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Briefings: Here’s the Story of a Complex Holyoke Succession Petition…

UPDATED 3/18/21 11:13AM: To confirm Mayor Morse had signed the petition and to note that Northampton’s charter allows councilors to pick an alternate acting mayor from among its membership.

Holyoke City Council

You can’t ask Mike Brady to resign as dad! (still via Holyoke Media)

After an hour of debate, Holyoke city councilors approved a home rule petition Tuesday night to address the city’s mayoral succession time bomb. The Council had been preparing to send a home rule petition to Beacon Hill to cancel a special election Mayor Alex Morse’s pending resignation will cause. Following Council President Todd McGee shock announcement that he could not serve as acting mayor, councilors added new language to select an alternate acting mayor.

Although her committee approved the alternate selection language Monday night, Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon announced a reevaluation. She suggested the election cancellation move forward, but that McGee vacate the presidency and allow the Council to pick a new president to be acting mayor. But her colleagues bristled at the notion, with some continuing to incorrectly read how the legislature’s reaction to the modified petition.

The home rule petition, which will need Morse’s signature before going to Beacon Hill, accomplishes three things. It cancels the special election, allows the Council to select an acting mayor from among councilors to serve until the regular November election, and allows that acting mayor to remain on the Council. The provision about the acting mayor states that the winner of the November election takes office immediately rather than next January.

Councilors systematically shot down proposals to massage the petition that emerged from Vacon’s Charter & Rules Committee into something that finesses the politics and law of the situation. That occurred even as councilors tried to artfully air rancor over McGee’s unexpected declination of the acting mayoralty.

To be clear, McGee is not totally declining service as acting mayor. However, he indicated he could not hold the position until November due to conflicts with his job at MassMutual. He has also intimated he could only serve part-time, which he said would be unfair to the city. Still, the news filled city fainting couches with stunned politicos.

In addition to Vacon’s recommendation, councilors also dismissed a suggestion, which at-large councilors Howard Greaney and Rebecca Lisi made separately, to split election cancellation from the acting mayoralty selection.

“Let them tell us yes or no!” at-large Councilor Joseph McGiverin said of the legislature when they receive the petition as is.

Holyoke City Hall

Holyoke is no longer like its special-election cancelling brethren. (WMassP&I)

McGiverin and others compared what Holyoke was doing with the special election cancellations Lawrence and Boston both successfully sought. Mayors were leaving early in both cities, which were holding mayoral elections in 2021 anyway. Both also have special election procedures that their departures would have—or in Boston case could have—…s/Acts/2020/Chapter280

With McGee’s limitations, the similarities to Boston and Lawrence end there. While those two cities’ home rule petition use different language, they accomplish the same goal. Holyoke’s new petition no longer does. Several councilor seemed oblivious to the idea that the legislature could demur on changes that traipse into other laws.

The legislature might study the alternate acting mayor appointment language more than a special election cancellation. The idea is not exotic, though. As Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley noted, a similar provision already exists in state law. Northampton has a similar provision in its charter. Bartley suggested the Council rely on that instead, but the acting city solicitor was wary.

Rather, the simultaneous service provision could create more problems for the petition. As a practical matter, any acting mayor never leaves their council seat. The seat is a fundamental part of the, well, act as mayor. Holyoke councilors’ insistence on stating that an acting mayor does not give up their seat could conflict with other laws. That will drag out the legislature’s review.

Supposedly, some councilors spoke to Holyoke’s State Rep Patricia Duffy and State Senator John Velis, who promised an expeditious process. But it was unclear whether these conversations happened before McGee’s Monday bombshell. Any petition will likely go through the House before reaching the Senate, with stops at the legislature’s Joint Committee on Municipalities.

Todd McGee

McGee may still need to act up for a time. (via Facebook/McGee campaign)

The vote on the petition as voted in committee Monday was unanimous. Despite some councilors’ opposition, what Vacon, Greaney and Lisi telegraphed could happen may occur anyway.

It seems inevitable the legislation will ping-pong back to Holyoke. Thus, McGee will serve as acting mayor for a time after Morse’s resignation effects on March 26. If he must stop serving as acting mayor before the legislature and governor approve changes to the Holyoke charter, the Council can pick a new president. The only question is whether Holyoke must begin planning a special election until Beacon Hill tells the city to stop.