Baker signs off on ward-based councilors, school reps for Haverhill

Aug. 29—HAVERHILL — As of now, time is the only thing standing between Haverhill and ward-based representation.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday signed the long-awaited legislation changing how Haverhill elects City Council and School Committee members to a mostly ward-based system.

The change in representation will begin with the 2023 municipal elections.

Under the new system, voters will elect 11 councilors — one each to represent the city's seven voting wards and four at-large councilors who will represent the city as a whole. Currently, nine city councilors are each at-large.

The School Committee also increases to 11 members, one each to represent the city's seven wards, three at-large members to represent the city as a whole and the mayor serving in the 11th seat. The mayor serves as chair, per the city charter. The bill also reduces school committee terms from four to two years. Those elected to four-year terms last November, however, will complete their current four-year terms.

As things stand, the 2023 election could see School Committee members Scott Wood, Toni Sapienza-Donais and Gail Sullivan on the ballot as ward representatives running for two-year terms, should they choose to run.

School Committee members Rich Rosa, Maura Ryan-Ciardiello and Paul Magliocchetti will be up for reelection in 2025 as either ward representatives or at-large if they choose to run. From that point on all committee members will be up for reelection every two-years.

Mayor James Fiorentini said he has advocated for many years to elect most city councilors by ward — a proposal he first made when he first ran for mayor in 2003, stressed during his 2019 re-election campaign and has reiterated it numerous times over the years.

"I have long felt that the best way to deliver good neighborhood constituent service is by having neighborhood councilors," Fiorentini said. "Neighborhood councilors know which streets need to be paved, they know the problems in the neighborhoods, and they will advocate for their neighborhoods. Ward representation is also a better means of having a city council that reflects the broad diversity of of the city."

The state House and Senate approved the legislation — an act providing for the election of at-large and ward councilors and school committee members in the city of Haverhill — earlier this summer, followed by Baker's signature last Friday.

The change in representation will bring Haverhill in line with most other neighboring cities who use this system, officials said.

Fiorentini said that if the new system runs into problems, it can be tweaked by filing another home rule petition.

"Nothing is written in stone," Fiorentini said.

Haverhill residents last fall voted by a 2-1 margin in favor of ward representation in a non-binding referendum. City Councilors in March voted to send the city's petition to the legislature via a home rule petition that was filed in the House by State Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill.

"This change requested overwhelmingly by Haverhill residents is a much-needed shift in how our city elects their elected officials," Vargas said. "The new system will provide greater representation for individual neighborhoods and better opportunities for individuals to run who may not have otherwise had the bandwidth or resources for a citywide campaign."

Vargas said he is grateful to the Haverhill Latino Coalition and other community partners who put in the hours of work to ensure residents voices are heard and that Haverhill has a system that reflects every one of its neighborhoods.

Last year the Boston-based group Lawyers for Civil Rights threatened to bring a voting rights lawsuit against the city if it didn't voluntarily change its decades-old, at-large electoral system to a mixed system of ward and at-large representation.

In a letter to the mayor, the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said that on behalf of minority voters led by the Latino Coalition of Haverhill, electoral change was necessary to ensure the city's compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.