Rewrite the Rules
Boston Charter Reform for a People’s Budget
Democratizing Boston's City Charter
Responding to the long history of institutional assaults on Black bodies in the United States, the #BlackLivesMatter racial justice uprisings of 2020 highlighted the need to defend Black communities, including by reforming city budgets, defunding the police and investing in community safety. As local elected officials across the country sought to respond to these popular demands, they encountered limits imposed by their city charters.
Boston’s city charter gives the mayor total power to create the city budget each year, and to decide what portion goes to the Police Department vs. Health and Human Services, in addition to dozens of other city programs from street maintenance to public schools. Unlike many large cities across the U.S., Boston’s strong-mayor charter limits City Councilors’ influence over the budget—Councilors have no power to increase, add or create budget items and can only vote to reduce or reject them.
Even further removed from the budgeting process than the Councilors, Boston residents have no clear way to contribute knowledge and solutions for our own neighborhoods or to help the city design an annual budget that actually responds to the needs and priorities of our communities.
We need an updated city charter that enables Boston’s city budget and budgeting process to include the many voices of this city. We support Councilor Lydia Edwards proposed Charter Amendment to create a Participatory budgeting process and expand the power of City Councilors to represent their constituents in annual budget decisions.
In Minneapolis, Baltimore, Boston and other major US cities, rewriting the rules by updating city charters has become a clear first step towards transforming policing, reinvesting in our communities, and building local structures for community safety, accountability and justice. To realize the promises of democracy, voters must have a greater voice in governing our city. Updating the City Charter is a key strategy to democratize and modernize our city’s governance and to build a more just and equitable Boston.
The Boston Charter Reform Study Group
While the City of Boston’s governing structures have historically been controlled by White men and wealthy communities at the expense of the less affluent and communities of color, there are avenues to democratize our institutions and governing structures to better serve the needs of all Boston residents.
To better understand these channels for change, CED co-convened the Boston Charter Reform Study Group between 2018-19. The study group explored ways that city governance in Boston could be made more democratic and equitable by modernizing the Boston City Charter to reflect the priorities and voices of Boston’s current residents. An ad hoc group of 25 community organizers, lawyers and researchers participated in the Study Group, which was tasked with the following six goals:
Understand the powers and parameters of the City of Boston’s governing charter
Clarify city, state and federal processes required to reform Boston’s charter
Identify charter provisions that prevent equitable and participatory governance
Brainstorm and outline alternative structures and rules for the City
Produce content to document and share learnings from the study series
Assess strategies and opportunities for next steps, if any
Below, we share an outline of our key learnings as a resource for potential future action in Boston and beyond! We aim to publish a full report in early 2021 and to continue advancing city charter reform as a strategy to advance economic democracy, racial justice and inclusive and regenerative ways of re-organizing our economy.
In the News
Boston.com - December 10, 2020
The Boston Globe - December 7, 2020
Bay State Banner - October 15, 2020
Charlestown Patriot-Bridge - July 9, 2020
Non-Profit Quarterly - June 25, 2020
Situating Our Current Charter Campaign in the Political Moment
Outraged by the long history of assaults on Black bodies across the United States - most recently the state sanctioned murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Aubrey in the news, with Boston police murders of less-nationally-well known Black people like Burrell Ramsey White and Terrence Coleman on our minds - Bostonians took over the streets by the tens of thousands marching on the Massachusetts State House from Nubian Square, demanding “Defund the Police and Reinvest in Our Communities”.
Throughout the summer of 2020, both newly awakened people and long time community organizers led weekly actions under the banner #DefundBoscops, highlighting how public budgets are moral documents, and zeroing in on the City of Boston budget. Street protests forced a public debate in City Hall on whether the Boston Police Department (BPD) is overfunded, and communities of color underfunded. In response to these demands, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh resubmitted a 2021 budget with $12 million reallocated from the Boston Police overtime budget to departments outside BPD’s purview: $4 million for the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), $2 million for community-based programs, $2 million for BEST Clinicians and mental health support housed at the BPD, $2 million to support minority- and women-owned businesses, and $2 million for housing support and youth homelessness.
#DefundBosCops organizers were not satisfied, and demanded City Councilors vote “no” on the budget, which could have forced further negotiations and increased divestments from the police. While there were not enough Council votes to delay the budget, the moment forced a conversation brewing for decades about the City of Boston’s annual budget process and how Councilors are unable to advocate within the budget process in the way their constituents expect.
This debate inspired District 1 City Councilor, Lydia Edwards to propose an amendment to the Boston City Charter that would structurally address the lack of democratic process in the City’s annual budget.
The charter amendment proposed by Councilor Edwards and sharpened by community groups would expand the Council’s powers to adjust the Mayor’s budget, introduce a process and structure for city-wide Participatory Budgeting (PB), and open up conversations for updating the Boston City Charter so it continues to reflect the needs and priorities of Boston residents.
Participatory budgeting is a democratic model originated in Brazil and now implemented by municipalities world-wide, that gives residents the power to decide together how to spend a portion of the public budget. Already in effect in many large cities across the US, participatory budgeting (PB) would allow Boston residents to determine democratically what they wish to fund, and which neighborhood and city needs to prioritize. PB can be one way to reallocate taxpayer funds from harmful or overfunded line items to areas that have been neglected and underfunded by the entrenched power centers of our ‘strong mayor’ system of local government.
CED is proud to be working with Councilor Lydia Edwards, community leaders and grassroots groups like the Right to the City Boston alliance, Families for Justice as Healing, and the North American Indian Center of Boston on this current Charter amendment.