Menino says: Neighborhoods, Not Master Plans

October 23, 2009
By

John Ruch

Defends e-mails, blasts rivals

Incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino upheld neighborhood “independence” as key to Boston’s success, dismissing his rivals’ calls for citywide master planning, in an interview last week at the Gazette office.

“It’s about empowering people. It’s not about the city having a citywide plan and saying, ‘You’re going to do it our way or the highway,’” said Menino, blasting challenger Michael Flaherty’s call for a cabinet-level arts commissioner and master planning in general.

“I see Boston as neighborhoods,” Menino said, adding that the city is tied together by grassroots community activism. “Some people who have a narrow vision of the city don’t see these things.”

Those people, he made it clear, include Flaherty and his “running mate,” former mayoral candidate Sam Yoon. Menino has dismissed the “Floon” team-up as a gimmick, especially since Yoon’s would-be “deputy mayor” position does not exist yet and will not appear on the ballot.

“It’s interesting that…they’re the ‘transparency’ candidates, and the first thing they do is make a deal of jobs for votes,” Menino said of “Floon.”

But transparency is an issue in the race for a reason, with Menino’s administration running into regular problems with public records and behind-the-scenes deals. In the most recent scandal, top aide, Michael Kineavy, deleted thousands of e-mails that should have been preserved as public records—including some that may have been covered by a federal subpoena in the corruption case against former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

Menino told the Gazette that Kineavy simply made a mistake—“Everybody assumed you could not [permanently] erase e-mails”—and called the scandal a matter of politics. But when asked whether there is also serious concern about public records involved, and not just politics, Menino acknowledged, “I think it’s both.”

“If it was me, I’d give you everything,” Menino said when told of the Gazette’s own problems getting Freedom of Information Act requests fulfilled—including from the Mayor’s Office—explaining that legal vetting of documents sometimes takes a long time. He also blamed a recent flood of information requests for bogging down the system. “It’s become a fad to FOIA,” he said.

In a race that has made him the target of some tough criticism, Menino said he understands that, “I’m the big boy. I’m the mayor.” But, he added, some of the barbs sting, as when his grandson was recently reading a newspaper and asked why Menino was being harshly criticized. “That hurts just a little,” he said.

All the same, Menino said of the campaign, “I’m enjoying it.”
Neighborhoods

As usual, Menino praised Jamaica Plain: “This community is Boston. You’re ahead of your time here.” Also as usual, he proved he actually knows the neighborhood intimately, from the purchasing of Halloween witch decorations at Honeyspot to wondering about uses for the dead zone underneath the Casey Overpass: “What can we do with that space under there?”

“What I think Jamaica Plain has is a very unique activism [population]. For the most part, they don’t go off the deep end,” he said, adding that JP activists tend to ask for “reasonable” improvements.

Praising the different qualities of various neighborhoods, Menino even contrasted JP favorably with his home neighborhood. “Certain parts of Hyde Park are so conservative. Jamaica Plain’s the opposite,” he said.

Flaherty argues that Menino has gone too far in his love of the neighborhoods, leaving Boston with a poorly run City Hall and a lack of an overall vision for the city. Flaherty is calling for a citywide real estate development master plan to work alongside neighborhood zoning codes.

Flaherty also would appoint a city arts commissioner to sharpen the focus on Boston’s creative economy. Today, arts programming is overseen by several city agencies, and even citywide events such as the Boston Arts Festival operate more as neighborhood events.

Menino said he is against both proposals. “These people talk about a master plan for the whole city. I don’t think people want that,” Menino said. “My job as mayor is not to make a developer a gazillionaire. It’s to make development work for neighborhoods.”

As for an arts commissioner, “To say we’re going to have one czar over all arts events in the city—no,” Menino said.

“Every neighborhood’s unique when it comes to the festivals. You can’t have one-size-fits-all,” he said. “I think we do a good job trying to coordinate all the events, but [while] respecting the independence of the neighborhoods. You don’t want to take away the independence.”

Menino praised the neighborhood-specific Jamaica Plain Open Studios art event. Naturally, he attended it this year, saying he liked what he saw in some Eliot Street exhibits. “That’s the population that continues to grow in our city,” he said of artists, adding he wants to do more to “accommodate” them.
E-mails

When asked about the e-mail deletion controversy, Menino went on the defensive. “There’s no smoking gun, is there?” he asked, referring to a lack of any obvious signs of government corruption in the salvaged messages.

Most of the e-mails appear to be gone forever, and the administration’s treatment of public records has become an issue in itself. Asked why the administration had no policy or staff training about saving e-mails as public records, Menino said that officials were too confident in their $1 million e-mail archiving system. He noted that archiving e-mails is a new public records challenge for government everywhere, not just in Boston.

“We’ve been transparent about this since Day One,” Menino said. He said he ordered staff to release all of Kineavy’s e-mails, joking that he added, “Create them if you have to.”

However, most of the recovery of deleted e-mails and their public release happened at the order of Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, who repeatedly complained that Menino’s administration was putting up barriers to public review of the e-mails and was not acting quickly enough to retrieve them.

Menino complained about “frivolous” issues in the campaign, indicating he believes the e-mail controversy is one of them. He said he worries that government is “not about people anymore, how we help people. I think we don’t [want to] get caught in any issues that don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

The Gazette pointed out its own problems getting public records from City Hall—including from Menino’s own office. Menino quickly asked whether the Gazette waited only the technical legal limit of 10 days for a response. In fact, the Gazette has always waited much longer than that. A Gazette FOIA request for information about local real estate developments was sent to the Mayor’s Office six months ago, but never got a response. The Gazette sent another version of the same FOIA request to the Mayor’s Office last month, after the e-mail scandal broke, and received responses from staff, but still no information. Both FOIA requests asked for e-mails.

“We only have one person doing them,” Menino said of FOIA request responses, blaming any delays on that.

Menino said “integrity” is the most important thing to him. He said it is significant that his administration is “not having any major problems,” such as officials charged with corruption, and has not during his 16 years in office.

That may be a matter of perception. One example is Kevin Joyce, the former commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department, who was forced to resign five years ago after awarding a contract to a friend and firing an employee who refused to fabricate documents to make it appear that there had been a proper bidding process for the contract. The case led to an expensive lawsuit settlement and a fine from the State Ethics Commission, which ruled that Joyce committed an “abuse of power” and attempted “illegal actions.” But Menino protested at the time, claiming that Joyce did nothing wrong and was a victim of the media.

Menino told the Gazette that he has zero tolerance for corrupt staff members. “Every administration has a knucklehead who wants to do something wrong,” he said without naming anyone, adding that he gets rid of “bad apples…with no due process.”

But Kineavy, who is on a “leave of absence” and working without pay on Menino’s campaign, is not that type of person, Menino said. He said Kineavy is the victim of the media and Flaherty’s attacks.

“The thing they did to Michael Kineavy is a disgrace…He’s done so much for so many people,” Menino said. “They dragged his name through this [controversy] every day.”
‘Progressive’

Menino said he has not considered announcing a “running mate” of his own to out-Floon Floon. But, asked whether he had sought Yoon’s endorsement, Menino indicated he had been blown off.

“I talked to Sam on election night,” Menino said. “He said we’d get together. It never happened. That’s OK.”

Yoon’s endorsement was coveted because of his ability to draw liberal voters, especially in JP’s high-turnout Ward 19 (Pondside/Jamaica Hills/Forest Hills). That voter bloc has made “progressive” one of the buzzwords of both campaigns—or at least in their marketing to such neighborhoods as JP.

The new political group Jamaica Plain Progressives was out front on that angle, holding candidate forums this summer that included Menino’s first forum appearance in the campaign. Now Menino is boasting of endorsements from a group of supporters called Progressives for Menino, which includes Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral and Boston Architectural College president Ted Landsmark—both JP residents—and Mossik Hacobian of Jackson Square’s Urban Edge community development corporation. He also was endorsed by such liberal political organizations as NOW and MassEquality.

“That tells you something about where I’ve been,” Menino said. “I probably don’t get credit for being as progressive as some of these folks.”

Flaherty previously told the Gazette that Menino is using the term “progressive” just to sound younger because he is “almost 70 years old.” Menino, who is actually 66, brought up the quote.

“He advanced my age,” Menino said. “I have as much energy as he has. I haven’t slowed down at all. I think he misspoke.”

Menino also dismissed Flaherty’s criticism that Menino is such an egomaniac that he puts his name on virtually every piece of city property. “I don’t make the decision where my name goes,” Menino said. “I don’t want this stuff. The mayor’s always had his name on things,” he added, without explaining why he doesn’t refuse such requests.

But it is clear he is serious about being humble. A fan of local restaurants, Menino mentioned JP’s small but popular Centre Street Café, saying, “I want to go in there, but there’s always a line.” When the Gazette jokingly noted that they would probably let the mayor of Boston cut in line, Menino quickly responded, “I never cut…I will never cut in line.” Mayors should not have special privileges, he said.

Menino called Flaherty’s personal criticisms distractions from “real things,” such as the budget. He noted that Boston suffered enormous funding cuts last year, but did not close a single police or fire station—unlike many other cities—and opened two new library branches.

“That’s good financial management,” he said. “Finances are the most important thing in the city. If the finances are working, the government’s working.”

He also boasted of his success in getting local-options taxes on meals and hotels, “which my opponents don’t want.” Flaherty has called it a killer of local companies. Menino said it is a way for suburban visitors to pay their share.

Forest Hills

As he did in a previous Gazette interview last month, Menino brought up the redevelopment of MBTA land in Forest Hills. In part, it was a way to advertise his support of the controversial Boston Redevelopment Authority, which “did a very good job of the process.”

But Menino’s interest seemed genuine, as he said he intends to talk with the MBTA’s interim general manager about “phasing” the redevelopment. Two interrelated proposals include developing parcels around the Forest Hills T Station, and building a new Arborway Yard MBTA bus facility with some private development on that site as well.

“We’ve got to get this off the ground,” Menino said. “That’s frustrating to me, because there’s an opportunity there to finish off [development of] a neighborhood.”

One problem has been a lack of bidders on the biggest T station parcels. “Maybe we put too many restrictions on that [request for proposals] package,” Menino said, adding that the city might need to seek more state financial support as well.

The MBTA is in the midst of a vast reorganization of state transportation authorities. The MBTA board recently ceased to exist, the current MBTA general manager is only an interim position, and the state transportation secretary leaves office next month. Asked whether the state has explained to him how the MBTA will function, Menino said, “No. I’ll tell you, after the election, they’ll communicate with me.”

Menino said he is generally looking forward to the day after Election Day. “I will have the opportunity to spend more time on things we should be getting done,” he said.