Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards is seeking to give the 13-member council the same abilities to craft the city’s annual budgets as the mayor through amending the city charter — a move that would ultimately go to a ballot vote.
Edwards’s proposal comes following a heated debate around Mayor Marty Walsh’s $3.6 billion fiscal year 2021 operating budget, which the council approved last month in an 8-5 vote.
Opponents said the budget didn’t go far enough in meeting calls to reallocate more police funding into anti-violence, mental health, and other community programs and initiatives, while supporters said passing the budget kept in place significant investments gained in education, affordable housing, and other endeavors.
“I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about how to answer the calls for systemic change and investment in our future,” Edwards, who voted for the budget, said in a statement Monday. “An annual up or down vote alone on the mayor’s budget cannot bring about the long term change that is needed and that people are calling for. That change will not come from any one vote or annual budget. It’s time to break the wheel of Boston’s budget making process. This will take time, research, negotiations, and sustained conversations about what we want to invest in as a city. Until we change the budget process, we don’t have an opportunity to have those conversations in a meaningful way.”
As the process stands, the council can vote to approve or reject the budget, and can reduce the scope of it, but cannot add money to it, under regulations. Only the mayor may request a transfer of funds.
Edwards, who represents East Boston, the North End, and Charlestown, wrote to the city clerk, invoking a section of state law that says local elected officials can propose changes to a city charter through a ballot vote. The councilor said her research led her to believe the measure has never been used before.
Boston is an outlier in the lack of control the legislative body has over the budget. It's time for that to change. This change will also allow us to expand participatory budgeting to give residents greater control over portions of the budget. #bospoli #mapoli
— Lydia Edwards (@LydiaMEdwards) July 6, 2020
The proposal would give the council the same budgetary authority as the mayor, including allowing the council to create appropriation orders of its own for the capital and operating budgets and edit line items.
Under the amendment, the budget process could still start with the mayor — “notwithstanding the power of the council to originate a budget at a time of its choosing” — who would have to craft an initial draft budget and submit it by the second Wednesday of April. The council would be expected, by the second Wednesday in June, to either adopt, amend, or reject the mayor’s budget, according to the filing. If the council does not act, the mayor’s proposal would go into effect.
The proposal also grants the mayor one week to either approve or return a budget amended by the council. If the mayor does not act, the council’s proposal would take hold.
The mayor would have the authority to modify a budget that was approved by the council, according to Edwards’s filing. The council could override an amendment or a budgetary veto by the mayor with a two-thirds majority vote.
“This change would allow for the council to respond to public feedback with actions other than simply rejecting the budget, including the increase or reallocation of funds. It also allows the council to offer more extensive oversight of the budget for Boston Public Schools,” Edwards wrote to the city clerk. “It would formally establish and allow for expansion of the participatory budgeting process within the city’s appropriation orders. Currently, the city’s participatory budgeting process is informal, limited and only available to youth engaged by the Mayor’s office.”
The change would allow the council to modify a budget proposal for Boston Public Schools that it receives from the Boston School Committee, but it would not change the committee’s “budgetary authority or obligations,” the letter says.
According to Edwards’s office, the proposal also paves a way for the budget deliberation to kick off earlier if the mayor or council seeks to do that.
Edwards envisions having the amendment go before voters in November 2021 after the council holds a hearing and final vote and it is reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office.
The councilor proposed reviewing the city charter at large earlier this year, but said Monday that the effort to amend the council’s budgetary role is a separate initiative.
“Boston can move forward on specific reforms to our budgetary process even as we pursue a democratic process to examine the entire charter,” Edwards said. “That process will require much more organizing and eventually candidates will have to run for an opportunity to write the charter.
“I am still committed to writing a clear, accessible, complete charter but right now people are asking for direct impact and influence on our budget,” she added. “We can give them that power by modernizing and democratizing the budgetary process and expanding participatory budgeting, which would give residents greater control over portions of the budget.”
Edwards is slated to introduce the proposal at the council’s Wednesday meeting, where two other proposals are targeted at amending the budget process.
One asks the council to discuss “zero-based budget visions for alternative community investment” through the city budget.
“Many activists and community groups have raised ideas for new agencies, programs, and funds that consider the city budget from the ground up, in the style of ‘zero-based budgeting,’ whereby an organization asks anew each year what allocations would best achieve its central goals, rather than incrementally altering the prior year’s budget,” the filing says.
Another hearing order, meanwhile, seeks for officials to talk over “participatory budgeting” to create a process that “could enable more meaningful and inclusive input from the public on the City of Boston’s budget priorities.”
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