Flaherty vows BRA, ISD reform

July 10, 2009
By

John Ruch


Courtesy Photo Michael Flaherty

Claims Latinos left out of city gov’t

City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a candidate for mayor, vowed to reform the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—two of the most locally controversial city agencies—in an interview last month at the Gazette office.

“We’re going to run Boston like a business,” Flaherty said, pledging an efficient, accountable and technologically sophisticated city government.

Flaherty’s wide-ranging, often passionate criticisms of incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino included the claim that “the Latino community does not have a voice in the Menino administration” due to a lack of staff diversity. Menino spokesperson Dot Joyce later called the claim “completely off-base.”

On other Jamaica Plain issues, Flaherty blasted the Boston Police Department (BPD) for leaving JP without a police captain for a year, and said the city’s Main Streets business-boosting program “doesn’t appear to be paying attention” to Egleston Square. Betsy Cowan, director of Egleston Square Main Street, later called on Flaherty to “be positive” about the district.

Flaherty, a South Boston attorney, has been an at-large (citywide) Boston city councilor for a decade, serving as the council’s president for about half that time. He was formerly a prosecutor in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and maintains a private practice as a business and real estate lawyer.

Flaherty’s leadership style as City Council president was sometimes controversial, as when he cut off discussion by local Council-ors Chuck Turner and Felix D. Arroyo of such national issues as the Iraq War. (Flaherty later voted in favor of their anti-war resolution.)

A bigger controversy was a 2005 lawsuit, currently under appeal, that successfully claimed the Flaherty-led City Council violated the state Open Meeting Law 11 times by holding secret meetings. Flaherty, who criticized the lawsuit for years until recently apologizing for the secret meetings, has called the suit a main inspiration for his reform-minded mayoral candidacy.

That includes reform of the BRA—the agency that actually arranged most of the secret City Council meetings, and had its extraordinary urban renewal powers reapproved as a result of them.

Meanwhile, the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit, Kevin McCrea, is also running for mayor. In this week’s interview, Flaherty did not comment on McCrea or the other main mayoral competitor, City Councilor Sam Yoon.
The reformer

Flaherty called himself an “optimist” about Boston as a city with success stories and many outstanding attributes—educational and cultural resources, a walkable scale, a rich history of political activism.

But, he added, under Menino, the political system often stymies residents and would-be investors, and struggles to solve such problems as youth crime, underperforming public schools and “filthy streets.”

“I think the fact is that this [Menino] administration has been able to lower people’s expectations,” Flaherty said of Menino’s 16-year reign. “I think Boston’s stuck in neutral, quite frankly.”

“I’m hearing that it’s time. It’s time for new leadership,” Flaherty said of feedback he has received during his ongoing “Kitchen Table” meetings at residents’ homes—including in JP’s Pondside, Moss Hill and Hyde Square areas.

“People seem interested in a fresh face…A lot of people feel shut out,” Flaherty said. He described an increasing cynicism that lowers civic participation because of the perception that on major city decisions, “The cake is baked. It’s a done deal.”

Flaherty repeated his regular criticism that the city operates largely on back-room deals among Menino and “a select group of his friends.” But, as he did in a previous Gazette interview in February, Flaherty declined to name any of those friends or specific deals on the record.

Secret meetings, back-room deals and behind-the-scenes maneuvers by Menino allies are among the recent resident complaints in local controversies involving two city agencies in particular: the BRA and ISD.

Technically a partly independent city agency, the BRA combines economic development and city planning powers in a way that is un-usual nationwide. Flaherty said he would empower the BRA’s planning division and end what he called the agency’s politicization under Menino.

“The economic development arm feeds the beast…[but] overwhelms planning,” Flaherty said. “The BRA has grown over the years, and they’ve grown in the wrong way.”

He praised the BRA’s economic development work. But, he said, it needs to create a citywide master plan, grassroots neighborhood planning, and a process that prevents developers from leaving sites half-built—like the former Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing and “the biggest hole in New England” at Harvard University’s stalled expansion in Allston.

“We should come out to the community with a blank piece of paper” on planning issues, Flaherty said. “When does that ever happen?”

Flaherty blasted the BRA as the quintessential back-room deal-making agency. He called it a dumping ground for “patronage” jobs and a “political fiefdom, almost…an extension of [Menino’s] office.”

He called for putting all city real estate deal information online and broadcasting all BRA board meetings and zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) meetings on TV and the web.

“I also want the consultants and lawyers who are part of these projects to be identified,” he said. “By shedding light on that, we’ll be able to restore community input in our city. Let the rules apply for everyone.”

Flaherty pledged to fix the longstanding complaint city development-related meetings being announced on such short notice that many residents cannot attend.

“I’m actually going to put the ‘early’ into ‘Early Notification,’” Flaherty said, referring to the city’s meeting-notice mailing system. “I intend to put community input back into meetings.”

As for ISD, Flaherty promised a complaint-tracking system to help residents and weekend hours at the Building Division to help developers and homeowners.

He noted that for a half-decade he has called for the city to adopt CitiStat, a popular computer program that tracks resident complaints and other data across city agencies. As the mayoral race dawned early this year, Menino announced a similar program called Boston About Results. But, Flaherty said, Menino’s program is inferior and releases results only quarterly, as opposed to CitiStat’s biweekly reports.

“This administration has always been reluctant to embrace new technology,” Flaherty said. (Menino banned the use of voicemail in City Hall, touting it as a way to ensure residents get a live person to deal with, though city workers often privately grumble about the policy.) Flaherty’s campaign ads play on comparisons of old and new technology, such as a picture of an old Sony Walkman tape player labeled “Good” and a new Apple iPod digital music player labeled “Better.”

Latino and gay communities

In one of his strongest criticisms of the Menino administration, Flaherty claimed that few members of ethnic or racial minorities—especially Latinos—are represented in the city’s top leadership positions.

“The Latino community does not have a voice in the Menino administration,” Flaherty said after briefly speaking fluent Spanish. “When decisions are made in Boston [on virtually any issue]…I gotta tell you, the Latino community doesn’t have a seat at the table.”

“Unlike this administration, my cabinet will actually look like the face of the city,” said Flaherty, who is of white Irish ethnicity. A slight majority of Boston residents are members of ethnic or racial minorities, according to US Census data.

Flaherty specifically claimed that he knew of only one city department chief who might be Latino, and that no Police Department deputy superintendents are Latino.

“Councilor Flaherty’s remarks are completely off-base,” Menino spokesperson Joyce later told the Gazette. “I have 21 pages of Excel spreadsheets that have Latinos in city government, and that’s not even counting the Boston Public Schools.”

Among them, she said, are two department heads: Daphne Griffin at Boston Centers for Youth & Families, and Barbara Ferrer at the Boston Public Health Commission.

Ferrer, a JP resident of Puerto Rican heritage, told the Gazette there are “other Latino folks in positions of authority and influence in the Menino administration.”

Joyce also cited at least two BPD deputy superintendents and two Boston School Committee members—both JP residents—on her list of Latinos in city government.

Asked whether Menino is generally comfortable with the ethnic diversity of his cabinet and administration, Joyce said, “Yes, absolutely. The mayor wants to have the best people for the job, but [who] also represent the city he is mayor of.”

The Latino community is a significant part of the JP population. So is the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) community.

Flaherty, along with Yoon, drew complaints from GLBT activists earlier this year for marching in South Bos-ton’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, which bans openly GLBT and anti-war marchers. (Menino has long boycotted the parade, as did McCrea this year.) Flaherty previously told the GLBT newspaper Bay Windows that he marched be-cause it is a major parade in his home neighborhood, but noted his longstanding commitment to GLBT advocacy.

“I was the first citywide elected official to support gay marriage” about a decade ago, when Menino was still a support of civil unions instead, Flaherty noted.

“Civil unions—good. Gay marriage—better,” Flaherty said, alluding to his campaign slogan.

An Irish Catholic guy from Southie supporting gay marriage “forced other politicians to do this,” Flaherty said, licking a finger and holding it up, as if checking the political winds. GLBT residents “have a friend and advocate in me,” he said.

Crime and businesses

While crime is low in Boston, youth crime is increasing, Flaherty said, complaining of a lack of police plan-ning on the city and local levels. He particularly pointed to the revolving door of commanders at JP’s E-13 Po-lice Station, which mostly was headed by lower-ranking fill-ins for nearly a year until a new captain took over last month. [See related article.]

“If I was a resident of Jamaica Plain…I would be offended that you had no police commander for, what was it, a year?” Flaherty said, adding that a BPD deputy superintendent could have been put in charge.

He also called for youth jobs as a proactive solution to crime. He previewed his plan, released later last month, for targeting Boston youths with federal stimulus funds intended to create jobs in the renewable en-ergy/energy conservation “green” industry.

“It’s being creative. It’s being thoughtful,” Flaherty said, adding that he suspects Menino would prefer to direct the funds toward favored corporate friends.

Flaherty also spoke about crime in the context of business district improvements—and named JP’s Egleston Square, on the Roxbury border, as a particular trouble spot.

Flaherty noted that such business districts as Roslindale Square have transformed positively in recent years. “But you can go into other neighborhoods like Egleston Square, and the merchant is behind [bulletproof] Plexiglas. It’s like an old-fashioned speakeasy,” Flaherty said.

“In 2009, I find that offensive,” he said, adding that merchants should be able to do business with “no cages, no smash-and-grabs.”

“We have a Main Streets program that doesn’t appear to be paying attention to the local business district” in Egleston Square, Flaherty said.

Besty Cowan, director of the independent, non-profit Egleston Square Main Street program, later told the Ga-zette that her organization is active, holding monthly meetings with its members, city agencies and the E-13 Police. That included recent successfully advocacy for restoring a police walking beat to the area, she said.

“If you talk to merchants who have been here 20, 25 years, they comment on how much it has improved,” Cowan said. “There is work to be done, as there is in any business district, frankly.”

“We need people like Councilor Flaherty and others to support the district and be positive,” she said.