Mayoral candidates make JP pitches

August 14, 2009
By

John Ruch

No one would mistake any of the four mayoral candidates for conservatives. But the new liberal political group Jamaica Plain Progressives still found many differences among them in their separate appearances at three recent local forums.

Challengers Michael Flaherty, Kevin McCrea and Sam Yoon all presented themselves as progressive-style reformers, while incumbent Thomas Menino pitched himself as so progressive that no reform is necessary.

But Menino also brushed aside one of JP Progressives’ key concerns, government transparency, at one point telling the audience, “People say the budget’s not transparent. Well, if it’s not transparent, why don’t you do something about it?”

The first forum was held July 29 at Doyle’s Café, and the others Aug. 3 and 6 at the Nate Smith House. The group had the candidates fill out a detailed questionnaire—posted at www.JPProgressives.com—and grilled them about their answers at the forum.

Flaherty

Flaherty, a current city councilor, appeared at the Doyle’s forum, which was probably the first candidate forum in modern times to feature beer-sipping moderators.

“This is like the Kitchen Table conversations. I feel right at home,” he said, perching on a tabletop, referring to his ongoing series of private meetings with residents in their homes to gather input.

He spoke passionately against several Menino initiatives, including a proposed tax increase on restaurant meals.

“I equate this meals tax [with] literally dropping an anvil on some businesses,” he said. “This administration wants to tax before manag[ing].”

He called for any such tax to be directed to lowering the property tax burden, and for quick reform of payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) made by colleges and other big non-profits.

Flaherty, who supports lifting the cap on charter school enrollments in the city, said he is open to virtually any type of schooling in Boston as long as it produces “quality education” for everyone. That would draw “hugs and high-fives,” he said. Menino recently adopted Fla-herty’s stand on lifting charter school caps.

Asked about concerns that charter schools do not accept special education students, Flaherty said he would use political leverage and good relationships to make sure charters are diverse. He said he has already discussed the issue with some charter schools, including the MATCH School, which has a school in JP. “I think they get it,” he said.

Working collaboratively is a major theme for Flaherty, who criticizes Menino as a combative loner.

“We need a leader who will humble himself” and ask for help, Flaherty said. Citing a state offer to provide more State Police in Boston that the city rejected, Flaherty said the mayor should never say, “‘We don’t need no stinkin’ state troopers.’ You say, ‘Thank you.’”

On a JP issue, Flaherty criticized conditions at the local Agassiz Elementary School, where there are fears of mold contamination. “How outrageous is that?” Flaherty asked, calling it a “major public health issue.”

He said his proposal to bring the CitiStat performance management software to Boston government could help prioritize such capital repair projects, adding that it is unclear how they are prioritized now due to lack of transparency.

On the topic of transparency, the moderators asked most of the candidates specifically about the controversial Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), a quasi-independent agency that controls planning and economic development. In his questionnaire, Flaherty proposed replacing it with two new, separate city agencies to increase “accountability” in development.

That is a different position than he expressed to the Gazette and other media earlier in the campaign, when he called for keeping the BRA but reforming it and making its activity more open.

McCrea

“In a nutshell, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” said McCrea by way of introduction. He called himself “the most progressive [candidate] in the field.”

McCrea once successfully sued the City Council for violating the state Open Meeting Law largely in private meetings with BRA officials. McCrea said he would eliminate the “extremely anti-democratic” BRA and replace it with a city planning and zoning department.

McCrea opposed the expansion of charter schools as continuing a class-system hierarchy in quality of education. “Charter schools are an-other way for connected parents to get their choice of schools and leave the rest [of the students] behind,” he said.

He pledged to never cut the Boston Public Schools budget, and to visit every school at least once every two years. He also said he would start a four-year public process to end busing and create equally good public schools in all neighborhoods, adding he intends to ask Gov. Patrick to be the honorary chair of a review commission.

McCrea proposed selling off city-owned land for development into affordable housing, preferably aimed at people earning 40 to 60 percent of the area median income. A real estate developer, McCrea said he has been able to make 20 percent of the units in one project affordable voluntarily, suggesting most private developers can do the same or better. He also called for reforming a BRA system that lets developers buy out of creating such an affordable housing component.

While most candidates take the economic crisis as a given, McCrea claims that it actually does not exist at the city level. Instead, he said, Menino has created a fake crisis so he can manipulate unions and residents with scare tactics.

“The city is actually sitting on more money than it ever has in the past,” McCrea said. “We are not facing an immediate fiscal crisis.”

He said he opposes the meals tax and other so-called local-option taxes, preferring a state gas tax instead, which recently failed at the State House.

Menino

Menino, whose 16 years in office make him the city’s longest-serving mayor ever, came to the forum by himself, speaking afterwards with the Gazette and others without any of his usual handlers.

He introduced himself as a crusader for once-unpopular causes such as needle exchange programs, same-sex marriage and affordable housing construction when others “didn’t have the guts to stand up and say it’s the right thing to do.”

Menino also cast himself as an experienced, collaborative leader: “It’s not about ‘I.’ It’s all about you.”

“You’re not going to hear me, Mayor Menino, talk about a negative Boston,” he said, criticizing his critics.

He particularly defended the BRA, which has been controversially locally since a community advisory committee it formed—and which Menino appointed—banned the Gazette from its meetings earlier this year.

“The BRA’s always the stalking horse for bad press,” he said, dismissing criticisms that the agency is unaccountable. “As long as I’ve been mayor in the city, no development has gone through in the city without community input.”

“People don’t like change, so who do they go after? The BRA,” Menino said, dismissing its critics around the city as disgruntled malcon-tents. “There are certain people who say it doesn’t work because they don’t get their own way. I don’t get my own way with the BRA.”

Raising the issue of inaccessible BRA meetings, Menino noted that the BRA recently moved its board meetings to the evening to be more convenient for residents. “Nobody shows up at nighttime, either,” he said, in an I-told-you-so manner.

Menino has proposed not only maintaining the BRA, but also adding the city’s Boston Transportation Department into its portfolio. “I don’t know how you do it,” he said of separating its planning function into a different agency.

“I think transparency is an issue we’ve always been on the forefront on,” he said, citing such examples as the Boston About Results per-formance management software that monitors city departments.

Menino used a discussion of the city budget process to highlight his enthusiasm for nose-to-the-grindstone work, a point he elaborated later to the Gazette. He recounted to the Gazette some tales of his days as chair of the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee, when he held 10-hour budget-planning meetings. They included creating a “D.O.A.—Dead On Arrival” stamp to mark a mayoral proposal he didn’t like, and a time he ruled a man out of order for eating a sandwich during one of Menino’s favored marathon meetings before realizing the man was diabetic.

Menino spent much of the time talking about “the toughest issue of all,” affordable housing. But he had few answers, suggesting the federal and state governments have to figure it out.

He noted his “Leading the Way” housing development initiatives have resulted in about 18,000 new units. “That’s like creating a whole new Jamaica Plain,” he said. But the market is killing new unit construction now.

Menino mentioned some large local developments that are at least partly stalled. “How do you get Jackson Square going?” he asked without answering himself. “Blessed Sacrament has been there since God knows when…Those are projects we need to work on.”

He noted that Boston has a foreclosure prevention and foreclosed property reclamation plan that is becoming a national model. He also cited the local JP Cohousing communal condominium development as possible model for the city.

Menino, who travels primarily in a black SUV, is a recent convert to one of JP’s favorite activities, bicycling. He told the Gazette that his early-morning rides around his Hyde Park neighborhood are “fabulous” and that he wishes he started riding earlier in life.

“This whole biking thing, I can’t believe how big it’s gotten,” Menino said. He made it a bit bigger last week by announcing a city bike-sharing program, though he told the Gazette he believes no JP location is planned in the first stage.

Yoon

Yoon, a current city councilor, embraced the term “progressive” and was comfortable with the crowd. He pounded the moderator’s table with a fist to quiet the crowd before his session, casually joking, “Willing to gavel—leadership qualities.”

“To be a progressive…is more than knowing the right thing. It’s seeing the right things get done,” Yoon said, suggesting that getting him elected is the best start.

On the topic of affordable housing, Yoon was asked specifically about the future redevelopment of MBTA land at Forest Hills and the con-troversial community vision statement calling for 50 percent of housing there to be affordable.

“Yes, I do support bringing the affordability of that development to 50 percent,” Yoon said.

Like McCrea, Yoon has a background in development. Also like McCrea, Yoon says the buyout system that lets developers avoid creating affordable units in their projects needs reform. “It’s a steal,” he said of the cash buyout costs.

Yoon blasted the BRA as a “dinosaur of a system we absolutely have to fix.” He has proposed turning it into a fully city-based Department of Community Development and Planning, with its focus shifted to planning.

Currently, Yoon said, the BRA uses community process as little more than a “seal of approval” on plans al-ready worked out behind the scenes. “It’s a divide-and-conquer politics that is really pervasive throughout city government,” he said, drawing applause.

But Yoon agrees with Menino’s positions on some other issues, including the local-option taxes—which he sup-ports “reluctantly”—and on lifting the charter school cap.

Asked about concerns that charter schools “cherry-pick” the public schools students who do the best on test scores, Yoon said, “That’s the entire point, that [charter schools] be different.”

He said some feel they have innovative ways to teach special-education or English-language learner (ELL) stu-dents, and should be allowed to try. “Let them teach ELL students by mainstreaming them” if they think it’s best, Yoon said of charter schools.

The issue, he said, is how different and how exclusionary charter schools are allowed to be. And in any case, there should be more ELL programs and more bilingual schools like Egleston Square’s Hernandez School in the Bos-ton Public Schools (BPS) system, he said.

Yoon went so far as to characterize charters-versus-BPS as beyond discussion. “We can’t afford that debate,” he said, calling it a “zero-sum” waste of physical and political resources that “we need to move [beyond] as progressives.” Instead, he said, the focus must be on quality local schools, no matter what kind.

Yoon, himself a talented jazz pianist, announced a proposal to create a cabinet-level commissioner of arts and culture position in his administration. He said he also would aim to create more affordable housing specifi-cally for artists and to ease the permitting process for public art performances.

The art discussion earned him the only softball question of the forums, when Yoon supporter Kosta Demos tossed him a jazz question: “Min-gus or Monk?”

“That’s a tough one. I’m going to have to go with Monk,” Yoon said, choosing the jazz pianist over the jazz bassist.

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