Civil rights group criticizes Holyoke rule barring city employees from serving in elected office

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2021 1:49:00 PM

HOLYOKE — A prominent legal organization that works to combat discrimination has issued an opinion that calls into question a Holyoke ordinance barring city employees from serving simultaneously as city councilors.

Holyoke City Council has been the scene of yelling matches and intense discussion in recent months over a city ordinance, passed in 2017, that says “no employee of the city shall simultaneously serve on the city council during their term of employment.” The council has now made two failed attempts to strike the rule from the books.

In a year when the majority-Hispanic city elected its most diverse council ever, some have suggested that the ordinance will prevent two Hispanic employees of the city’s schools from taking office on Jan. 3: at-large councilor-elect Israel Rivera and Ward 1 councilor-elect Jenny Rivera.

But in an opinion sent Thursday to the Holyoke City Council, the litigation director for the Boston-based group Lawyers for Civil Rights, Oren Sellstrom, said that both state law and the city’s charter make clear that employment in Holyoke’s schools does not disqualify a city resident from serving on the City Council.

“The local ordinance that has been cited as purportedly prohibiting such service must be interpreted consistently with those governing laws; otherwise, the ordinance itself would be invalid,” Sellstrom wrote. “Accordingly, should any formal challenges to these Councilors’ qualifications be raised, we urge the incoming City Council to reject them and respect the will of the voters instead.”

Lawyers for Civil Rights was previously known as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association. It was founded in 1968 in order to mobilize lawyers to support the struggle for civil rights, and in 2018 was recognized by the U.S. Congress for its work with communities of color and immigrants combating discrimination.

The organization’s recent work includes working with voters of color in Lowell to successfully challenge that city’s at-large electoral system for City Council and School Committee, and more recently successfully compelling the secretary of state to mail out vote-by-mail applications during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his opinion, Sellstrom said that Holyoke voters contacted Lawyers for Civil Rights because they were “alarmed by efforts to undermine the will of the voters and refuse to seat successful Latinx candidates for the Holyoke City Council.”

Sellstrom notes that state law contains “extensive conflict-of-interest provisions for local governments.” Notably, he said state law does not prohibit a municipal employee from holding office as a councilor, provided that the councilor in question does not draw compensation for both positions at the same time.

Holyoke’s city charter, meanwhile, is aligned with state law, Sellstrom said. He notes that the charter bars councilors from holding “any other office in or under the city government,” but that the charter lists city “offices” such as mayor, city clerk and city treasurer.

“The fact that the Charter does not more broadly bar Councilors from holding any “employment” with the City demonstrates that – as under Massachusetts state law – such individuals are allowed to serve,” Sellstrom wrote.

Central to Sellstrom’s argument is that municipal ordinances cannot override state law and a city’s charter. Thus, an ordinance must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with state law and the charter, otherwise that ordinance is invalid, he said.

“Were the ordinance to be read as an outright bar, this would contradict the provisions of the Charter, and of state law, which strike a careful balance between allowing service but guarding against conflict-of-interest in specific contexts,” Sellstrom said. “The ordinance must therefore be interpreted to allow service of individual employees so long as their employment does not overlap with an office, such as city clerk or city treasurer.”

Holyoke’s city lawyers and some city councilors have noted that other municipalities have similar rules on the books barring city employees from holding office as city councilors. However, Sellstrom notes that those other municipalities — including Northampton, Chelsea and Gloucester — “have almost uniformly enacted such provisions through their charters.”

“This is a critical distinction,” Sellstrom said. “A charter works as a municipal constitution, with elaborate processes for adoption and amendment that ensure a high level of deliberation.”

At stake are important implications for diversity on the City Council and in the schools, Sellstrom said. Because the school system is a major employer of Holyokers of color, he said barring them from council service has far-reaching implications that have already impacted two Hispanic candidates this election cycle.

“The residents of Holyoke have spoken through their Charter and have chosen, consistent with state law, not to disqualify from Council service those who are employed by the City but only those who hold another City office,” Sellstrom concludes. “The ordinance in question must be interpreted accordingly, with only this limited disqualification, or the ordinance would be invalid.”

Holyoke’s city solicitor and Sellstrom have both noted that the city charter explains that the new City Council, with a simple majority vote, will be the sole judge of the qualifications of its members. Thus, if a formal challenge is raised on Jan. 3 to the seating either of the candidates in question, Sellstrom urged the new City Council to reject the challenge.

“The City Council should respect the will of the voters,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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