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Will there be a special election when Marty leaves?

Two scenarios possible under city charter

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Will there be a special election when Marty leaves?
Banner photo (Photo: (Banner photo))

Now that Mayor Martin Walsh has been tapped to join the Biden administration, political insiders are gathering a growing list of candidates who have declared their interest in running for Boston mayor and an even larger list of those quietly considering a run or being pressured by supporters to run.

Under the city’s charter, if the mayor leaves before his term is completed, the City Council president becomes acting mayor.

But what the mayoral election will look like, and when it will happen, remain open questions. How things will play out depend on two factors: when Walsh, if he is confirmed as Labor Secretary, will actually leave office; and whether the City Council and mayor adopt a home rule petition to waive a special election.

Early departure scenario

Under Section 13 of the city’s charter, if the mayor leaves within 16 months of the preceding municipal election (in this case, the Nov. 5, 2019 election), the City Council is required to call a special election within 120 to 140 days.

Under this scenario, if Walsh leaves before March, current City Council President Kim Janey would become acting mayor, but only for the short period between Walsh’s departure and a special mayoral election held in May or early June.

Then, the winner of the special election would serve until the end of the year — unless she or he wins the office again in November.

Under the early-departure scenario, Boston could see four mayors in a 12-month period: Walsh, then Janey, then an elected mayor to serve out the remainder of Walsh’s term, and possibly a fourth mayor if neither interim mayor wins in November.

Were there to be four mayors in a year, it could lead to considerable instability. An acting mayor put in place pending a special election would have limited powers to make appointments or major decisions. Section 11b stipulates that the acting mayor “shall possess the powers of mayor only in matters not admitting of delay.”

Because there have been relatively few acting mayors in Massachusetts municipalities with similar charter provisions, it’s unclear what exactly the limitations are.

“She won’t find out unless she oversteps,” said one political observer with knowledge of the charter, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Department heads and key staff responsible for critical city functions could see considerable turnover under four mayors — a trying limitation  for a mayor when Walsh appointees may be looking for new jobs.

On Friday, District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo proposed a home rule petition that would waive the special election requirement, ensuring that Janey would remain in the mayor’s office through the end of the year. Secretary of State William Galvin on Monday voiced support for waiving the special election, telling the Boston Globe that multiple elections would make it more difficult for voters to make informed choices about candidates.

“It’s not about the candidates, it’s about the voters, giving the voters the maximum amount of time to make choices,” he told the Globe.

If there is an early departure and a special election, it would likely advantage those candidates with more resources. Because Wu and Campbell had each already raised more than $500,000, hired campaign operatives and built city-wide organizations before Walsh announced his departure, they would enjoy some advantage in running.

Janey, who has a respectable $96,000 in her campaign fund, would have some of the perks of incumbency. Most notably, she would have media coverage at twice- or thrice-weekly briefings on the COVID pandemic and other issues facing the city during trying times.

Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, a longtime Walsh ally who is considering a mayoral run, could benefit from operatives from his campaign apparatus as well as his fundraising connections.

March departure

Should Walsh be confirmed as Labor secretary and not leave until March, Janey would become acting mayor with the full powers of the office. She would remain in office until January and would be able to run in the regularly scheduled mayoral election.

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