LAWRENCE — Five weeks after one election, the city must decide whether to hold another election — this time to choose an interim mayor to finish the term of Daniel Rivera.
Rivera is preparing to leave the mayor's post to become president and CEO of the state agency MassDevelopment.
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Lawrence's nine councilors are expected to discuss the pros and cons of having a special election, which is required by the city charter for a new mayor to be named.
The charter says the council president — in this case Kendrys Vasquez — becomes acting mayor if the mayor is unable to perform his duties. The charter, which is outlined at cityoflawrence.com, requires that a special election then happen to elect a new mayor. That election must take place within 90 days of the date the vacancy is created, according to the charter, which says the winner of the election would fill the outgoing mayor's unexpired term.
While health concerns related to the coronavirus and worries over how to fund another election have been raised by some councilors, others, like Pavel Payano, said a special election is a must to preserve democracy for Lawrence voters.
"Us (councilors) getting rid of the rights of the voters to elect their mayor is an affront to democracy. Democracy is messy, but it's the best system we have in the world," said Payano, an at-large councilor for the past three years. "I'm very upset that there are individuals who are advocating for this (not having a special election). If we pass this, there's going to be a lack of trust of our local government and I don't want to see that."
Payano said Vasquez is among the councilors who support bypassing the special election by filing a home rule petition with the state, which has the power to waive the charter requirement.
Councilor Dave Abdoo said he plans to vote in favor of a home rule petition. Last week, Abdoo said he was confident Vasquez could handle the mayoral duties on an interim basis. He said money for a special election would be better spent on pandemic-related issues.
"Democracy is paramount ... but we are a city where every dollar matters," Abdoo said. "We need stability as we focus on COVID. We don't need a special election at this time. Kendrys (Vasquez) would be capable of leading us for a year."
Councilor Marc Laplante said a special election could unfairly burden Acting City Clerk Richard Reyes, who is filling in while the city works on hiring a replacement for recently retired City Clerk Bill Maloney. The clerk's job is expected to be posted in the next week or so, allowing candidates to apply for the position.
Speaking in favor of a home rule petition, Laplante called the combination of coronavirus concerns, the expenses of a special election and the lack of a city clerk "the perfect storm."
Rivera has not yet announced his plan to transition out of his role as mayor and into his new position with MassDevelopment. He plans to update the community and the council during Tuesday night's meeting, which is streamed live on the Lawrence City Council Facebook page starting at 7 p.m.
Rivera was appointed to the state agency Thursday to replace Lauren Liss.
MassDevelopment is a state finance agency that works with businesses, nonprofits, banks and communities to create jobs, increase housing and stimulate growth in a variety of ways. Those methods include building infrastructure and helping to finance projects.
To bypass a special election, councilors must agree to file a home rule petition that gets passed on by Lawrence's state delegation to Gov. Charlie Baker, who must sign it into law. According to Payano, if that happens and there is no special election, the council president would remain acting mayor until the next scheduled regular election.
"I'm of the mindset that those proposing this (bypassing a special election) think they're doing something good for the city. Out in the public right now, people are talking about the fact that (others) are trying to get rid of their opportunity to vote," said Payano, who is chairman of the Charter Committee.
Payano said the Charter Committee has spent nearly a year poring over possible changes to the city's guiding document, and that omission of a special election for mayor was not mentioned, despite previously unconfirmed rumblings that Rivera might not finish his term.
"This is not changing the charter; it's just waiving it for this moment, which I don't think is right," Payano said of eliminating the special election in the wake of Rivera's departure. "It seems sketchy."
Payano said the city's surplus account contains $15 million to cover election costs. In terms of health and safety, he pointed to the two previous elections Lawrence held during the pandemic in September and November without incident.
"We held two elections and everyone left feeling safe," he said, adding the success was largely due to city employees and poll workers who facilitated the elections. "If we've done this before, I don't see COVID as being the reason not to do it. I have faith that the interim city clerk (Richard Reyes) has the ability to organize the special election. We could also ask Secretary (of State William) Galvin for help.
"There are solutions to these problems," Payano said. "When we talk about getting rid of an election, the reasons for doing so must be so out of this world to have to take it away for the voters ... especially since elections are so fundamental for the growth of democracy."