Menino: It’s about people, not computers

September 11, 2009
By

John Ruch


Gazette Photo by Gloria Carrigg
FESTIVE START—Mayor Thomas Menino cuts the ribbon at the Puerto Rican Festival kick off on July 26 at the start of the parade at Madison Park High School. Hundreds of people participated

Mayor Thomas Menino is facing the toughest re-election campaign of his 16 years in office, with three challengers saying he essentially runs Boston as a back-room dictatorship and calling for a high-tech reorganization of city government.

But those opponents—Michael Flaherty, Kevin McCrea and Sam Yoon—are would-be technocrats out of touch with the people of the city, Menino suggested in an interview last week at the Gazette office.

“People elect you for what you believe in,” Menino said, referring specifically to his longtime support for gay rights. “They don’t want a computer up there. They want somebody who will stand up and say what [their] ideals are.”

Menino’s populist touch was evident in his unparalleled level of off-the-cuff knowledge about Jamaica Plain, from details of decade-old legal agreements about Forest Hills’ Arborway Yard to his longing for cornbread French toast at Sorella’s restaurant in Hyde Square.

Spending 90 minutes chatting in one of the city’s neighborhoods, Menino was clearly in his element. Picking up a bottle of water that had been damaged so that the cap was bent to one side, Menino joked, “It’s leaning to the left. It’s Jamaica Plain water.”

But in emphasizing the importance of one-on-one contact, Menino was dismissive of concerns about government transparency raised by his opponents and most of this year’s City Council candidates—even when the secrecy issues were indisputable ones encountered by the Gazette itself.

When asked about a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)-convened group kicking a Gazette reporter out of public meetings earlier this year, Menino at first joked, “You should be kicked out.” And, he asserted, “My transparency…is being out there in the neighborhood talking to people.”

On payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) paid by large non-profit institutions—a system that a Gazette investigation last year discovered to be based on undocumented mystery deals with bargain-rate payments—Menino acknowledged that many of the deals are “questionable,” but said he has no idea how they are negotiated, even after years of controversy about them. After longstanding pressure from city councilors, Menino organized a task force that is currently working on rationalizing the PILOT system.

Asked about his opponents in the race, Menino said only, “I have to think about myself first,” and how he has to get out and talk with residents. As for running against the largest field ever to challenge him, Menino said, “You know something? [It’s] part of the job.”
Fifth—or sixth—term?

Menino is a Hyde Park native who attended high school in JP at the former St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church school. In 1984, he became a Boston city councilor and began establishing a record of achievements that included creating, along with wife Angela, Boston’s community centers program over the objections of then Mayor Raymond Flynn.

In 1993, Menino, then the City Council president, became acting mayor when Flynn resigned to take an ambassadorship. A few months later, Menino won election to the Mayor’s Office. He has held it ever since, either running unopposed or tacking up landslide victories over his opponents, the most recent of whom was JP resident Maura Hennigan in 2005.

Menino is now the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history and is running for an unprecedent fifth term. Asked by the Gazette, about running yet again four years from now, he did not rule it out.

“I don’t make that decision. The public makes that decision,” Menino said, adding that input from his wife and allies is important, too. “It’s not about ego for me.”

“Somebody said to me in December, ‘Why not just walk away from it? You’re doing a pretty good job and you’re going to face hard times,’” Menino recalled. He decided to run again, he said, because, “There are too many things that affect people. I go back to the word ‘people’…The priority has to be the people.”

His typical workday is still about 17 hours long. “How can I do that? I love my job,” he said, quickly adding that it is actually a “commitment,” not a job. “I enjoy being at a public housing development on a Saturday. I love all that,” he said.

He also spoke of a self-improvement urge that is reflected in his “Moving Boston Forward” campaign slogan. “We can always do better,” he said in comments about arts programming that became a general political statement. “You can never be satisfied. Once you’re satisfied with what you’re doing, you leave.”

He added jokingly, “I haven’t worn myself out. I might have worn my staff out.”

When asked about his vision for the next four years, Menino mostly reeled off an extensive list of city programs he would like to continue, without specifying how they might work better. But then, Menino does not pretend to be a political visionary.

“I’m a pragmatic politician. I do what I think is right,” he said.

That’s not to say he lacks imagination. Menino told the Gazette that one of his new interests is the Harbor Islands. “No one ever thinks of that,” he said, adding he has no specific proposal in mind yet. “I think it’s a great opportunity out there. One of them should be an economic engine.”

Most of all, Menino is interested in Boston’s neighborhoods, which has famously lavished attention on. “Strong neighborhoods make strong cities,” he said. “Downtown is the economic engine. Neighborhoods are the energy.”

Like just about every candidate in the race, Menino paid tribute to JP’s “diversity.” Unlike most of them, he then spoke about JP issues large and small in detail, often asking for more information about them:

The Milky Way Lounge’s recent move out of its original Hyde Square location: “It doesn’t make any sense.” The proposal to bring a Domino’s Pizza franchise to Centre Street: “I’d rather see locally owned [businesses]. We have Same Old Place. What’s wrong with their pizza?” The long-delayed redevelopment of the Arborway Yard bus facility: “The issue that frustrates me so much is the MBTA yards…Let’s get it done.”

Menino’s opponents say this neighborhood touch has come at the expense of a poorly-run City Hall, lacking written records and running on clunky homegrown versions of high-tech management programs like 311 and CitiStat. Flaherty ran an ad campaign likening Menino to outdated technology and himself to Apple’s new iPhone and iPod devices. (Flaherty does not use an iPhone himself.)

Menino clearly has been stung by such criticisms. During the Gazette interview, he had a spokesperson fetch his new iPhone from his jacket. He held up the cutting-edge cell phone, which is custom-designed with the logo for Citizens Connect, the city’s new program that lets iPhone users take photos of neighborhood problems like potholes and e-mail them in for fix-ups.

But after briefly brandishing the iPhone and praising the city’s management programs, Menino laid the device aside, saying that to him, the race is not about “transparency and technology and all of this.”

It is about people and giving them “hope,” he said. “You give people a little pride in what they’re doing, a little tap on the back to say thank you—that’s what it’s all about.”
BRA and PILOT

But government transparency indeed is a huge issue in the race, and in JP. Over the past two years, the Gazette has repeatedly found a lack of records and unexplained, behind-the-scenes decisions made by several key city agencies, including the BRA, the Inspectional Services Department and the Assessing Department.

Most recently, a citizens advisory committee (CAC) convened by the BRA and appointed by Menino to review the $200 million redevelopment of Jackson Square kicked the Gazette and all other media out of its meetings for three months this year. Similar BRA CACs have been controversial citywide for secret meetings for years, including a pending lawsuit about one in Brighton.

Asked about the Gazette’s experience, Menino at first joked about it, then downplayed concerns about the BRA, even suggesting that the BRA is the victim of disgruntled residents.

He said that out of hundreds of BRA meetings every year, “We have maybe two complaints about meetings.” He blamed secret meetings on “maybe an overzealous [BRA] project manager…It’s not coming from me or [BRA Director] John Palmieri.”

He added that City Hall does not dictate the outcomes of BRA processes, and that the local residents on the CAC always ensure community input. “We don’t come from City Hall and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to get,’” he said.

“When we hear complaints [about secrecy], I take those very seriously,” Menino said. But, he quickly added, most BRA criticism is from people who just don’t like “change,” or are “professional meeting-goers” who like to be disruptive. At the same time, he allowed, “The problem you have a lot of times is communication.”

“The BRA’s always been the scapegoat,” he said. At one point, he even spoke cynically about public perception, saying that someone inevitably will not like the future redevelopment of JP’s Forest Hills T Station-area parcels. “You know what’s going to happen someday [there] is, they’ll blame the BRA,” he said.

Menino brought up a recent Gazette report about the hiring of Brian Golden, a former Democratic state representative who campaigned for President George W. Bush, as the BRA’s executive secretary.

“His political philosophy won’t have any impact on the Boston Redevelopment Authority, as long as I’m around,” Menino said of Golden, who is also a military lawyer. “He’s got good judgment. He’s smart. He knows systems.”

Acknowledging concerns about BRA “accountability” and how “you guys always complain about how you can’t get info,” Menino said of Golden, “He’ll be good at it.” The executive secretary’s job includes handling public record requests.

PILOTs—a crucial issue in a city reliant on property taxes, but with more than half its land taken by non-profit institutions—is another source of behind-the-scenes mystery. The Gazette last year found that PILOT contract files at City Hall are incomplete, and none explain how the payments are calculated.

“We have probably one of the best PILOT systems in the country,” Menino said. But when the Gazette noted that the system seems to be unequal in how it levies PILOTs on different institutions, he acknowledged, “It is…What we are doing is sometimes questionable.”

While noting that some PILOT agreements predate his time as mayor, Menino said the buck stops with him. “I’m there. I take the responsibility.”

But does he know how the current PILOT agreements are calculated? “No. I’m not in the negotiating room.” He said Ronald Rakow, the Assessing Department commissioner, cuts the deals. Menino said he tells Rakow to meet with the institutions and “get a deal done.”

Rakow previously told the Gazette that the deal-making involves a guess about what the institutional property is worth, and a rule-of-thumb request of 25 percent of its assessable value. But the city for years did not assess any values. Just recently, under strong political pressure, Menino convened a PILOT task force, and the Assessing Department evaluated all large non-profit property. It turns out that none of the PILOT agreements comes close to 25 percent of the assessed value. The average is around 4 percent.
Schools and other issues

Menino has been endorsed by an array of affordable housing developers, but warns that the slowed economy makes it tough to build. He proposed one new idea: giving away city land for free for the development of two-family homes or similar dwellings.

For Boston Public Schools (BPS), Menino is proposing a longer school day and has already begun integration of schools with libraries, day care facilities and community centers. “We have to revolutionize what they’re doing in education,” he said.

He surprised many observers this year by supporting more charter schools after longtime opposition. Menino emphasized he is proposing “in-district” charter schools controlled by BPS. “I don’t want more schools. I want more quality schools,” he said.

He already had a version of in-district charters in the form of so-called pilot schools, but those require too much union negotiating, he said.

Menino is a recent convert to another issue near to JP’s heart: bicycling. He gets up at 4:30 every morning for a ride around his neighborhood.

“I got interested in the issue just because I knew we were doing a lousy job,” said Menino, who normally travels in a black SUV, crediting his bike-commuting policy director Michael Kineavy with introducing him to bicycling. He pledged more bicycle lanes and touted the recently announced bike-share program.

“I’ll tell you, bikers are taking over the world,” he said. “It’s great for everyone.”

Menino was an early and vocal supporter of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) rights, another key issue for JP, which was home to the leading couples who secured the nation’s first same-sex marriage rights in 2004.

“The gay issue, to me, it’s a non-issue. The same-sex marriage issue, that was never a problem for me, either,” said Menino, saying conservative critics seize on such themes “because they have nothing else to talk about—that and immigration.”

Asked why GLBT rights were never an issue for someone who grew up Catholic in a different Bostonian era, Menino simply said, “That’s who I am.”

He recalled with pleasure that a journalist once told him, “‘You’re not liberal or conservative. You’re just you.’”