Boston City Council comes to JP

May 29, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

First-ever meeting outside City Hall

STONYBROOK—The English High School auditorium became the Boston City Council chamber for a night on May 20, as the council held its first-ever meeting outside of City Hall.

The “City Council on the road” event is the brainchild of council president Mike Ross, who represents part of Hyde Square. It was unclear exactly why Jamaica Plain was chosen for the first of three such out-in-the-neighborhood council meetings this year. But at least one fringe benefit was obvious.

“I think it’s wonderful you’ve chosen Jamaica Plain, and I think it’s even more wonderful you’re taking us to Doyle’s afterward,” local Councilor John Tobin told Ross during the meeting, referring to the politically wired local watering hole.

The council meeting kicked off with a prayer from Rev. Terry Burke of First Church in Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist, and addressed several issues of local interest—most notably, a possible redrawing of the city’s electoral precincts.

It also had its opening-night kinks—including official notice that went out only two days beforehand. About two-dozen residents showed up, and some of them complained in an opening “town hall” forum segment about the lack of notice.

The event started about 30 minutes late and suffered a broken microphone that left Councilor Michael Flaherty’s praise of civic engagement inaudible to most of the attendees.

But the event largely lived up to its billing as what Tobin called a “behind-the-scenes look” at a major government body whose regular meetings—normally held at noon on Wednesdays—are difficult for most people to attend.

Flaherty, who is also a mayoral candidate, praised the meeting’s openness and accessibility.

“We don’t work for one another. We work for you,” he told the audience.

Councilor Sam Yoon, another mayoral candidate, said the English High auditorium was superior to the City Council’s official chamber. Councilors sat a V-shaped arrangement of tables, facing the audience, with Ross at a podium in the middle.

“This is modern government,” Yoon said. “This is what it should be about.”

All the councilors except for Steve Murphy were in attendance, and the audience witnessed their serious and usually collegial discussion of dozens of city issues.

The audience observed lighter moments as well, such as Tobin and Egleston Square-area Councilor Chuck Turner sharing a laugh, and Tobin getting caught with a mouthful of cookie when he was supposed to speak.

The meeting, which Ross called an “interesting experiment,” had something of a theatrical atmosphere. “It’s OK to applaud,” Ross assured the audience during the town hall segment. He also warned the crowd that the official council meeting’s agenda would include some “not very, very interesting” items, along with some good ones.

Residents and activists used the town hall portion to talk about issues small and large. The crummy condition of the Heath Street rotary was one complaint; Ross and Tobin’s lack of opposition to Boston University’s proposed biolab was another. JP resident Sarah Freeman called for the preservation of the Boston Park Rangers’ and Boston Police’s horse units. [See related article.]

As the official council meeting began, Rev. Burke praised JP’s diversity, asked for the council to be blessed with leadership and prayed for youth jobs and violence prevention programs.

“We pray for a summer without children killing children,” he said.

The council then got down to business. A significant topic of discussion was the city’s voting precincts—the smallest units of voting districts—which have not been redrawn in more than 90 years, causing voter-access problems and oddities in Boston City Council districts, according to Ross and Tobin.

All Boston residents live in a precinct and are assigned to a polling place based on it. All precincts are supposed to be roughly equal in population, but the lack of updates in nearly a century has made them significantly different, Ross and Tobin said.

As a result, they said, some precincts have far too many voters for the polling place to handle, while others have too few. Long lines can deter people from voting. In one recent voting scandal, several polls in JP and other neighborhoods ran out of ballots, disenfranchising an unknown number of voters. In addition, the odd district lines that put some of Tobin’s JP council area in Mission Hill, and vice versa with Ross’s Mission Hill council area, may relate to the ancient precincts.

Some other councilors agreed the precincts are a significant issue. A council committee may form to examine them, Tobin told the Gazette.

The city’s press office could not immediately confirm the age of the existing precincts or whether there has been any move to update them.

Other council business included approving Turner’s resolutions offering moral support for state foreclosure-prevention legislation. They include a call for a moratorium on foreclosures and a foreclosure mediation program.

A proposal by Tobin to make the appealing of city “green tickets” easier was approved for a committee hearing. The tickets, given by city inspectors for various code violations, now must be appealed to housing court. Tobin wants them to be appealed to a City Hall hearing officer, much like traffic tickets.

The proposal comes out of a local controversy over the city suddenly citing residents for illegal driveways that went unnoticed for decades.

Tobin also earned council backing for state voting-reform legislation that includes voter pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Cit-ing that and other proposals, such as city terms limits, Yoon praised Tobin for his “focus on kind of the mechanics of government and elections.”

Yoon’s praise was so lengthy it drew the first-ever “on the road” version of the council’s overtime-speaking buzzer.

The council was interested in a joint proposal by Flaherty and Turner for better monitoring of air quality in public school buildings. Part of the reason, they and Tobin said, is renewed complaints from some teachers at the local Agassiz Elementary, which has a long history of mold complaints.

“We are holding the City Council hearing in Boston’s newest high school building,” noted Councilor Charles Yancey, commenting on the aging school facilities. English High was last rehabbed in 1979.

Yancey mentioned that he is still awaiting a committee hearing on another local issue—the city’s unannounced approval of dozens of cell phone antennas that were installed on local streets last year. That move was highly controversial when the Gazette first revealed it.

In a proposal that could enliven JP’s sidewalks, Ross proposed allowing restaurants to offer outdoor café seating anytime there is nice weather. Current rules ban the seating in the fall. The council approved the idea for a committee hearing.

Councilor Bill Linehan’s ongoing attempts to toughen dog-control laws and create special dog runs in some parks was approved for a commit-tee hearing. The issue is obviously significant in JP, where off-leash dogs frequently swarm major parks such as Arnold Arboretum.

“This is a very serious issue,” said Councilor Maureen Feeney. “So many of our parks now have parents who won’t even take their children to the park to play because dogs are running around.”

Turner proposed a hearing about the Boston Housing Authority’s (BHA) inventory of properties needing repairs and the long-term plan for fixing them. He acknowledged that the estimated $1 billion maintenance backlog in public housing is so extreme, the issue is almost academic.

But, he said, there has been controversy over certain developments getting federal stimulus funds. The council has an ongoing interest in closer supervision of stimulus fund expenditures in various city agencies.

While several other city issues were discussed, the meeting did not include any “late files”—last-minute proposals that have been contro-versial in previous meetings for quick, hard-to-understand approvals.

The City Council will be headed back to JP soon. Its new Special Committee on a Livable Boston, chaired by Councilor John Connolly, will hold the first in a series of community meetings on June 3 at Curtis Hall. [See JP Agenda.]