Lowell’s City Council is preparing to take a controversial vote on the future of the city’s dilapidated high school. Should they renovate, or build an entirely new building in a different neighborhood?

This comes as a lawsuit is challenging the legitimacy of the council itself. 

Several Latino and Asian-American residents filed the suit, arguing that an at-large – rather than a ward-based – election system keeps minority groups out of power.

Right now, the entirely white City Council and School Committee make decisions for a city that's roughly half non-white.

Less than a mile from City Hall, a sign reads: Cambodia Town. This area is home to one of the largest Cambodian communities in the country.

At the heart of the community, there’s a park. But for a long time, there was a problem: unlike most other parks in Lowell, there were no lights at night. 

“We talked to the city year after year. We talk to the city and elected officials,” said Vesna Nuon. “Nothing happened.”

Until Nuon decided to run for office. He won a seat on the City Council and, within a few weeks, lights were up. “At least 100 people came to watch the lights turn on,” Nuon said. “I still vividly remember their faces, like, ‘Wow, there’s light.’ ”

Nuon said he started working on an assortment of other issues, including adding diversity elsewhere in the city’s government. But he lost the next election, and the next one. Now, he’s running again.

Nuon is not alone. This past election several other Cambodian candidates ran and lost. Despite a growing minority population, not a single minority was elected.

In Lowell, the City Council and the School Board are elected at-large. Instead of each district or ward voting for someone to represent their part of the city, everyone in the city can cast nine votes, and the top nine candidates city-wide win. In effect, 51 percent of the electorate can control the whole system.

A City Council meeting in Lowell
Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH

This system was adopted in the mid-1900s with the knowledge that it could limit minority participation. At that time, some were worried about the Irish, the Greeks, or the French gaining too much power. 

"We have had in the past one Latino member of the City Council. And we've had, at different times, two Cambodians,” said Councilor Edward Kennedy, who was elected by his peers to serve as Mayor. “I represent – and every member of the City Council – represents everybody, no matter what ethnic background you have. It doesn't really matter to me.”

When asked why minority candidates haven’t been more successful, Kennedy simply said, “I don’t really know.”

He suggests it’s a matter of having “the wherewithal to put your campaign and what you believe in forward. And so, if you can do that, you’ll be successful. And if you can’t, you’re not.” 

Kennedy said he’s working to make City Hall more accessible.

“I had a meeting with a Latino group maybe a couple months ago and I came to realize that there were some who just don’t speak English,” said Kennedy. He’s now thinking about putting a booth in the lobby to help non-English speakers navigate City Hall.

Kennedy said he likes the current electoral system and called it "efficient." Though, he said, he would be open to discussing some kind of change.

Right now, more than half Lowell’s city councilors – including Mayor Kennedy – live in Belvidere, an affluent area with high voter turnout.

On a thoroughfare running through the neighborhood’s leafy streets and lush lawns is A Belvidere Florist. Joe Culbert runs the store, which is filled with buckets of colorful flowers.

“Carnations. Lillies. Orchids. Rose. Anything you want, we got it,” he said.  

Culbert, who has worked in his neighborhood for decades, said the diversity of Lowell is something he likes and values. “We learn different cultures. It’s nice. It’s different.”

Like most people I asked in Belvidere, Culbert hasn’t heard about the lawsuit or about concerns with minority representation. He said he’s shocked, but he has an idea of how it might be solved. 

"Get some more candidates out there. Voice your opinions. Voice your concerns,” he says in his soft-spoken manner. “Get them on the ballot and people will vote for them.”

Champa Pang insists that minority candidates have run. She’s a plaintiff in the lawsuit and traces her concerns to the past election, when several Cambodians ran unsuccessfully for office.

Pang vividly remembers that election night. “It was so sad,” she said. She added that she stayed awake wondering what to do.

In addition to joining the lawsuit, Pang got involved in City Hall politics. She started lobbying for the city’s high school to remain downtown, near the minority communities.

Pang said she did this over the objection of some community elders. She said they’re worried about disturbing the peace in Lowell – afraid of becoming politically active, or even voting. Pang thinks this is a legacy of their lives in Cambodia. 

“Our families came from the genocide era, people got killed for raising their voice against the government. They think that only bad people go before the City Council.” 

Michaelann Bewsee said that type of political reticence can change with a ward-based system, where people know their representative and feel more connected to city government.

Bewsee, co-founder of Arise for Social Justice, brought a similar lawsuit in Springfield more than a decade ago. For years before that, she said she noticed a pattern:

“We had an all-white city council, except for one person of color.” Bewsee said. “Just about every candidate came from the two most affluent wards in the city.”

Bewsee said they’d heard the same explanation again and again. “Councilors would say, ‘you have to work harder.’ ”

But Bewsee countered: “This is ignoring the old boys’ networks that white candidates were able to bring to a campaign."

In the end, residents enabled a more diverse council in Springfield – not a court case. A citywide referendum in 2007 brought in ward elections. And within a few elections, Springfield’s City Council had become majority-minority.

Boston, Somerville, Lawrence and Chelsea have also changed their voting systems, hoping to ensure minority representatives have a chance of being elected.  

It remains to be seen whether Lowell follows this path, too.