THE DISMAL turnout in the election for Boston City Council Tuesday - the lowest in 22 years - requires action to end the inertia that afflicts all the elected offices of city government. Despite what Mayor Menino and the other incumbents might want to believe, the lack of vigorous challenges does not mean that voters are happy with the status quo. Boston's political system is rigged against change, and it needs a major rethinking.
One big obstacle to movement among the 13 city councilors is that they can't challenge the mayor, or (for the nine district councilors) even try to move up to an at-large council seat, without jeopardizing their own positions. That's because they stand for reelection every two years, always co-terminous with the mayor.
Why not consider one simple alteration: Lengthen the term of the councilors to four years, but stagger their elections so they are not the same year as the mayor. That way, ambitious councilors could seek the top spot at City Hall without losing their seats. Mayor Menino hasn't had a tough election since 1993. He's past due for a strong challenge.
Councilor John Tobin of West Roxbury has another idea to end the grip of incumbency on the council and the mayoralty: limiting terms to 12 years. He would also make the council seek reelection every four years, instead of the current two, to eliminate what he considers mayoral meddling in off-year council elections. (He declined to say who was helped or hurt this year.)
Tobin plans to introduce his proposal in the council this month. It is guaranteed to offend the mayor, who hasn't announced for reelection but looks likely to try to extend his current 14 years in office. Tobin's plan will probably not find favor with the two councilors who have already served 12 years in office. And a limit on terms is a blunt instrument that doesn't necessarily improve government. It's important to retain officials who have learned from their experiences.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Tobin said he was open to changes in his proposal. He might consider delaying the effective date until 2011. But this wouldn't change the system's resistance to what remains an assault on incumbency.
Any revision in the city election rules requires approval of the council, mayor, both houses of the Legislature, and the governor. This process is designed to discourage change. But the 86.4 percent of the voters who skipped this year's election need the attraction of a vigorous mayoral campaign to get them back to the polls in 2009. The City Council has an opportunity to initiate an innovation that would energize the predictable politics of Boston. It's important to begin the discussion now.