Haverhill may scrap all at-large city council

Mayor to propose mix of district and citywide seats in bid to promote broader representation

IN LOWELL, it took a federal lawsuit to bring a recent change to the structure of city government, which advocates said locked minority groups out of representation in city hall. Haverhill may be on a smoother path to revamping its form of government.

Mayor James Fiorentini said in his inaugural address last week that he plans to introduce a proposal for Haverhill to move from a city council made up of nine at-large members to one with a mix of at-large and ward-based councilors. The announcement came after years of growth in the city’s Latino population that has not been matched by similar change in the make-up of city officeholders. 

“We have a growing Latino population and I want to be sure they have a chance to have a seat at the table,” said Fiorentini, who was sworn in last week to his ninth term. 

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini plans to introduce a proposal to switch to a mixed system of at-large large and district city council seats.

Haverhill, a city of 60,000 that sits on the Merrimack River about 30 miles north of Boston, is 20 percent Hispanic, but all nine city councilors are white.

Fiorentini’s office said he’ll submit a proposal to revamp the city charter in the next few weeks. The city council has to approve the plan, which would then go before voters in the November election.

“There’s a large section of the city that feels alienated, they don’t feel like they’re part of the city, they don’t vote,” Fiorentini said of the largely Hispanic Mount Washington neighborhood along the north shore of the Merrimack River. “I’d hope to get them involved,” he said of the promise he sees of district-based city councilors.

State Rep. Andy Vargas, who is Haverhill’s only Hispanic elected official, said the idea of a change in the structure of city government is overdue. “A government that represents all communities is going to represent the city better,” he said. “Folks have realized across the state that we can have more representative government if we have a system where people can elect folks who live in their part of the city.”

Of the 15 largest cities in the state, only Haverhill and Fall River still have an all at-large city council structure. (Cambridge also has citywide elections, but under its proportional representation voting system smaller constituency groups can exert influence and elect a preferred candidate.) 

In 2017, Lawyers for Civil Rights sued Lowell over its all at-large structure, charging that the system violated the Voting Rights Act as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the US Constitution. Last year the city settled the suit and agreed to replace the at-large system with one of several reform options. In November, voters in Lowell approved a plan to replace the structure of nine at-large councilors with a “hybrid” system of three at-large councilors and eight elected from districts.

Springfield abandoned its all at-large system for electing city councilors after legal action was initiated in 2005 to challenge the structure. Boston scrapped its all at-large elections through a 1981 ballot question campaign. 

State Rep. Andy Vargas: “A government that represents all communities is going to represent the city better.”

Vargas is helping to convene a community meeting in Haverhill on January 23 to discuss the benefits of adopting a city council structure that includes district seats. Slated to speak at the session are representatives from the Greater Haverhill Indivisible chapter, The Latino Coalition of Haverhill, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and MassINC, the public policy think tank that publishes CommonWealth, which recently released a report highlighting the disparities between the state’s growing minority population and their representation in state and municipal government. 

“We want the whole city to have representation,” said Ismael Matias, president of the Latino Coalition of Haverhill, which was formed following the 2018 election. “Right now, one district has three representatives and we have one that has no one,” he said referring to one heavily Latino ward in the city. 

Fiorentini said a system that includes district councilors would lead to better constituent services. “I’m going to try to sell this as a pothole measure,” the mayor said, arguing that every resident would have a local city councilor accountable for their neighborhood. 

But not everyone is convinced that such a change would benefit residents, especially those in lower-income and more heavily Hispanic sections of the city. 

City Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua said every resident is currently represented by nine councilors. Under a hybrid system, he worries that the district councilor may become the only voice advocating on an issue in a particular neighborhood, even with several councilors still elected at-large.  

“My concern is that this will provide less representation to neighborhoods,” Bevilacqua said, though he added that he will support a proposal to put the change on the ballot and let Haverhill voters decide. Bevilacqua said he has a different idea for how to address the issue of representation in Haverhill, which he’ll unveil in the next few weeks. He declined to say what it is.

City Council president Melinda Barrett said she’s open-minded about the possible change. “It’s time for us to look at the possibility of going that way,” she said of adding district council seats. “The upside is that every ward gets a representative. I guess the downside is every ward gets one representative,” she added, echoing the concern raised by Bevilacqua. 

Barrett said running for a ward-based seat would be less costly than mounting a citywide campaign, a change that could mean greater representation not only for Latinos, but also for women, who currently hold only two of the nine council seats, and younger people. 

Vargas said he’d like to also explore the idea of adding district seats for Haverhill’s school committee, which elects all six of its members citywide, (The mayor serves as a seventh member and chair of the committee.) 

The disparities in representation on the school committee arguably are even more stark. 

Like the city council, the current school committee has an all-white membership, but the school district’s 37 percent Latino student population is nearly twice the 20 percent Latino make-up of the city population as a whole. 

In 2015, Vargas broke the all-white stranglehold on Haverhill’s city council when he became, at age 22, the first Latino ever elected to the body. Two years later, he moved on after winning a special election for state representative. 

Bevilacqua said Vargas’s council victory shows that Latinos can win representation under the existing all at-large system. “The argument that a young Latino cannot win is not accurate,” he said. “We had it demonstrated to us.” 

But Vargas and others say his win was more of an exception to the rule that has seen Latinos shut out of local office. 

In the recent MassINC research report on disparities in minority representation in state and municipal offices, Haverhill was among the Massachusetts communities with the largest gap, with minorities only accounting for 5 percent of its state and local elected officeholders despite accounting for 24 percent of the city’s overall population.

Vargas said there had already been talk about moving to a system of at-large and district council seats when he won his first race in 2015. “People said, ‘Andy, you kind of make the case weaker by getting elected,’” Vargas said. “But here we are in 2020 and there’s not one person of color in municipal office in Haverhill.”