WOBURN - Local officials will formally petition the state Legislature for permission to retire all references in the City Charter to "aldermen" and replace the terminology for individual City Council members with the word "councilors".
Assuming the mayor supports the initiative, the matter will require a special act of the state Legislature and the support of Mass. Governor Charles Baker.
Though passing unanimously, the proposed Home Rule petition resulted in some unanticipated friction after Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Campbell questioned the genesis of the legislation and suggested the matter be referred to committee for a broader look at the City Charter.
In particular, Campbell argued that if the purpose of the charter change is to remove all gender bias from the 1897 legal document, some further work was needed.
"I think it's a little premature to vote on that tonight," said Campbell. "At first glance, this seems like a simple change. But that being said, I've never felt less by being called an alderman versus a city councilor. I do believe there's something nice about keeping of tradition."
"The words him, his, and he appear 72 times in the charter when discussing the mayor. There are 31 references to the mayor as being a man. If the intent of this is to remove gender references from the City Charter, then the proposed amendment does not accomplish it," she continued. "I believe the order should be sent to the committee."
In response to his colleague's commentary, Ward 6 Alderman Edward Tedesco, who sponsored the petition with six others on the council, dismissed the notion that the language changes should apply to the whole charter. He also intimated the proposal was not related to gender inclusivity.
Meanwhile, City Council President Lindsay Higgins, responding separately to Campbell, indicated otherwise by explaining that the petition was authored and submitted in early September as a way to commemorate the women's suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 100 years ago.
Just moments after the City Council president spoke, Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen and Tedesco insisted the question be moved. Tedesco also reminded his peers that under the council's rules, his motion was not debatable.
Higgins, after referencing a long-circulating note from previous City Council presidents about rules of decorum and voting thresholds, subsequently further debate was improper.
Campbell, frustrated she couldn't get a simple explanation about legislation she was being asked to vote on, was less than thrilled with Higgins' ruling.
"This is absolutely ridiculous," she loudly objected. "I just can't believe we can no longer talk about these things."
Tedesco, in deference to the Ward 1 alderman, relented and agreed to withdraw his motion to allow further debate.
"Why are you changing it from alderman to city councilor, if it's not because you're trying to remove gender references?" Campbell inquired.
"Because we're a City Council," the Ward 6 alderman responded.
"In the charter, it says alderman. That's the only reason you want to change it?" Campbell asked incredulously.
"Yeah, because I can make the petition and the order. Therefore I did," Tedesco shot back defiantly.
Though far from being the worst squabble between members of the City Council, as conversations have certainly gotten far more heated, Higgins almost immediately stepped in and squashed the escalating back-and-forth.
Higgins, since assuming the leadership role earlier this summer, has made clear that she will strictly enforce current council rules of conduct that require all speakers to be recognized by the council president before they begin speaking.
In the latest example of that intent, Higgins quickly recognized that Campbell had the floor.
"Alderman Tedesco and Alderman Campbell, let's have some civility here," said the new City Council president as she gaveled down both of members of the council.
Campbell eventually agreed to support the measure after Mercer-Bruen — who herself later apologized to Higgins for speaking out of turn — claimed the term "alderman" technically referenced an unelected official.
"A city council is an elected member of a municipal corporation or board…On the other hand, an alderman is an honorary title given to a councilor who has served for a long-time as a member of a municipality. In short, no one can become an alderman without becoming a councilor first," said the East Woburn official, reading from an unspecified document.
Despite Mercer-Bruen's explanation, the statewide trend in recent years of changing the names of legislative and executive bodies across Massachusetts has almost exclusively been done to promote gender inclusivity. For example, the City of Melrose, the last community in the state to have a Board of Alderman, changed the name of its executive body to City Council for that reason.
In the neighboring communities of Wakefield and Stoneham, town officials similarly got rid of their town charters' references to a Board of Selectmen to reflect the modern day election of women onto the municipal boards. Wakefield replaced its name with a Town Council, while Stoneham now references its most powerful elected body as the community's Select Board.
According to a Mass. Municipal Association article written in Nov. of 2019, shortly after Melrose eliminated its Board of Alderman, the term “'alderman' dates to the 12th century or earlier, and derives from the Old English word 'ealdorman' or old man.'”