Easthampton eyes longer mayoral term, ranked-choice voting

  • Easthampton Muncipal Building at 50 Payson Ave.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle speaks during her State of the City address, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 at the Municipal Building. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer 
Published: 5/14/2019 4:23:20 PM

EASTHAMPTON – More than 20 years after changing from a town to a city form of government, Easthampton officials are considering extending the mayor’s term from two to four years, a move that would follow in the footsteps of nearby Northampton and Holyoke. 

In addition, city officials are also considering revamping how municipal election winners are determined for precinct councilors and the mayor through ranked-choice voting. 

The City Council will hold a public hearing on Wednesday to petition the state Legislature to amend the city charter to implement ranked-choice voting for the city’s five precinct councilors and mayor elections – and to increase the mayor’s term to four years. The changes would need to be approved by a majority of Easthampton voters in a November election. The public hearing will take place at the Municipal Building at 50 Payson Ave. at 6:15 p.m.

In order for the changes to be implemented, the City Council, with the approval of Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, would need approval from the state Legislature for the charter amendments. Voters in November would also have to approve by a majority the two changes in separate ballot questions.

“Today in particular when it’s so competitive to get grants and develop professional relationships, we felt that a two-year term put us at a disadvantage,” Easthampton City Council President Joseph McCoy said on Tuesday. McCoy is also on the charter review committee. 

Easthampton went form a town form of government to a city in 1996, electing a mayor and city council rather than a board of selectmen. 

Neighboring municipalities Northampton and Holyoke have mayors with four-year terms.

In 2012, voters in Northampton approved the change in its charter to lengthen the mayor’s term to four years. In January 2018, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse was sworn into office as that city’s first four-year term mayor. 

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, a first-term mayor who was elected to the full-time position in 2017, said she supports the idea of a four-year term. 

“A mayor is uniquely positioned in a municipality as the chief executive ensuring not only laws are followed and (there’s) an efficient administrative direction for the city, but in Easthampton they are also the main initiator of economic development and the primary liaison to state and federal officials and agencies,” LaChapelle said. “Those relationships and abilities can become compromised by starting the election season a year into the first term.” 

Having an additional two years to apply for grants and fine-tune the yearly budgets would benefit whoever holds the office, LaChapelle said.

Easthampton City Councilor Thomas Peake, who also serves on the charter review committee, said on Tuesday that a four-term mayor could be more productive.  

“It might allow people to get more done,” Peake said.

In a mayor’s first 18 months, he said, typically the first third is dedicated to the city budget, the second third for policy-making, and then the last third to more budget work before beginning to think about re-election in their last six months of a term. 

“It limits the time they can do work outside of just keeping the lights on,” Peake said. “The logic I tried to operate on the charter review committee is that any major change would have to go before voters anyway, so if there is enough of a good argument for something, I thought it would be worth the voters to weigh in.” 

Peake said members of the subcommittee felt that proposing ranked-choice voting coupled with a four-year term of a mayor “had a lot of merit.” 

“If we make a four-year term, we wanted to make sure that the person who actually accepts that position is somebody who the majority of voters fell behind,” Peake said. 

In ranked choice voting, the candidate with a majority of votes wins. If no candidates break 50 percent in the initial count, then the candidate with the least amount of votes gets eliminated. Those who voted for the candidate with the least amount of votes then have their votes redistributed to their second choice until a winner emerges.

Ranked-choice voting, as proposed, would only be for the precinct councilors and the mayor. Ranked-choice voting for at-large councilors would have been too complicated and costly, according to McCoy. 

The charter review subcommittee also decided not to extend the terms of city councilors or School Committee members, McCoy said, because it is not a full-time job. 

“We thought the flexibility of two years was still good for School Committee and City Council,” McCoy said. “The recommendation was to leave them as two-year terms.” 

If city voters approves both changes and the state Legislature approves the amendments, they would be implemented in the 2021 election, and would take effect for the 2022 terms, according to City Councilor Daniel Rist. 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com 


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