At a meeting last night, Springfield City Council approved a measure, by an eight-to-one vote, to "seek approval from the state Legislature" to change the way the council is elected, making "the first major change in the form of government here since 1961," according to Republican reporter Mike Plaisance.

The change, if put into effect, would increase the number of council members from nine to 13. Currently, they are all elected at-large. The change would create a ward representation system such that eight members would be elected as ward reps—one from each of the city’s eight wards—and five would be elected at-large.

The change also would alter the city’s School Committee, currently consisting of seven members, six elected at-large, with the mayor as default chairperson. Under a new system, if it is put into place, two of the committee’s members would still be elected at-large, but four would be elected under a combined ward system (presumably pairs of wards).

This issue has been rather controversial in Springfield and has been discussed many times in City Council sessions over the years. A related lawsuit is pending, citing that the current system "discriminates against blacks and Hispanics because they don’t live in large enough numbers in all parts of the city to get their preferred representatives elected."

Plaisance’s article pointed out that the last time this matter of possible ward representation came before the City Council, in March 2005, it was heartily rejected. An eight-to-one vote demonstrates some massive sea change among council members. I’m trying to understand what that change is, because I did not expect this vote to pass.

The lone voice of dissent, Councilor Tim Rooke, was quoted by Plaisance as saying, "God forbid we know what we’re voting on." He asked the council "what maps would be used to determine ward lines," and said that the change would "transform the council into a popularity contest based on geography and race when the truth is that getting elected requires only hard work."

It looks like the matter really will be before voters again in November 2007, in a binding referendum. How and when ward representation might be implemented, however—including an understanding of what those wards are, geographically, from the sound of it—remains unknown.

Author: Heather Brandon

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