City Council votes to cancel Sept. election

John Ruch

The Boston City Council last week voted to cancel the Sept. 25 preliminary election for at-large council seats—but only amid strong opposition from Jamaica Plain-area councilors. The cancellation still needs approval from Mayor Thomas Menino and the state Legislature to take effect.

Stephen Murphy, an incumbent in this year’s race for at-large Boston City Council seats, proposed the cancellation. Murphy argues that the election, which will narrow a field of nine candidates down to eight, is wasteful. Instead, all nine candidates would appear on final election ballot on Nov. 6.

“As it stands now, this seems like a high cost to pay to remove one name from a ballot,” Murphy, who lives in Hyde Park, said in a press statement, estimating the cost of a preliminary election at more than $500,000.

The City Council approved the proposal by a 7-4 vote. But local City Councilor John Tobin was among the “no” votes.

“I’m 100 percent opposed to that,” Tobin told the Gazette prior to the vote. “The rules are the rules. To change the rules two months before an election seems to be not the right thing to do.”

At-large City Councilor Felix Arroyo, a Jamaica Plain resident, refused to vote on the proposal.

“I believe it is a conflict of interest for me to be voting to change the election rules in the middle of an election in which I am a participant,” Arroyo said in a press statement.

Mayor Thomas Menino’s office had no immediate comment.

Murphy’s proposal would cancel only this year’s preliminary election for at-large seats. There would still be a preliminary election in district races with three or more candidates, including Egleston Square’s District 7.

The at-large race is a free-for-all format where the top four vote-getters get council seats. By law, the preliminary election narrows the field to eight candidates for the final election, if necessary.

In the 2005 preliminary election, Murphy had shaky results, just squeaking into the top four to secure bragging rights. He finished stronger in the final and retained his seat.

Murphy’s proposal is a home rule petition, meaning the state Legislature must approve any election cancellation.

There is precedent for canceling preliminary elections that would eliminate only one candidate. In 2005, Metheun cancelled its entire city preliminary election.

And in an identical situation to that of Boston, Worcester in 1991 cancelled its preliminary at-large council election. All of the candidates first agreed to the cancellation, which the state approved about a month before the election.

“They’re an expensive venture,” said Murphy spokesperson Seth Andrea McCoy in a Gazette interview. “Why spend the money and waste resources, in a sense?”

All of the saved money would remain within the Election Department budget.

Why ever have a preliminary, then? McCoy said the number of candidates can be so high that it is confusing. “You have to get it down to a manageable number because it’s too much for the voter,” she said. But, of course, preliminary voters face the full list of candidates anyway.

Arroyo dismissed the cost argument, noting that the City Council recently approved various corporate tax breaks that cost the city far more.

“While I recognize that it is important to always look for ways to save taxpayer dollars whenever possible, I don’t believe it is fair or consistent with basic democratic principles to eliminate a scheduled election simply as a cost-saving measure or for convenience,” Arroyo said in the statement. “Is the cost of an election more important [than] the democratic participation?”

Tobin said he understands the financial argument. Saving money on elections was one argument he made in a proposal two years ago to extend councilors’ terms to four years. But, he said, he has problems with the logic and timing of Murphy’s proposal.

“I don’t feel good about it,” Tobin said. “I don’t feel good about having the conversation, to tell you the truth.”

Of an election that narrows the field from nine to eight, Tobin said, “I know that seems ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. But those are the rules.”

He questioned why there isn’t a similar call to cancel the preliminary in District 7, which will narrow a field of three candidates to two.

The cancellation proposal didn’t spring to life in a vacuum. It followed a July 2 Boston Globe article about the election and its expense. The article proposed a different solution, quoting unnamed “political observers” as urging one of the lesser-known candidates to drop out to save the city money. Secretary of State William Galvin was among the election critics in the article.

“It’s astonishing to me we’re having a discussion about not having a preliminary election because some people deem those candidates not worthy,” Tobin said.

“I wouldn’t know them if they came through my living room wall like the Kool-Aid man,” Tobin said of the lesser-known candidates, adding that doesn’t matter. “I have respect for them putting their name on the ballot. People can make a judgment if they’re fringe…But they followed the rules. To change the rules seems to me self-serving.”

The cancellation proposal involves no candidate dropping out, and all appearing on the final ballot.

Tobin said he would be open to discussing changes to the preliminary election system, but only in a non-election year or early in the year, before candidates commit to a commonly understood process.

Besides Murphy and Arroyo, the incumbent candidates include Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon, who both voted against the proposal. The other candidates include John Connolly, who finished strongly in the 2005 race; Socialist Workers Party candidate William Estrada; Matthew Geary, another socialist-linked candidate; Martin Hogan, who finished poorly in the 2005 race; and David James Wyatt, who made a failed attempt at getting on the mayoral ballot in 2005.

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