Tobin to push for gov’t reforms

December 4, 2009
By

John Ruch

Council considers charter commission

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Reform-minded candidates Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon ended up losing this year’s mayoral race, but their reform proposals are still alive.

Several of those reforms—including term limits for city officials and a charter commission to review the entire structure of Boston’s government—actually were first proposed by local City Councilor John Tobin, who told the Gazette he intends to see them through.

That may include the formation of a “full-blown charter commission” with “full neighborhood participation,” Tobin said.

The city charter is a massive collection of state and local laws that dictate how Boston city government operates. While many cities and towns review their charters regularly, Boston has not done so for several decades.

“I’ve been told it’s been quite an onerous process, but I think it would be a good, healthy process for this city to engage in,” said Tobin, who announced his support of charter reform in March when the Gazette asked about it. That was well before it became a mayoral campaign issue.

He declined to speak on the record about the strategizing for establishing a charter commission, but confirmed that “conversations” are happening.

Tobin and City Council President Mike Ross previously proposed “reprecincting” the city—redrawing the voting wards and precincts, which has not been done in nearly a century, leaving unequal numbers of voters in various parts of the city. Reprecincting could be part of the charter commission’s work.

So could other reform proposals that, Tobin noted with frustration, are stuck in City Council committees.

One is term limits for city officials. Tobin previously filed term-limit legislation covering the mayor and city councilors, but the effort went nowhere. Yoon recently refiled the proposal, focusing it only on mayoral term limits. Tobin said he thinks it “comes across as a little disingenuous” not to include city councilors in that bill, but that he supports a vote on it.

Another proposal is changing the line of succession for replacing the mayor if he or she leaves office in mid-term. Currently, the City Council president would become acting mayor—which is exactly how current Mayor Thomas Menino first took office. There are longstanding rumors that Menino will seek to appoint a successor by the same method.

Tobin’s proposal is to switch the line of succession to the city clerk, an administrative job that today does not tend to attract the politically ambitious.

Yoon, Tobin and others recently succeeded in getting a hearing scheduled for Dec. 14 on the term limit idea after an internal political struggle on the council. The line of succession proposal remains stalled in a committee, and Tobin said he is an ongoing battle to bring it to a vote, while acknowledging it still needs some
tweaking.

“Over the years, we’ve put reforms out there, and nothing happens, and you wonder why,” Tobin said.

“There’s a couple [of councilors] who don’t like it,” Tobin said of the line of succession reform. “I don’t understand why somebody would vote against this, unless they have other plans.

“Why wouldn’t you want to ensure a clean election? Why would you want [the possibility of] the nonsense that happened out in Illinois with Barack Obama’s seat to happen out here?” asked Tobin, referring to allegations that a former Illinois governor attempted to sell the rights to replace Obama in the US Senate when he left office to become president.

Tobin said he may move ahead on yet another reform idea: making it so that the top vote-getter among the at-large, or citywide, city council members automatically becomes the council’s president. Currently, the council president is elected by his or her fellow councilors—“only…12 other people,” Tobin noted.

Tobin intends to run for mayor in 2013. “If I’m upright in four years and taking nourishment, it’s a pretty good bet I’m going to be running,” he joked. So why all the reforms that could make it tougher for him? “I think this is the fairest, cleanest way to do it,” he said.

Another major reform discussed in this year’s city campaigns was reform of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the city’s quasi-independent planning and development agency. The BRA is frequently criticized as too powerful and secretive.

Tobin is not so gung-ho on BRA reform, but notes that it was a major issue that should get council attention. “I don’t know where I’d be on that, but certainly should be in the position of having that conversation,” Tobin said, adding that City Councilors-elect Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley may take the lead on the issue.

“I definitely think [the BRA] is an organization that not a lot of people know about [and] that could use a little bit of sunshine,” Tobin told the Gazette earlier this year, adding that “more say from the community” would be especially worth considering.

At the time, Tobin said he had “disagreements” the BRA before, including on unannounced design changes to developments, and a BRA-run community meeting he received no notice about.
Funny business

Reforms are serious stuff, but Tobin moonlights in a lighter business: comedy clubs. A longtime booker for comedians and former partner in the Boston comedy festival, Tobin recently started Tommy’s Comedy Lounge in the Theater District. He also manages Nick’s Comedy Stop in the same area and books two other Nick’s locations out of town. Earlier this year, Tobin founded the Boston Comedy Hall of Fame.

“I may be the only elected official in the country who books comedy,” said Tobin, whose lighter side is featured in this month’s Boston Magazine.

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