Boston City Council rejects proposal to let public petition for hearings

"This ordinance is about that very fundamental right for an individual to appear before their government and get a response."

Boston City Hall's Iannella Chamber where the City Council meets.
Boston City Hall's Iannella Chamber where the City Council meets. –Christopher Gavin / Boston.com Staff

The Boston City Council this week rejected a proposed ordinance that would have given residents a guaranteed hearing on an issue they wanted to talk about if they collected 500 signatures on a petition.

At-Large Councilor Michelle Wu, the lead sponsor of the measure, billed the proposal as a direct way for constituents to have a hand in shaping council affairs and forming its agenda.

“I think that the most important part of our job is to make sure we are building trust with communities, giving people a way to plug in, and, through that civic partnership, we can figure out all the other issues. … This ordinance is about that very fundamental right for an individual to appear before their government and get a response,” she told councilors Wednesday.

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This week’s voice vote capped a back-and-forth conversation on the right of “free petition” dating back to 2017, when Wu first filed the ordinance after discussing it with local activist Jamarhl Crawford.

In the years since, councilors have held two public hearings and a work session to hammer out the language of the law.

Changes included doubling the required threshold of signatures from the initial proposal of 250 and, more recently, introducing wording to make sure hearings would not overlap with elections, when city officials are inundated with certifying other signatures for nomination papers.

Under the latest draft, reintroduced by Wu in January, residents who met the petition qualifications would have been guaranteed a hearing before a special council committee within three months after filing signatures with the City Clerk. Scheduling could have varied depending on whether a petition was filed near an election day or toward the end of a legislative session.

Wu, who said the core principle of the rule was “baked into” the Massachusetts Constitution, told councilors Boston would be following in the footsteps of several other local cities, including Newton, Chelsea, Lawrence, and Winthrop.

Her office collected feedback from officials in those other communities, which she said told them that having the law on the books has not led to a substantial amount of extra paperwork for city clerks.

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“A dozen other cities in Massachusetts already have this provision in place, so it’s not an idea that we’re making up from nowhere,” Wu said. “It’s not radical and new. It’s actually very old.”

But opponents, namely district councilors, voiced concerns during this week’s council meeting that the ordinance would diminish their clout in council business.

Frank Baker, councilor for District 3, said although he was “apathetic” to the outcome of Wednesday’s vote, he opposed the measure because it “cheapens” the work of a district councilor.

“I think this, as a district city councilor, kind of weakens what we do,” he said. “We should have the relationships in neighborhoods where people come and sit and talk with us.”

District 1 Councilor Lydia Edwards shared similar worries, telling the council that residents may be able to overstep the body to push agendas or waste time.

“I understand, and I’ll be quoted I’m sure — it’s Lydia with a Y — the crazies will be let in, OK? …. I don’t know that there are enough safeguards to make sure this is not something that’s going to overtax our clerk,” she said. “I think that’s a personal concern.”

But Edwards ultimately voted for the proposal, citing Boston’s history as a city that experiments with democracy.

“The fact that we lead, and we’re going to push, that we’re going to take risks with democracy that actually opens up the tent and says people are welcome here to push conversations — I think that’s at the very core and fundamental to who we are as Boston,” she said.

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Opponents went on to shoot down the measure with an audible “Nay.”

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