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Lowell Officials Look at Possible Settlement in Voter Rights Lawsuit

October 8, 2018

LOWELL -- City officials are staring at a fork in the road.

They can fight the voting rights lawsuit until the very end -- a potentially long, drawn-out process that could cost the city a significant amount of money, and doesn’t guarantee victory.

Or they can focus on settling the lawsuit in the near future -- avoiding the time-consuming and expensive process, while adopting a new election system.

“Change will happen one way or another,” Oren Sellstrom, an attorney for the 13 Asian-American and Hispanic residents bringing the lawsuit, said last week.

The plaintiffs argue that Lowell’s at-large election system discriminates against minority communities in ways that could be solved by a district-based system.

With city officials in the midst of an extensive discovery process, a federal judge recently asked the two sides to engage in mediation and avoid court. Dates have not been set, but mediation could happen later this year.

“We have always said, since the minute we filed, we’re more than happy to talk about a voluntary change from the city,” Sellstrom said. “Whether it’s a court order or a settlement, it does not matter to the plaintiffs.

“Any time the city wants to have a conversation, we’d be happy to do that,” he added.

City Solicitor Christine O’Connor said they’re looking at possible dates for mediation.

“Given the allegations and changes they’re advancing, we’ll see whether there’s a way for both parties to come to a satisfactory resolution,” she said.

The lawsuit, Huot v. City of Lowell, 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.

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.

“It’s a comprehensive view of municipal government and the various ways that it relates to the underlying issue of the voting rights case,” O’Connor said.

There have been rumors about the discovery process costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The city solicitor 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.

City Manager Eileen Donoghue said the significant number of document requests is not unusual for these types of lawsuits.

“These cases can be complicated and time-consuming,” she said. “The plaintiffs have requested many, many discovery requests from the city.”

Instead of going through this lengthy process, City Councilor Rodney Elliott said the city should do what it takes to settle the lawsuit. Elliott, like City Councilors Karen Cirillo and Vesna Nuon, supported moving to a district-based or hybrid model during their recent campaigns.

“I have no interest in spending this money on the software and discovery,” Elliott said. “We should put a proposal on the ballot, and let the people vote on it.”

The City Council’s ad hoc subcommittee has been researching other election models. City Councilor Edward Kennedy, a member of the subcommittee, said they’re getting close to coming up with an election system proposal.

After meeting with groups across the city, Kennedy said many residents are interested in a hybrid model with a mix of district and at-large councilors, and others are interested in proportional representation voting. Many residents also like the current at-large system, he added.

“I’m hopeful we can come up with a compromise that would be suitable to both sides,” Kennedy said.

“Avoiding court would be desirable to both sides,” he added.

City Councilor John Leahy, also on the subcommittee, said both parties should sit down and try to come up with a solution. Throughout the neighborhood meetings this summer, he heard a 50/50 split of those wanting to keep elections the same and others wanting a new system.

“I like the system we have now, but I’m willing to listen and hear the other options,” Leahy said.

“I think neighborhoods just need to come together, and get out and vote,” he added.

It’s important to ensure that all populations across the city have an opportunity to get elected, Mayor Bill Samaras said.

He said the council is working with the city solicitor to make a decision on next steps.

“We need to do what’s best for the city,” Samaras said.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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