LAWRENCE — Following a contentious vote and residents imploring city councilors not to “take away their right to vote,” five of the nine councilors voted to submit a home rule petition to the Legislature to override the special election necessary to fill Mayor Daniel Rivera’s seat when he steps down Jan. 8.
Councilors Estela Reyes, Celina Reyes, Dave Abdoo, Maria De La Cruz and Marc Laplante voted in favor of sending the home rule petition to the Legislature, which was done Wednesday before the session ends.
The petition will be heard in the House and Senate, and if approved, Gov. Charlie Baker must then sign it into law.
Rivera announced his plan to resign earlier this month after he was appointed CEO and president of MassDevelopment, a state agency aimed at improving the economy and infrastructure across the commonwealth.
Due to a conflict of interest, City Council President Kendrys Vasquez did not vote Tuesday and was not present for the entire special election discussion. Laplante, the council’s vice president, presided over the meeting in Vasquez’s absence.
Councilors Pavel Payano and Jeovanny Rodriguez voted against the petition. Ana Levy did not vote.
If the petition is approved, Vasquez would become acting mayor and have all the powers of the mayor until the next regularly scheduled municipal election in 2021.
A primary election would be held in September followed by the general election in November. The winner of the November election would be seated immediately and serve the balance of the unexpired term.
The council vice president, as successor to the president, would not receive any additional financial benefit for the remainder of the term, according to the home rule petition draft sent to the Legislature on Wednesday.
Once the new mayor is elected in November, the acting mayor and by extension, the acting council president, resume their council roles for the remainder of the term, according to the petition.
Over the course of a two-night meeting, residents cited concerns that included coronavirus exposure, extra expenses and resource issues after the recent retirement of City Clerk Bill Maloney and resignation of acting City Clerk Richard Reyes, who plans to steps down Jan. 15.
Former City Councilor Eileen Bernal is lending a hand with clerk duties until a replacement can be hired.
Residents who spoke in favor of a special election accused councilors of not listening to the will of the people. Cross Street resident Richard Russell summed up his rationale on what he called a “foolish and power-grabbing” petition.
“All nine councilors were elected to serve the residents of this city: It is your duty to listen to the electorate as to what they want done,” Russell said. “To have nine of you decide who is going to lead the city until January 2022 in a monument of political chicanery. ... I would advise some of you to start updating your resumes because quite possibly some of you may not have a job come next November’s election because of illness. Some of the voters are getting sick of you.”
Kent Street resident Alexira Kufts advocated for approval of the home rule petition and said she has confidence in Vasquez serving as acting mayor.
“(Kendrys) is someone who is not a stranger and has a solid background,” she said. “The fact that we’re in a pandemic has a lot to do with how we address the situation. If the number of deaths isn’t bringing consciousness to residents, why put them more at risk (by having an election)?
“When we voted for Kendrys Vasquez, (we did so) understanding that he had the capability to step up in the event that the mayor could not (fulfill his term),” Kufts added. “This is an effort being done to protect our citizens as well as save money.”
Councilor Estela Reyes, who initially asked to waive the special election, told the public and fellow councilors that her motivation for doing so was not — as many speculated — for financial gain or advancement.
“I was infected by COVID ... I lost members of my family from COVID,” Reyes said. “This has nothing to do with filling a seat ... nothing to do with money. When we’re in a pandemic, that’s not more important than our health.”
Rivera is expected to submit his resignation letter to Vasquez this week.
“It’s the hardest letter I’ll ever have to write,” he told The Eagle-Tribune via text message Tuesday night while waiting for a police officer to come to his home to sign the home rule petition.