Wednesday, April 24, 2024

If only during the eight weeks it took to elect a mayor someone had been counting the number of times a city councillor said some variation of “This is our system. The system works.”

You wouldn’t be able to do anything with that number once it was counted. But that’s pretty much the point.

This is our mayoral system — five votes needed to elect; reconsideration and revotes as often as councillors want, or as rarely — but it doesn’t work.

It’s the system that took even longer to elect Sheila Russell in 1996. It’s the system that took 1,321 ballots to work in 1948, and it’s mind-boggling to think electoral change wasn’t the next item on the agenda. (There probably wasn’t have any time left in the term.)

Councillors weren’t saying “the system works” toward the end of this process, though, especially Monday. That’s when David Maher took the seat foreshadowed as his at the Jan. 4 inaugural, when he won a technical majority of votes on the first ballot. It’s when he admitted, “I have felt for some time that there is some, I would use the word tinkering, with the system that could help expedite this election process.” It’s also when Marjorie Decker switched her vote and allowed the election to take place because she saw an immediate future of switched allegiances, new candidates and no resolution.

She may also have been thinking two days ahead, when the council (by its own decision) would have had to meet again to vote under an indeterminate set of rules. In eagerness inspired by first-year councillor Leland Cheung to end the stalemate, the council was set to go wandering outside the Plan E charter rules set in 1941, groping through a fog of ad hoc procedures almost as the presidential candidates did in Florida a decade ago.

While there would have been no court battles, plenty of procedural debate was certain. And, like the Supreme Court case that settled the 2000 race, no official precedent would have resulted, because the charter would be unchanged.

Proportional representation or runoff-style voting can prevent stalemates, and Cheung suggested this as well. At least this off-charter idea was sent to city attorneys to judge whether it could be implemented in the current election, and now that opinion can be used when the councilors begin “tinkering.”

Decker came close to explaining exactly why our method of electing a mayor doesn’t work. “If there is no mayor, and there are no committee assignments for us to chair, then what is the City Council doing? We cannot effectively advocate for public policy,” she said.

Obviously there are some actions the council can take without a mayor. The bigger flaw in the current method of elections is that the longer the city goes without one, the less it looks like a mayor is necessary — a perception seemingly proven when it looks like councillors take the position seriously enough to want it but not seriously enough to elect one. That makes their interactions look like an effete, bumbling film noir in which the characters are just greedy enough to ensure that if they can’t have the treasure, no one can.

The treasure in this case, along with making committee appointments and running council and School Committee meetings: reclaiming some power from the city manager, whom councillors lambasted Monday for acting without their authority and against their wishes.

That’s the tradeoff made with Plan E, though: While councillors take eight weeks to elect a mayor, or maybe even 1,321 ballots, the city manager gets stuff done.

That’s the system. It may not have been intentional, but that’s how it works.

This post was updated Feb. 15, 2012, to say that there had been 1,321 mayoral ballots in 1948. An incorrect, higher figure had been provided.