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Conway Motion Goes Behind Closed Doors

January 24, 2019

LOWELL -- If Mayor Bill Samaras coached football, he’d be a pretty good offensive line coach.

Because he has successfully blocked city councilors from touching the voter-rights lawsuit during public meetings.

The latest example came Tuesday night as City Councilor Dave Conway tried to discuss his motion to trigger a citywide ballot question on the future of city elections. His motion, proposing residents get the chance to vote on whether the city’s election system should stay the same or head in a new direction, comes as Lowell officials and lawyers head to federal court mediation sessions over the lawsuit.

Immediately after Conway made his motion Tuesday, Samaras said the matter should be discussed in executive session, behind closed doors because of the lawsuit. City Solicitor Christine O’Connor also opined that it should be discussed in executive session.

After some push back from Conway and City Councilor Rita Mercier, the council voted 9-0 to send it to executive session -- which has happened with other voter rights lawsuit motions over the last few months.

“I don’t want to put the city in the crosshairs of a serious problem and lawsuit,” Samaras said, explaining his executive-session stance.

During the beginning of the debate, Conway said he “completely disagrees,” adding he wants the city’s voters to have a say on this matter. He eventually voted “yes” along with the rest of the council.

Over the last year of the voter-rights lawsuit, some councilors have pushed a hybrid model of both ward and at-large councilors. Other councilors have been leery of a new model, wanting to keep the status quo at-large representation. Conway said the residents should have a say on this controversial issue.

City officials have been busy with the lawsuit, holding several executive sessions including Tuesday night and federal court mediation sessions with the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs in the case argue that Lowell’s at-large election system discriminates against minority communities.

Thirteen Asian-American and Hispanic residents brought the voter-rights lawsuit. They argue that citywide elections have allowed the city’s majority white population to vote as a bloc and ensure white candidates gain office.

The belief is a district-based election system would give minority residents an equal opportunity to have at least one majority-minority district, and therefore increase the chances of a minority candidate gaining office.

Like with the 2017 high school vote, this ballot question would not be binding. The overwhelming majority of voters back then supported a downtown high school, and the city ended up listening to that majority and moving forward with the downtown project.

City Councilors Vesna Nuon and Edward Kennedy recently made a motion for the city’s attorneys to propose a change to the electoral system -- from an at-large system to a hybrid model of district and at-large.

The councilors, who as members of the Ad-Hoc Election Laws Subcommittee heard from residents from around the city, requested the city manager encourage the city solicitor to “engage in mediation with the plaintiffs in a good faith effort to resolve the lawsuit in a timely and reasonable fashion.” The City Council referred the motion to executive session.

Recently, City Councilor Rodney Elliott made a motion for the city solicitor to prepare a vote to change the election of the City Council from nine current at-large councilors to six ward and three at-large councilors.

Elliott, who said the city is going to lose the lawsuit and that it will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, was not permitted at that meeting to speak on his motion. Samaras said the issue was being handled in the courts and in executive session.

The plaintiffs have been open to a voluntary change from the city. Lowell is the only city across the state with a population over 100,000 to have a fully at-large system.

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