Lowell is 49 percent non-white. However, the city council and the school committee have just one non-white member each. Last session, there were no minorities in either body, and a voting rights lawsuit says this is no coincidence.
Members of the Asian-American and Latino communities are suing the city government. Both sides head to Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston Tuesday for their first private mediation session.
The plaintiffs say the fact that Lowell elects all of its city councilors and school committee members at-large keeps minorities out of power.
Here’s how the system works: everyone in Lowell can vote for their top nine city council candidates and top six school committee candidates. Those with the most votes citywide win. So, in effect, 51 percent of the electorate can control the whole system.
This electoral system in Lowell dates back to the 1940s. When it was adopted people knew it could limit minority participation — specifically, participation by Irish, Greek and French immigrants.
This past summer, city councilors held listening sessions to find out what constituents think of the system. Some liked it, pointing to less in-fighting and the ability to call any city councilor with an issue. Others said it is unfair and needs to change.
“The city is incredibly effective. It’s runs so well,” says one man who attended a listening session held in August in a lunch room at Robinson Middle School.
“I disagree,” countered a woman at the listening session. “If people feel unrepresented and if you look at the mix of the city and the make-up of the city council and people are unrepresented, then I think we need to change something.”
Right now, the majority of the nine city councilors come from Belvidere, a relatively affluent and predominantly white neighborhood with high voter turnout. There are no councilors from the predominantly Hispanic areas, and just one from the Cambodian community.
“They feel like their issues, their concerns are not heard,” said Vesna Nuon, the only non-white city councilor.
Nuon teamed up with Councilor Ed Kennedy last week to file a motion for the city council to consider a hybrid system — some at-large councilors, some district councilors — so that every neighborhood has at least one representative.
Nuon said the motion sends a message ahead of the lawsuit’s mediation session.
“We want change. We are serious about resolving this matter,” he said.
He isn’t the only one. Another councilor filed a similar motion. And local religious, business and political leaders penned an op-ed in the Lowell Sun, published Nov. 27, urging the city to adopt a new system.
Mayor William Samaras acknowledges the election system is going to change.
"What the lawsuit did is just kick start something we've been discussing a long time," he said.
But Samaras said there are a lot of details still to be worked out. How will the districts be drawn? Should Lowell wait for the 2020 federal census? How should they get public input?
“If we’re going to make change, it’s got to be significant,” said Samaras. “It has to affect the population who feels they’re not being represented properly.”
Samaras, who was selected by his fellow city councilors to serve as mayor, said the city council has given direction to Lowell's attorneys that they want the lawsuit resolved in mediation.
Rachel Brown is one of the attorneys representing Lowell. She said she’s hoping to see more data on what's wrong with the current system.
"What comes into play in this kind of case is a full statistical analysis. And we would hope that plaintiffs would share their analysis of this case with us," she said.
The lawyer representing the dozen or so Asian-American and Latino plaintiffs, Oren Sellstrom of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, says he's hopeful.
“We think that voluntary change on the city’s part would be preferable to court ordered change,” he said.
That’s what happened about a decade ago in Springfield when a similar lawsuit prompted the city to voluntarily change to a system with some district councilors. Within a few elections, Springfield’s city council become majority-minority.
Boston, Somerville, Lawrence and Chelsea have all adopted new voting systems to help enable minority representation.
As Lowell heads into mediation, the question is not as much whether there will be a change, but what the details of the new election system will be.