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Lowell elections bias suit heading to court

October 16,2017 15:32

LOWELL -- A federal judge will hear arguments Tuesday on the city's request that he dismiss a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that Lowell's election system discriminates against minorities. The 13 plaintiffs in the case argue that system, whereby ...and more »


LOWELL -- A federal judge will hear arguments Tuesday on the city's request that he dismiss a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that Lowell's election system discriminates against minorities.
The 13 plaintiffs in the case argue that system, whereby all nine city councilors and six School Committee members are elected at-large, ensures that Lowell's majority-white population can effectively block minority candidates from gaining office. Only four non-white residents have been elected to the City Council, and none have been elected to the School Committee.
Virtually all other cities in Massachusetts have switched to some form of district-based representation.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in May. In September, the city moved to have the case dismissed.
In her motion asking the judge to dismiss the case, City Solicitor Christine O'Connor argued that the plaintiffs had not offered enough evidence to back up their assertion that in a district-based system there would be at least one district that is majority-minority, and could therefore have the voting power to elect a minority candidate.
"Plaintiffs should not be permitted to proceed based only upon vague and conclusory pleadings that an unspecified prospective district 'would be' majority-minority (at least when Asian-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are combined) when they have presented no factual basis for such a claim," she wrote.

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O'Connor added that the plaintiffs should have presented details of the district they had in mind, and that they could not group Asian-American and Hispanic residents together as one group constituting a minority that requires protection under federal voting laws.
Oren Sellstrom, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, dismissed those arguments. Other federal courts have found that different ethnic minorities can be considered together as single group for the sake of such voting lawsuits, he said, and the plaintiffs do not need to provide the level of detail requested about a potential majority-minority district just to avoid having their case dismissed before arguments are heard.
"We're very confident," Sellstrom said. "We're not surprised that the city does not want the court to get to the merits."
He added that his clients have met with the city to discuss other avenues to resolve the case, and remain open to an amicable settlement so long as it results in reforms to the election system.
After the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, the City Council formed an ad hoc subcommittee to examine changing Lowell's form of government. The group has met twice to hear from voters.
"A lot of the feedback is that they're interested in seeing some type of change to the form of government we have," said Councilor Jim Leary, the chair of the subcommittee.
The group will not take any further action until after the Nov. 7 election, he said.
Follow Todd Feathers on Twitter @ToddFeathers.

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