Thursday, February 07, 2019

Boston City Council Looks At Reprecincting, Term Limits & Vacancies, CPA, MBTA Fees & More

City Councilor-At-Large Michelle Wu publishes notes from Boston City Council meetings. The Boston City Council considered the following items and more at their Februay 6, 2019 meeting: 

Equity in Cannabis Licensing: Councilor Janey filed an ordinance to promote and encourage equity in the newly created marijuana industry with full participation of residents from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement and to positively impact those communities. The cannabis industry is already a multi-million dollar industry in Massachusetts, with early sales having generated almost $30M. The ordinance would create a new category of equity applicants, which would include companies with 51% or more ownership stake from 1) a person who has resided in an area of disproportionate impact for at least 5 of the past 10 years, 2) a Boston resident who has a past conviction for possession, sale, or trafficking of marijuana (or his/her child or spouse), 3) someone who has resided in Boston for at least the past 5 years, 4) someone who is of Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino descent, OR 5) someone whose annual household income is below 400% of the federal poverty level. To date, no certified minority-owned businesses have been licensed by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission. The matter was assigned to the Government Operations committee for a hearing.

Reprecincting: Councilor Campbell and I filed an ordinance requiring a review of precincts every 5 years in Boston. All municipalities in the state except for Boston are required to undertake reprecincting every 10 years, redrawing boundary lines to equalize the population within wards and precincts. Because of Boston’s exemption, reprecincting has not happened in 90 years, and some precincts have several thousand voters, while others have just a few hundred. This leads to very long lines at certain polling locations where population has grown, and the Council previously passed a separate home-rule petition to subdivide the six largest precincts to improve voter access, which the Mayor has refiled this legislative cycle. Our proposed ordinance would require that the appropriate committee of the City Council conduct a review of city precincts every five years beginning in the year immediately following passage of this ordinance, taking into account population shifts; development in neighborhoods; impact of precinct size on polling locations, staffing, and election day operations; and other factors as necessary. The matter was assigned to the Government Operations committee for a hearing.

Terms of Office for City Councilor: Councilor Campbell filed a home-rule petition to increase the term of city councilors to four municipal years from two municipal years, similar to one that the Council passed in April 2016 but that was not approved by the State Legislature. Councilor Campbell stated that having a municipal election every two years where voter turnout is often low is burdensome for city resources, since a citywide election costs $800K to manage. Making the term of office for city councillors a four year term will reduce costs in having multiple elections. In the debate on this issue three years ago, proponents described the benefits as cost-savings, allowing Councilors to focus more on legislative work and less on campaigning, giving Councilors more freedom to take positions that challenge the status quo, and strengthening the Council as a counterbalance to the Mayor. My concern then (and why I was the lone opposition vote when it passed 12-1) remains true now: that this measure will strengthen incumbency and make it harder for new candidates to put together a credible campaign as incumbents will have an even longer period of time to build up campaign accounts would raise the barriers for newcomers. The matter was assigned to the Government Operations committee for a hearing.
Home Rule Petition Election Procedures: Councilor Campbell filed a home rule petition to restrict candidates from seeking nomination for two elected offices during the same municipal election. In 2013, Councilor Yancey collected signatures and ran for both Mayor and City Council; he ended up being reelected to the Council then. The matter was assigned to the Government Operations committee for a hearing.
Home Rule Petition Vacancy: Councilor Campbell filed a home-rule petition to change the process for filling a vacancy in the office of City Councilor At-large. Currently, the 5th place finisher in the last At-Large election becomes Councilor in the case of a vacancy (as Councilor Althea Garrison has after Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s swearing-in to Congress). The ordinance would change this so that a special election would take place, similar to the process for District Council vacancies. Councilor Garrison stood to oppose this change. The matter was assigned to the Government Operations Committee for a hearing.

Access to Charlie Card Pickup: Councilor Campbell filed a letter in support of increasing access to Charlie Card pickup in response to the MBTA’s plans to increase fares by an average of 6.3% and adopt a new automatic, cashless fare collection system. She noted that through a partnership with the MBTA, the City of Chelsea recently made Charlie Cards available to purchase preloaded with five dollars, or to pick up free of charge at Chelsea City Hall. Councilor Campbell offered support for a similar effort between the MBTA and the City of Boston to increase residents' access to Charlie Cards.
Fare-Free Transit: In case you missed it, I wrote an op-ed calling for a halt to fare increases and suggesting that the goal should be to increase ridership for economic mobility, equity, and climate justice. Fare-free transit would be the single biggest step we  could take toward those goals, and there are immediately feasible ways to get closer to that -- free MBTA passes for MA students and seniors, fare-free bus trips on routes where the majority of riders are low-income residents, and fare-capping rather than monthly passes. Read my whole op-ed here.

Vacant Residential Properties: Councilors Campbell, O'Malley, and Janey refiled a hearing order to discuss strategies to reduce and activate vacant residential properties in the City of Boston. Boston has roughly 1,251 city-owned vacant lots. There is limited information and no central database to indicate how many vacant properties in the city are privately owned. The lack of data creates a barrier for development and implementing solutions for utilizing these spaces. The Councilors described how other cities have explored financial disincentives including imposing a tax, or encouraging development with tax abatements with vacant properties. Others have created land banks to transform vacant parcels into parcels that are useful to the community. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Housing and Community Development for a hearing.

An Act to Sustain Community Preservation: The Council voted to adopt a resolution from Councilors Campbell and Flaherty in support of state legislation, An Act to Sustain Community Preservation, which would adjust the surcharge on fees for recording deeds to increase match-funding revenue as prescribed by the Community Preservation Act.

Upcoming Hearings (In the City Council Chamber unless otherwise noted. Watch Online
  • Friday, February 8th, 11am: Working session re: issues related to stray voltage (City, Neighborhood Services and Veterans & Military Affairs)
  • Our next City Council meeting will be on Wednesday, February 13, at 12pm.

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