By Harry Kane
Alderman appointments could come to an end if enough Somerville residents have their say.
Proposed legislation to amend the alderman’s “vacant seat tradition” could mean a change in the Somerville Charter. The “vacant seat” policy is currently used to appoint a new board member after an alderman retires early, with less than a year left of service.
Typically, an alderman is elected to the position and serves out his or her full term. In certain scenarios, when an alderman is unwell or is no longer able to serve the residents of their ward effectively, a special election is held. However, an exception to that rule allows a retiring alderman to appoint a replacement if he or she is stepping down from office with less than a year of service left.
Two aldermen have recently stepped down, and have appointed new members to relieve them. This has caused some Somerville residents to voice their criticism of the system. The Board of Alderman has recognized that changes need to be made in the process.
Over the course of the past 65 years, seven resignations have not triggered a special election, but have resulted in appointments. Five of those have occurred since 1994, and two within the last year alone.
Alderman-At-Large William A. White Jr. and fellow board members have approved a petition to discuss an amendment of the Somerville Charter regarding the filling of vacant seats of aldermen with less than one year of their term remaining. This item has been sent to the Legislative Matters Committee for discussion.
“The process has to change,” said Alderman At-Large Dennis M. Sullivan. “Nobody owns their seat. You serve at the pleasure of the electorate.”
Ward 4 Alderman Tony Lafuente feels the voters have a fundamental right to choose the aldermen. “We need to come up with a system that is fair.”
Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah L. Gewirtz’s has concerns. “What I’d like to see us do,” said Alderman Gewirtz, “is move to a system where the Board of Aldermen can of course take the recommendation of the leaving, exiting alderman, but where the community has some say in the process as well.”
Gewirtz doesn’t have a prescribed idea of how the system should work, but she does think that the “process needs to be much more transparent.”
After Alderman Roche stepped down, Gewirtz proposed a rules change. Recently Alderman O’Donovan retired and “picked who he would like to see come after him,” she said.
“Courtney O’Keefe is a very active person in the community. She clearly cares about Ward 5,” said Gewirtz, about former Alderman O’Donovan’s appointed replacement. “My intention is to support her, but at the same time I feel like Alderman Lafuente, in that I don’t want to be doing this again.”
“I know there are many people that are concerned about this and are concerned about our process,” she said. “They’re concerned about their voice…in a democracy. We elect people in this country.”
Some possible solutions might include “an elected official, such as someone from the School Committee” or “an appointed non-elected official who promises not to run for that seat in the next election,” wrote Ward 3 resident Lynn Weissman. This appointment process is “non-democratic” in nature, Weissman also wrote.
Chair of the Progressive Democrats of Somerville, Katie Wallace said, “What I’m most concerned about is aldermen running for office, winning their elections, and then leaving before their term is up.
According to Wallace, the appointment by the successors “sets people up to be incumbents when they have not run for office.”
“I’m wondering what hardships they are experiencing, that they cannot fulfill their term which the voters elected them for,” said Wallace.