Historically Boston has followed a ‘Strong-Mayor’ form of government as opposed to a “Weak Mayor” system practiced by small or mid-sized cities and towns across the country.
In the Strong Mayor system Mayor Martin Walsh is given almost total administrative authority and a clear, wide range of political independence, with the power to appoint and dismiss department heads without council approval and little or no public input.
Under this system Walsh, like Boston mayor’s before him, prepares and administers the city budget, although the council often must approve that budget, and has veto power over council votes.
This differs from a weak-mayor system where the mayor has no formal authority outside the council, cannot directly appoint or remove officials, and lacks veto power over council votes.
This week, City Councilor Lydia Edwards filed a proposed amendment to Boston’s city charter that would give the Boston City Council budgetary powers equal to those of the Mayors.
The historic proposal was filed under a provision in state law that allows local elected officials to propose amendments to city charters which have never been used before.
“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,” said Edwards. “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.”
According to Edwards the proposed amendment specifically targets the budgetary powers of the City and is separate from the complete charter reform the councilor proposed earlier this year. “Boston can move forward on specific reforms to our budgetary process even as we pursue a democratic process to examine the entire charter,” said Edwards. “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. 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.”
Under Massachusetts General Laws, a member of the city council may suggest a charter amendment. After a hearing and final vote by the city council the Attorney General must approve the question’s constitutionality and then it will be put to the voters to decide in November 2021. This proposal would be the first known charter amendment to be implemented using this process.
If Boston voters approve this amendment next fall, the Boston City Council and the Mayor would share power over the city’s budget. This includes the ability to create proposals for the city’s capital and operating budgets, change line items within the proposals, allocate parts of the budget for a participatory budget process (voter direct allocation), and amend the budget for Boston Public Schools.
Additionally, this change would also give the city council tools to more quickly respond to the need for budget cuts in times of fiscal austerity and allow for public deliberation on what services could or should be reduced without lasting harm. This change also allows for earlier budgetary deliberation should either the Mayor or Council desire to do so.