Menino blasted for skipping JP forum

September 18, 2009
By

John Ruch

Challengers try to stand out

Web Exclusive

Incumbent Thomas Menino was blasted by his three challengers for skipping a Sept. 17 mayoral candidates forum at Jamaica Plain’s English High School.

“The elephant not in the room here is Tom Menino,” said candidate Kevin McCrea, who then stood up and brandished his own empty folding chair to symbolize the mayor’s absence.

But for all their complaints, the challengers—City Councilors Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon and real estate developer McCrea—also seized the opportunity to emphasize some distinctions among them on such issues as charter schools and city planning. JP issues came up several times, and McCrea set the other challengers on the defensive with some transparency charges of his own.

Menino had remained noncommittal about attending the forum, organized by MassVOTE, which drew a full house at English High’s auditorium. But when his absence was announced, much of the crowed erupted into hisses and boos.

This reporter ended up sitting next to Carlos Arredondo, the Roslindale resident who became a nationally known anti-war protestor after his son Alexander, a JP native, was killed while serving in the Iraq War. Arredondo brought a pad and paper to take notes so that he and his wife could discuss in depth which candidate to vote for.

“No Menino?!” Arredondo exclaimed when the mayor’s absence was announced. “That’s the whole idea!” he said of having the full slate of candidates present.

Menino spokesperson Nick Martin said the mayor was already committed to other events at the time of the forum: a replica Vietnam war memorial display in West Roxbury; a Bay Village block party; and novelist Jay Hurley’s appearance in Hyde Park at an event for the children literacy program ReadBoston. Hurley, whose new novel is called “Irony,” is also a member of the Boston Zoning Commission, sits on the board of the state’s MassDevelopment agency and serves as a vice president of the Iron Workers International Union, according to his publisher’s web site.

Martin noted that Menino has appeared at several forums with the challengers, including a previous MassVOTE event in Roxbury. Menino also appeared by himself last month at another JP forum.

In an e-mail to the Gazette, Martin noted Menino’s frequent appearances at neighborhood events, and said: “It’s not enough for the other candidates to criticize him for not being able to attend each and every forum. I don’t know anyone that works harder or maintains a more dedicated schedule than Tom Menino.

“He’s not one to shy away from tough questions, and no one can argue that he’s avoiding conversation about the issues,” Martin continued. “He’s already participated in more debates and forums than initially expected, and there’s been more than ample opportunity for him to engage his challengers.”

But, Flaherty told the Gazette after the forum, all of the candidates are busy working 18- or 19-hour days, campaigning while holding day jobs and, in some cases, raising children.

“It’s a matter of respect,” Flaherty said of Menino skipping the JP forum. “The real loser tonight was the audience.”

Yoon scathingly linked Menino’s no-show to City Hall’s latest public records “glitch” involving the deletion of e-mails that should have been saved, saying that it all goes back to too much dictator-like power for the mayor.

“E-mails get deleted. Mayors don’t show up for community forums. This is what we get,” Yoon said.

Challengers vs. each other

While the challengers were united in the belief that Menino has to go, they differed in their treatment of each other.

As usual, Flaherty and Yoon barely criticized each other. It is widely presumed that one of them will end up as the challenger for Menino on the final election ballot. Either Flaherty or Yoon likely would require the other challenger’s voting base to beat the incumbent. Flaherty and Yoon have appeared careful about not alienating each other’s supporters, and there has even been talk of a deal between them where the winner would give the other challenger a job in his administration.

Flaherty later told the Gazette there has been no such mutual strategizing. “There’s been no conversations,” he said, attributing the lack of jabs to personality.

“For me, it’s always been about civility,” he said. “I’m also not someone that piles on [with criticism].”

McCrea, on the other hand, accused both Flaherty and Yoon of participating in at least one back-room deal: a raise and related pension boost, estimated to be worth $150,000, for a City Council staffer whose sole job appears to have been writing an eccentric report suggesting ways the council can evade the state Open Meeting Law.

“No, I didn’t vote to fund this report,” Yoon replied. “Kevin, you and I have talked about this, and you know what this is.” Yoon did not elaborate on what “this is,” and was not immediately available for comment after the forum.

McCrea said Yoon’s campaign manager described the City Council staffer deal as a “go along to get along” arrangement.

Flaherty declined to respond to the accusation on stage. But he later acknowledged to the Gazette that he voted for the staffer’s salary boost, adding he did not know the staffer would be writing an anti-Open Meeting Law report. The staffer formerly worked for Councilor James Kelly, who died in office. Flaherty noted it has been “past practice” to offer a central staffing job to the staff workers of councilors who die in office, if they are suitable for the position.

“That’s fine. Just admit it. ‘We give away money to insiders,’” McCrea later told the Gazette. “I’m not saying it’s corrupt,” he said, but added that councilors should not give away money and should know what they are voting for.

In 2005, McCrea was the lead plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against the City Council for multiple violations of the Open Meeting Law. Flaherty was president of the City Council at the time. After initially defending the secret meetings, Flaherty has since apologized for them and credited the case with making him an open-government advocate.

All three of the challengers have blasted Menino’s administration for back-room deals and a lack of public records, while Menino has downplayed any problems as rare mistakes and portraying his regular neighborhood visits as a version of government transparency.

Other issues

Reform of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the role of private charter schools are big issues in the race and the source of differences among the candidates.

Flaherty and Yoon both support expanded charter schools with more oversight. Menino, a longtime foe of charters, recently proposed “in-district” charter schools that would be overseen by BPS. McCrea opposes expanding charter schools.

“‘One size fits all’ does not cut it in our city,” Flaherty said, defending the different models that charter schools can try out. He said that quality should matter more than whether a school is BPS or chartered.

Flaherty also blasted Menino’s “in-district” proposal. “The last thing we should be doing is giving Tom Menino control over more of our schools,” he said, noting that nearly 25,000 students have dropped out of BPS over the past six years.

“Charter schools are another form of stratification of society,” McCrea said, arguing that the focus should be on public schools and equality of education.

All candidates agreed that existing charter schools should be required to market more to minority populations and to parents of special-needs and English Language Learner (ELL) students.

“It’s about respect,” Flaherty said of supporting ELL programs. “We saw this [Menino] administration try to disrupt the success of the Hernandez,” he added, referring to a controversial BPS proposal earlier this year to end the citywide status of Egleston Square’s Rafael Hernandez School, which has a unique bilingual English/Spanish program. That proposal was killed amid protests.

Among Yoon’s education proposals is a “hybrid” school committee with both appointed and elected members. The school committee was long an elected body, but currently is appointed.

All of the challengers have focused on the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), a quasi-independent planning and development agency, as a target for their transparency criticisms. Yoon called it the “center of power and money” for Menino and a place where he can cut back-room deals. Menino, on the other hand, praises the BRA for its powerful leverage over city development.

Yoon presented himself as the only candidate with a “concrete plan” to redesign government, including by a public re-writing of the structure of city government, and by quickly instituting a two-term limit on the Mayor’s Office.

McCrea noted that while the other challengers want to kill the BRA, only he wants to put planning approval powers directly into the hands of the City Council, greatly changing the city’s balance of power with the Mayor’s Office.

He said he would have the new planning department do a citywide master plan that would sketch out projects far in advance. As a hypothetical example, he cited “expansion of the [MBTA’s] Green Line down Centre Street in Jamaica Plain,” a proposal that has been controversial here for 25 years and is virtually defunct except for a lawsuit that is currently under appeal.

The city’s resident jobs policy, and related benchmarks for the percentages of minority and women workers hired on city job sites, have become significant issues in the race. Menino officials have acknowledged shortfalls and a lack of enforcement that leads to out-of-state workers taking local jobs, but have claimed that they fear the jobs policy might not survive a legal challenge.

All of the challengers blasted that claim. Yoon said contractors should be brought into City Hall and told, “Hire them [local workers] or else.”

“This is not a strong mayor being a bully,” Yoon said of his hypothetical threat. “It would be the force of law.”

“If somebody wants to sue us, go ahead. We’ll take it to the Supreme Court,” Yoon added, speaking so passionately he at one point paused, laughed and said, “I was going to swear.”

McCrea, himself a contractor, said he has exceeded all of the requirements on his own projects, so there is no excuse for anyone else not to do the same.

The communication of crime reports from the police to residents has been an issue in JP this year, particularly when attacks and robberies near the Southwest Corridor apparently fell between jurisdictional cracks between city and state police. Flaherty said he would bring “e-policing,” to the city, referring to a program used in such cities as Los Angeles that e-mails or text-messages residents immediately when a crime is reported in their neighborhood.

Gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) issues are always of great interest in JP. They have also played a role in the race, especially around South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The parade’s organizers infamously ban openly GLBT marchers, along with anti-war protestors.

Menino has blasted the parade as discriminatory and openly boycotts it, a decision McCrea has praised. Flaherty’s campaign has criticized Menino for visiting the parade route while not marching. But Flaherty, who is known for his early support of same-sex marriage, himself marches in the parade, which he attributes to his South Boston roots.

Yoon has acknowledged the parade is discriminatory, but also marches in it, variously claiming that it allows him a chance to discuss civil rights issues; that it is politically necessary for him to march as a citywide candidate; and that he will feature openly GLBT marchers sometime in the future.

At the forum, the candidates were asked about hate crime enforcement and the role of a city GLBT community liaison. All of them supported both concepts, but had varied responses.

“Just having a liaison can sometimes be just symbolism,” Yoon said, calling for real partnerships with the GLBT community. “I’m somebody who has always been 100 percent for GLBT rights and empowerment,” he said.

Flaherty noted that hate crimes are familiar to him, not only because he is a former prosecutor, but also because of his family’s experience. “I had an uncle who was brutally murdered,” he said, referring to a 1994 crime against his uncle, who was a closeted gay man. “It’s very personal to me.”

McCrea raised the issue of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. He said that if it continues to exclude GLBT people, it should pay for its own contingent of police officers and firefighters instead of the city picking up the tab. “We’re not going to pay for that anymore under my administration,” he said.

Under federal court decisions, a content-based withholding of police protection could trigger a First Amendment challenge. “As you know, I’m not an attorney,” McCrea wrote later in an e-mail to the Gazette, “but I think it would make a strong statement if the South Boston veterans [who organize the parade] were to insist they needed police protection from the GLBT community!”

All of the challengers pitched themselves as having a better temperament for leadership than Menino has. Flaherty could have been speaking for all of the candidates when he said, “Decisions are made in Boston by one person and a small group of his friends,” calling instead for a new era of collaborative leadership and outreach for good ideas.

While asking people to vote for him, Flaherty said change is needed so much, he encouraged residents to work on the campaigns of any of the challengers.

Updated version: This version of the article clarifies McCrea’s proposal about the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

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