The controversy about the City Council redistricting plan raises real concerns about minority representation and ham-handed incumbent protection. But it is just a symptom of underlying problems and our city leadership’s stubborn refusal to let the people rethink their form of government.
No matter what boundaries are chosen, the City Council districts, redrawn every 10 years to match new U.S. Census data, are a sham. That is because the wards and precincts, those smaller building blocks that make up voting districts, have not been redrawn in 80 years and are ridiculously out of whack. Everyplace else in the Commonwealth redraws precincts every 10 years, too, as logic dictates. Taking advantage of a legal loophole, the City of Boston has chosen not to out of an apparent combination of laziness and a desire to maintain the existing structure of the Democratic ward committees that constitute the local political machines.
The City might finally redraw those wards and precincts in 2020, thanks to mighty efforts by City Councilor Mike Ross, who represents part of Hyde Square. He represents part of Hyde Square, incidentally, because one of those wacky precincts stretches all the way there from Mission Hill.
Let’s say all of these lines on the city map made everyone happy and we had a City Council that looked demographically more like its constituents. Those city councilors still would find that they have almost no actual authority in our extreme strong-mayor form of government. The main power councilors have is simply to vote a strict yes or no on the mayor’s proposed budget. Their oversight of such massively powerful agencies as the Boston Redevelopment Authority is zero.
Today, Boston residents live in voting precincts drawn before women had the right to vote, and the elected officials who most directly represent their interests have virtually no power.
Most cities in Massachusetts regularly convene a charter commission to publicly review the city’s government and alter it as need be. New York City did it two years ago. Boston hasn’t done it in more than a half-century. Its last significant change was adding district councilors 20 years ago.
Several of Boston’s current councilors supported the formation of a charter commission when they ran for office. We haven’t heard a peep about it since. It is time for citizens—including our often divided-and-conquered neighbors in Dorchester and Mattapan—to have the chance to rethink the way this city runs.