All three of the announced candidates for the Mayor’s Office—South End businessman Kevin McCrea and City Councilors Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon—have made “transparency” and “accountability” their campaign buzzwords.
Incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino, who is widely expected to run for re-election, is using those words as well in such initiatives as Boston About Results, his new system of public “performance reports” about various city agencies.
In separate interviews last month, McCrea and Yoon told the Gazette what those terms mean to them.
Accountability was also on the mind of Maura Hennigan, a Jamaica Plain resident and current clerk of Suffolk County criminal courts, who was the last candidate to take a shot at dethroning Menino. She made her first pub-lic comments about this year’s race to the Gazette.
“Openness and transparency isn’t some grand vision,” said Yoon, calling for simple fixes like online informa-tion and a more audience-welcoming seating arrangement in the Boston City Council chamber.
McCrea also supports plentiful public information—especially about the city budget. He dramatically called the Menino administration’s projected $140 million budget gap “made up” and unintelligible because of a lack of information.
“I don’t believe that major cuts need to be made,” McCrea said. “We do have a budget crisis that was engi-neered.”
Flaherty also called for more online information in an interview in last month’s Gazette. He said he became an open-government activist after being the lead defendant in a lawsuit that found the Boston City Council violated the state Open Meeting Law multiple times, largely in cooperation with Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) officials. McCrea was the lead plantiff in that lawsuit.
Menino has not officially announced his run. Asked by the Gazette last week whether he is running, Menino said only, “I love my job.” His campaign has not responded to requests for more extensive interviews.
“It’s nice to see there’s competition,” said Hennigan, who was trounced by Menino as the sole opposition can-didate in 2005.
“I’m actually watching the dynamic evolve,” Hennigan said, when asked whether she is supporting any candi-date. But, she added, she received a call recently from Yoon about “the lay of the land and what to expect.”
“I told him to hang onto his hat and expect everything in his life to be on the front page,” she said.
And what about her thoughts on Menino? “I don’t think it’s productive for me—the last thing I want to be is sour grapes,” she said.
But Hennigan brought up the issue of “accountability,” as she did in her own race four years ago. “You need accountability in government so you make sure city government is accessibile,” she said. Without institutional-ized accountability, she said, “any administration, they love that, so they can snow you.”
McCrea is a Boston native who grew up poor, but became a self-made millionaire with his company, Wabash Con-struction. His financial independence lets him lead a life of adventure, from competitive ice-sculpting in Japan to his recent around-the-world-by-motorcycle honeymoon with wife Dr. Clara Lora.
Closer to home, he sits on the local Democratic ward committee and coaches youth baseball leagues.
“I love adventure. I love exploring,” McCrea said in an interview at the Gazette’s office. “I’m always up for a challenge and an adventure.”
That life began straight out of college, when McCrea was employed on a Boston College/Air Force project in Greenland, studying the electronic impacts of solar storms and the Northern Lights.
“I’m a science nerd. My background’s in physics and math,” McCrea said. “I actually was a rocket scientist.”
But it was his experience growing up that informs his politics, he said. “We didn’t have a TV in the house,” McCrea said, and he wore patched pants, hand-me-downs from the neighbors.
“I’ve always been a very frugal guy. I know what it’s like not to have anything,” he said. And that drives his “outrage” over everything from local “backroom deals” to the federal bailout of major corporations.
He criticized Menino’s administration for proposing education and arts cuts while running what he said are inefficient departments such as the Department of Public Works. He complained that while needing new revenue, the city transfers major property to the BRA, which then leases it to giant developers in tax-break deals.
“As a developer, let me tell you, we shouldn’t be giving tax credits to developers,” McCrea said. “What we do need are community centers and programs for our kids.”
He pledged that, if he elected, he would restore any Boston Public Schools cuts made by the administration.
In fact, McCrea claims, there is no sign that any City of Boston jobs need to be eliminated. He said there is no evidence for the reality of a budget deficit, describing the Fiscal Year 2010 budget as a flat revenue projection with a proposed 6.25 percent spending increase.
“That general increase creates the deficit. It’s a deficit of what [Menino] would like [to have],” McCrea said.
A major element of the increase is union pay raises. McCrea criticized them as mistakes because their rates unsustainably outpace inflation and city revenue increases, he said. But, he acknowledged, the city is stuck with them to some extent. Menino has been seeking a short-term wage freeze agreement.
Another problem cited by city officials is lower interest income on investments and higher debt service pay-ments. But, McCrea said, there are no details on what the amounts and interest rates are, making it impossible to analyze whether debt refinancing might help.
“Nobody can ask why, because they won’t tell us what we owe,” he said. “They just say, ‘Here’s a number. Be-lieve it.’”
McCrea said he would put all city budget information—including every city bank statement—online.
McCrea proposes selling hundreds of city- and BRA-owned properties, including City Hall Plaza, to private owners, both to raise money and the property tax base.
Asked about recent controversies about private meetings of BRA-convened citizens advisory committees review-ing major real estate projects in Mission Hill and other neighborhoods, McCrea said, “It’s outrageous. That’s why I’m calling for the elimination of the BRA. Those deals should all be done in public with a community proc-ess.”
McCrea would place some of the BRA’s deal-making powers in the hands of the City Council, which he wants to strengthen in general. McCrea was an unsuccessful candidate for a citywide City Council seat in 2005.
“There’s not an even balance of power now, and I don’t think it’s good for the city,” he said of Boston’s strong-mayor system.
“The big difference between me and the other three [candidates] is, I’m an outsider,” McCrea said. “I run a business. I make tough decisions.” Referring to his criticisms of government waste and behind-the-scenes dealing, he said, “They’ve all been part of this.”
He claimed that Yoon has participated in or left unchallenged BRA backroom deals, such as a lease deal on the Winthrop Square parking garage downtown that went forward without public review.
As for Flaherty’s claim that McCrea’s Open Meeting lawsuit opened his eyes, McCrea said, “I don’t believe one word of it.” He noted that Flaherty continued to criticize the lawsuit after the City Council lost for years “until after he decided to run for mayor.”
“I think that Michael’s a smart enough politician to realize that people are demanding transparency and accountability, and he’s jumping on my bandwagon,” McCrea said. “We don’t need someone [as mayor] who needs to hit his head against the wall seven times to know hitting it an eighth time is not a good idea.”
In classic terms, Yoon is an unlikely candidate for the Boston Mayor’s Office. The first Asian-American ever to run for the office, Yoon has lived in Boston only about six years, moving from suburban Arlington with a background in community organizing, non-profit affordable housing development and schoolteaching.
Then again, Yoon was also an unlikely candidate for Boston City Council, where he won an at-large seat on his first try in 2005. His supporters like to compare him to another community organizer who recently beat conventional wisdom to win an office—President Obama.
In a brief phone interview with the Gazette, Yoon spoke in Obama-esque precise, detailed sentences about gov-ernment reform.
“The three years that I’ve spent in City Hall show me that we need a fundamental change in the way we ap-proach our city’s problems,” Yoon said. “We desperately need an approach that focuses on problem-solving and not politics.”
Is it really that politicized in City Hall? “Absolutely,” Yoon said, suggesting that the strong-mayor system creates too much political payback for city councilors who don’t fall in line.
“When you have a mayor who controls all city services, and when you have councilors who depend politically on their ability to assure services to the neighborhoods, it means that our review of the budget has very little leverage,” Yoon said, referring to the City Council’s biggest statutory power. “That simply has to change.”
“We will need to democratize our government,” he said, proposing performance-based budgeting that “demon-strates what we actually accomplish with taxpayers’ dollars.” Menino proposed his version of such a program a short time later.
Asked about transparency and accountability, Yoon said they simply mean that anyone who cares about city is-sues can make an impact on them.
“First, regular people need information and access, and then you need government to not only open the doors but welcome them into the conversation,” Yoon said.
“Right now, our system says, ‘If you’re an insider, you can get things done. If you have friends in City Hall, you can get things done,’” he added.
What about the openness of the City Council, the body Yoon still sits on? It lost the Open Meeting lawsuit, which predated his election, but complaints about transparency continue to be issued by activists.
“We’ll talk more about this [later in the campaign],” Yoon said. “Let me say definitely for now, there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
He suggested some quick fixes, like putting all City Council minutes and city committee membership lists on-line. He even pointed to the council’s chamber, where the audience sits off to one side.
“In every other city with a governing body like ours, the City Council sits behind one long table and has microphones and they face the public, and City Council meetings are scheduled with the public in mind,” Yoon said, adding that the lack of those features in Boston “tells you something.”
Yoon said he agreed with a Gazette observation that many other major city government meetings, such as those of the zoning Board of Appeal and the Boston Landmarks Commission, are often virtually unintelligible due to poor acoustics and other problems.
Yoon said he is aware of the perception that he is too much of a newcomer. “I chose Boston. I chose to live here,” he said. “Boston didn’t choose me.”
He noted that, unlike many young families, his moved from the suburbs to Boston to put their children in Bos-ton Public Schools.
“We chose Dorchester because it’s a vibrant and mixed neighborhood…that will give our children a sense of real community,” Yoon said. “If that doesn’t make me a Bostonian, I don’t know what does.”