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Legal squabble over conflicts of interest shakes up Boston mayoral race

Boston Herald logo Boston Herald 1/24/2021 Sean Philip Cotter
a man holding a cell phone: BOSTON MA NOVEMBER 03: Candidate for Boston City Council Ricardo Arroyo speaks during a get out the vote rally at Adams Park in Roslindale, Sunday, November, 3, 2019, in Boston. (Jim Michaud / MediaNews Group/Boston Herald) © Provided by Boston Herald BOSTON MA NOVEMBER 03: Candidate for Boston City Council Ricardo Arroyo speaks during a get out the vote rally at Adams Park in Roslindale, Sunday, November, 3, 2019, in Boston. (Jim Michaud / MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Boston mayoral hopefuls on the City Council are scrambling to figure out what to do after a council attorney wrote up a legal opinion saying that conflicts of interest prevent them from voting on whether to override a special election — but the acting-mayor-in-waiting is endorsing a different councilor’s evidence to the contrary.

The attorney for the council as a whole drew up a legal opinion this week saying that mayoral candidates and the prospective future acting mayor can’t vote on — or even talk about — a proposal that would cancel the special election that would happen if Mayor Martin Walsh leaves to become President Biden’s Labor secretary before March 5. If Walsh leaves before then, the city charter requires a special election within three months.

“The Councilors that have already announced that they are running for Mayor could benefit from changes to the current special election requirements as well as the Councilor that will serve as Acting Mayor,” the memo obtained by the Herald says, citing financial conflicts of interest.

That would mean City Council President Kim Janey, who will become acting mayor if Walsh is confirmed and leaves, and City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu, who are both currently running for mayor, wouldn’t be able to vote on the proposal. Janey is considering a run to be elected mayor, and City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George is also mulling an entry into the race.

But City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who proposed the change via a home-rule petition, insists that’s not the case. He asked the state ethics commission about whether he’d be able to vote on the matter if he’s considering a run for mayor — he’s not — and, according to an email he shared with the Herald, the commission said he could do so without breaking the state rules for financial conflicts of interest.

They told him that while “the conflict of interest law prohibits municipal employees from participating in any particular matter in which they have a financial interest, the definition of ‘particular matter’ specifically excludes home rule petitions.”

“That’s not Ricardo Arroyo’s interpretation of the law — it’s the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission saying it,” said Arroyo, who argues that the extra election just creates chaos and danger in the midst of a pandemic.

He noted that the council votes on its own salary and districts without those being a conflict of interest.

“They’re trying to make something out of nothing to delay,” Arroyo said.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards, the chair of government operations, said she asked the staffer to research conflicts of interest and come up with an opinion.

“We always have to consider the ethical, legal and political considerations of our decisions,” Edwards said Saturday. “I leave it to my colleagues — my friends — to make the best decisions for themselves.”

She didn’t take a position on whether her colleagues have to follow the staff’s opinion, but said, “They should proceed with an abundance of caution.”

The opinion also would continue to require a majority of the total 13-member council to vote in favor of the proposal in order for it to pass — even if some of the members can’t — or don’t — vote.

Janey spoke in favor of Arroyo’s proposal earlier this month and said in a statement Saturday that she “will of course follow whatever the ethics rules require.” Janey, whose tenure as acting mayor would be extended if there’s no special election, cited Arroyo’s evidence, saying, “The State Ethics Commission has provided an advisory that indicates there is no conflict of interest.”

“This discussion shouldn’t let us lose sight of the fact that special elections historically disenfranchise communities of color and low income, and that the Council’s focus should be what is best for the residents of Boston,” Janey added.

Wu, who also supports Arroyo’s proposal to override the special election, said she isn’t sure whether she’ll vote on it yet.

“We’re getting our own independent legal advice,” Wu told the Herald.

Campbell, who’s also running for mayor, didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Essaibi-George, who continues to mull a run, declined to comment. Neither has said whether they support the proposal, which is due for a hearing Tuesday.


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