawrence and Methuen both have wards or districts as do Gloucester, Amesbury, Newburyport and Salem.