In Lowell, higher salaries for a higher purpose

Can bigger paychecks attract more diverse candidates?

THE LOWELL CITY COUNCIL is giving itself and the city school board raises on the order of 67 to 100 percent, purportedly as a way to attract a more diverse array of candidates to a body that is dominated by white men largely from the same neighborhood.

The council voted 8-1 late last month to raise its members’ salaries from $15,000 a year to $25,000; the mayor, who chairs both the council and the school committee, would get $30,000, up from $21,000. Salaries for school committee members would double from $6,000 to $12,000. The raises would go into effect in 2018, after the next city election.

At the same time, the council voted to increase the number of signatures required for a candidate to get on the ballot, a move aimed at averting the need to hold costly primary elections for the sake of eliminating just one or two candidates.

The council’s actions come amid renewed scrutiny of the electoral system in Lowell, where all officials are elected on a citywide basis. As CommonWealth  reported earlier this year, the all at-large system helps explain why the complexion of the city’s elected bodies scarcely reflects that of a city that is approximately 50 percent minority. There are no minorities on the school committee or the council, a majority of whose members come from the same neighborhood, Belvidere, which is far wealthier and whiter than the city as a whole. Candidates from that section of town tend to prevail because voter turnout there greatly exceeds other parts of the city.

Reform advocates and residents of other neighborhoods—in particular, members of the Cambodian community that comprises up to a quarter of the city’s population—have pushed for at least some ward-based seats, arguing that electing people to represent a section of the city would allow them to maintain a presence on the council and school board.

Combination ward and at-large systems are common in municipalities across the Commonwealth, but the Lowell council has resisted changing the system, a component of its Plan E form of government that features a professional city manager. Earlier this year, the body declined to even consider a motion to discuss adding ward-based seats. Instead, Mayor Edward Kennedy floated the idea of salary hikes to attract a larger pool of candidates.

“There are people who … maybe would be good candidates, who just put it aside because it isn’t worth their while to do it,” Kennedy said at a committee meeting last month.  “Maybe if we increased the compensation that would make it be a little bit more worthwhile for candidates.”

Kennedy noted that the council’s salaries hadn’t been raised since 2000.

“This isn’t something we’re going to do every two years or every four years,” he said. “It requires a certain amount of political courage and political fortitude in order for the council to give itself a raise.”

Kennedy did not respond to requests for comment.

The lone vote against raising the salaries came from Councilor Rodney Elliott, who proposed the motion to consider ward representation earlier this year. “If you want more people involved, you change the current charter,” said Elliott, who is one of the few councilors who live outside Belvidere. Running at-large, he added, “is a significant undertaking when a candidate has to run in every ward and precinct.”

Elliott said the councilor’s new salary of $25,000, for what is essentially a part-time job, is out of step in an economically challenged city like Lowell, where per capita income is about $23,000. And he pointed out that pay raises in 2000 did not lead to an increase in candidates running for office.

The idea of raising the salaries of elected officials came up prior to the 2015 city election. During that race, several incumbent city councilors, including Rita Mercier, James Leary, and Daniel Rourke, said they were content with their current pay, only to vote for the raises last month.

Paul Ratha Yem, a longtime leader in the Cambodian community and a 2015 candidate for city council, said the councilors’ pay is best viewed as a stipend.

“The idea is we’re running not because of the money,” he said. “We’re running because we want to make a difference. We want to make Lowell a better place. This is where our kids are growing up.”

Yem was among six Cambodian candidates who ran in the 2015 election, a number that would seem to belie the argument that the only obstacle in the way of a more diverse council is a group of willing candidates.

With the raises, the pay for Lowell’s elected officials will be at the high end for cities outside the Boston area. In Springfield, the state’s third-largest city with a population of about 154,000 (Lowell’s population is 108,000), councilors are paid $19,500. In Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, councilor salaries are based on a cost-of-living adjusted formula and are about $31,000 this year. (Of course, it’s another story in Cambridge, where councilors are paid around $80,000, and in Boston, where the council voted last year to hike the salary to nearly $100,000.)

While the Lowell City Council has not been receptive to calls for ward-based seats, it has been fixated on at least one perceived flaw in its electoral system. In 2015, the city had to hold a primary election to eliminate just one candidate, at an estimated cost of $75,000. So it was that, along with the salary hike, the council voted to increase the number of signatures required to get on the ballot from 50 to 150, a change that will require the approval of the Legislature.

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As Councilor Corey Belanger put it at a committee meeting last month: “We don’t want to stop democracy, that’s not what this is about. We just want, if you’re a candidate, we want you to be serious.”

If any members of the public had concerns about the pair of motions and their seemingly contradictory purposes—to attract more candidates while making it harder for them to get on the ballot—it didn’t come across when the council voted on them. No one spoke at a public hearing ahead of the vote, and there was no debate on the motions, which passed nearly unanimously.