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Somerville aldermen look to end handed-down appointments

Posted by Jarret Bencks  April 26, 2013 10:27 AM

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In the same meeting they appointed a new member to the board, aldermen in Somerville called for changes in the process for filling vacancies on the city's top legislative panel.

After appointing Courtney O'Keefe to the Ward 5 seat, made vacant by Sean O'Donovan's resignation earlier this month, the board's president, William White, called for changing the city charter to establish a new process for filling vacancies.

Before O'Donovan resigned, he recommended O'Keefe as his replacement. It was the second time in five months that an alderman resigned and successfully recommended an appointment to his seat. Ward 1 Alderman William Roche resigned in December to become the city's personnel director and recommended School Committee member Maureen Bastardi as his successor. The board appointed her immediately.

City rules currently call for a special election for a seat vacated by resignation if there is more than one year remaining the term. If there is less, the aldermen select an appointment.

White said he has heard criticism from the public in allowing out-going aldermen to choose their successor.

"I have to say some folks in the community have expressed concerns," he said.

Aldermen Dennis Sullivan said the policy needed to be reviewed.

"The process has to change, nobody owns their seat," he said. "... it's not something you should be able to pass down."

The current appointment process isn't fair to residents, Ward 4 Alderman Tony Lafuente said.

"We need to come up with something that's fair," he said.

Even the beneficiaries of the practice, O'Keefe and Bastardi, said it needed to change.

"The process that I just went through, as far as the public was concerned, was not kind," O'Keefe said. "There are people who look at me very differently and suspiciously now, and there's really no reason to."

Bastardi said the board had waited too long to make the change.

"Shame on us for not getting to it sooner," she said.

White suggested the charter be changed to call for the seat to go to the second-place finisher in the previous election, but only if that individual garnered at least 40 percent of the vote. Otherwise, the seat would go to the ward's current School Committee representative.

Some aldermen disagreed with the details of White's proposal, which was sent to the aldermen's Rules Committee for review. Sullivan felt a 40 percent threshold was too high, while Alderman Bruce Desmond thought it was too low. Desmond said he supported the review of the appointment process, but said it could take years to institute a change.

"It's going to take some discussion and debate," he said.

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