City Councilor and mayoral candidate Sam Yoon pledged to “share the power” as mayor and announced proposals for sweeping changes to city government in an interview earlier this month at the Gazette office.
“I’m not in favor of doing things halfway,” Yoon said. He called for the creation of a city “Department of Neighborhood Associations”; a city budget process that includes extensive community meetings; and the formation of a charter commission to consider fundamental changes to the structure of Boston’s government.
He also pledged to serve no more than two terms as mayor, and proposes making that a legal term limit. Incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino has been in office for 16 years and is running for another four-year term.
When the Gazette jokingly noted that Yoon is essentially proposing to undercut his own power as mayor, Yoon laughed, but quickly replied, “It’s sharing power. ‘Share the power’—that’s the number one rule of organizing. Empower others as opposed to concentrating power on myself.”
Jamaica Plain would be a key neighborhood in his efforts to attract diverse, grassroots input into city government, Yoon said.
“JP is a hotbed of this kind of activism,” he said.
A Harvard-educated former community organizer who defied the pundits to become Boston’s first Asian-American elected official, Yoon often inspires comparisons to President Obama. In fact, it is a comparison Yoon is not shy about making himself.
Recalling the 2005 Boston City Council election—where he won a citywide seat despite competition from old-school white candidates, including two children of former mayors—Yoon said only somewhat jokingly, “Someone named Deval Patrick was watching and said, ‘I can do this.’” Patrick, who surprised pundits and became the state’s first African-American governor in 2006, was in turn being watched by his old Chicago friend Barack Obama, Yoon said.
Yoon has an Obama-style electoral strategy as well, counting on Boston’s increasingly diverse demographics and a wealth of new voters. “There’s clearly a progressive movement in our city,” he said, noting that about 25 percent of the city’s population was born outside of the country. “If [those voters] make a show of force [at the polls], this city will change overnight.”
“JP easily rivals South Boston and West Roxbury,” the city’s traditional bases of voting power, in the new demographic order, he said.
“I’m an immigrant,” Yoon said, referring to his parents bringing him to the US from Korea at the age of 10 months. But to some critics, Yoon is an immigrant in terms of moving to Dorchester from suburban Arlington only about six years ago. Yoon previously has dismissed claims that he doesn’t know the city well enough to run it.
His Ivy League education included Princeton and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has worked for various non-profits as a community organizer and affordable housing developer. He also worked at Abt Associates, a consulting firm specializing in technical assistance for government programs.
“I graduated from the Kennedy School of Government very cynical about government. I felt that all lasting, fundamental change has to happen with the grassroots level, from the bottom up,” Yoon said, adding that his work as housing director at Chinatown’s Asian Community Development Corporation expanded his viewpoint. “What I realized is, government is too powerful. You can’t ignore it.”
“Our city’s not going to hell in a handbasket. But clearly, we’re not moving forward in the way we should be,” Yoon said.
The solution, he said, is increased “transparency and accountability” in government—the same buzzwords used by Menino’s other rivals in the race, Michael Flaherty and Kevin McCrea. But his proposals are perhaps the most wide-ranging, calling for direct citizen input into the city’s budget and its very form of government.
Yoon’s transparency proposals include specific reform of two city agencies that have drawn recent controversy in JP: the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Inspectional Services Department (ISD).
“If I’m lucky enough to be mayor, my first year will be spent cleaning up, cleaning up systems like this,” Yoon said.
The biggest step would be forming a charter commission to review Boston’s form of government—a process that would include extensive community meetings. Yoon said his own proposals in that process would be ending Boston’s so-called strong mayor system by giving much more power to the City Council, and establishing a budget-writing process that involves heads of city departments holding community meetings to gather ideas.
“Other cities do this all the time. Cleveland is doing it right now,” Yoon said of the charter commission review. Even the town of Saugus on the North Shore just wrapped up a charter commission review—specifically out of concerns about governmental “accountability and transparency,” according to the town’s web site.
“It’s like self-reflection,” Yoon said of the process. “We’re so proud of our history. We have plenty of stories about James Michael Curley. But we don’t have conversations about our [political] culture,” he said, referring to the famously popular and infamously corrupt Boston mayor of the 1900s, who lived in JP.
Strong neighborhoods with unique personalities are a prime feature of Boston. But, Yoon said, they can be obstacles to citywide discussion of issues that should cross neighborhood and ethnic boundaries. Menino, a Hyde Park resident, is famous for his attention to and intimate knowledge of Boston’s neighborhoods—but he does so to a parochial fault, Yoon said.
Yoon recalled Menino’s infamous reaction to last year’s Boston Civic Summit, a citywide neighborhood association gathering organized by City Councilor Maureen Feeney (though Yoon takes credit for the idea). Menino told the Boston Globe at the time that the summit was a bad idea because it might unrealistically raise expec-tations of the services city government can deliver, which is “the worst thing you can do in government.” Menino ended up speaking at the summit, but the Globe criticized his comments in an editorial.
“This is one of the times I thought, ‘I really need to run for mayor,’” Yoon said, calling Menino’s com-ments “just unbelievable.”
Yoon said he would create a city Department of Neighborhood Associations to take information directly from such groups, encourage their formation—and possibly even fund them.
JP, which has a wealth of neighborhood associations and a diverse population, would be a key neighborhood in that coalition-building, Yoon said. He would also look to JP for specific policy ideas, he said.
“JP…is going to be the neighborhood that leads the conversation about environmental concerns and the green economy,” Yoon said. “A lot of great thinking about public transit and urban street design comes out of JP, too.”
BRA, ISD reform
The BRA, a quasi-independent development and planning agency, and ISD, the city’s health and building in-spection agency, have been the subjects of major local controversies involving secret meetings, unexplained decisions and apparent behind-the-scenes deal-making.
“The BRA is probably the least-trusted government agency in the city,” Yoon said, adding that is for “good reason.” As a quasi-independent authority, the BRA is both “insulated from accountability” and overseen by a “political board completely controlled by the mayor,” Yoon said.
Yoon said he has had his own problems getting simple, “common-sense” information from the BRA, such as an inventory of property it owns, or the status of development trust funds it oversees. The only answer he ever gets, he said, is, “‘We have to research that.’”
“And you know what? I kind of believe it, because they have no method of dispersing that information to the public,” Yoon said. “A lot of what we perceive as unwillingness to share information is actually embarrassment that the information is not available” even to the BRA itself, he said. That is because the BRA operates on back-room deal-making that often is made up on the spot and never written down in the first place, he said.
Yoon proposes replacing the BRA with a city Department of Community Development and Planning. It would be essentially the same agency, except with a structural focus on planning rather than development. It also would no longer be independent, instead functioning as a city department completely accountable to city officials and the public.
McCrea has called Yoon an untrustworthy hypocrite for engaging in his own back-room deal with the BRA on the Winthrop Square garage. Menino wants to see a giant skyscraper built on that downtown property, and con-veyed it for free to the BRA to make the project happen, though plans are now stalled. Yoon struck a deal with the BRA for some funds from the development to go to the Boston Housing Authority (BHA).
While Yoon acknowledged the basic facts of the deal to the Gazette, he said McCrea’s claim of a back-room deal is a misunderstanding.
“It’s exactly one of those situations where I’m just raising common-sense questions,” Yoon said. He said he asked the BRA to report publicly what the property is worth and “what the BRA is going to give back” in return for the huge development fee it would collect from the project.
Yoon said those questions got him his first, and so far only, office visit from major Mayor’s Office and BRA officials—a show of force that made it clear that asking such questions is a “big no-no.”
The officials offered to soothe his concerns by giving money to the BHA, the city’s public housing agency, he said. “I said, ‘Great. Let’s memorialize this on paper.’ They said, ‘Give us some time to work out the de-tails.’”
In the meantime, Yoon said, he wrote a memo about the conversation and gave it to his fellow city council-ors to make sure the deal was widely known. The memo leaked to newspapers and led to the misinterpretation that he was arranging a secret deal, when in fact he was trying to publicize one, Yoon said.
“This is the complete irony of McCrea’s [story],” Yoon said. “He only sees half the story and then makes up other things.”
Yoon added that he never did get an answer to his question about the property’s value, though his own edu-cated guess is that development rights are worth around $200 million. “That’s about 10 percent of the city’s budget,” he noted.
As for ISD, Yoon has seen one of its big local controversies first-hand. He attended the City Council hear-ing about the Bicon building in Forest Hills, a large project that went forward with many still-unexplained ISD approvals.
“That is an agency about which I get a lot of negative feedback,” Yoon said of ISD, including that it is “political and arbitrary.”
“The solution to that is transparency, transparency, transparency,” he said.
He noted that much of ISD’s work involves the formulaic enforcement of regulations, which should be easy to track in an easy-to-use online database.
Too often, he said, officials now tell residents, “‘The info is here. We just can’t find it for you.’ There has to be a searchable database…Otherwise, it’s not really transparency in this day and age. If you’re even perceived as withholding information, trust goes down.”
This technological approach ties into Yoon’s larger plans for “performance-based management” software that would combine complaints, employee efficiency data and similar information from all city departments into a single report. Such systems let governments easily spot successes and failures, and change the delivery of services and programs in response.
Yoon noted that performance-based management has been a trend in municipal government nationwide for at least a decade, but had yet to be fully instituted here. The Menino administration does have a management system, known as Boston About Results, but Yoon and Flaherty have criticized it as clunky and slow, espe-cially as it issues reports only quarterly.
Yoon said Menino seems to be ignoring the latest performance-based management trends reported regularly in the municipal-government speciality magazine Governing.
Yoon is right about the coverage, but not necessarily in the way he expected. On the day of the Gazette interview, Governing’s web site featured an article about performance-based management systems—one that praised Boston About Results as a “great example.”