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Lowell Voting Issue Goes to Federal Court

November 17, 2018

LOWELL -- After months of city councilors and the Law Department heading behind closed doors to discuss the voter rights lawsuit, the city will head to federal court next month to face the plaintiffs who argue that Lowell’s at-large election system discriminates against minority communities.

The two sides in the lawsuit Huot v. City of Lowell will engage in private mediation on Dec. 18 in Boston at the Moakley Courthouse.

“It’s an opportunity for both parties to explore whether there’s a resolution to the satisfaction of both sides,” City Solicitor Christine O’Connor said Friday.

Thirteen Asian-American and Hispanic residents brought the lawsuit. The lawsuit argues 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 district a majority-minority district, and therefore increase the chances of a minority candidate gaining office.

“If the city comes forward with a plan with meaningful change, that ensures fairness and equity in the voting process, then we’ll be open to discussing such a proposal,” said Oren Sellstrom, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

They’re open to a voluntary change from the city, he said. Change doesn’t have to come through a court order after trial, he added.

O’Connor would not disclose what the city hopes for in mediation.

So far, the plaintiffs have not heard much from the city as councilors have gone into executive session to discuss the lawsuit.

“There has been essentially silence from the council,” Sellstrom said.

Recently, however, there was a feisty exchange between City Councilor Rodney Elliott and Mayor Bill Samaras over the lawsuit. 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 it will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, was not permitted to speak on his motion. Samaras said the issue is being handled in the courts and in executive session.

The city’s extensive discovery process for the case includes searching for tens of thousands of documents.

The plaintiffs have requested records pertaining to snow plowing, park maintenance, road repairs, the race of city employees, and other metrics that can be used to measure whether Lowell’s minority communities receive services and representation equal to predominantly white neighborhoods.

The city solicitor has said they’re using software to process the discovery requests, and said she did not have a figure for how much it will ultimately cost the city.

Elliott, like City Councilors Karen Cirillo and Vesna Nuon, supported moving to a district-based or hybrid model during their recent campaigns. The City Council’s ad hoc subcommittee has been researching other election models, and is getting close to coming up with an election system proposal.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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