Council hopefuls pitch to progressives

October 7, 2010
By

David Taber

Contrasts and similarities between the five candidates vying to replace former city councilor John Tobin emerged starkly at a Jamaica Plain Progressives-hosted (JPP) forum Sept. 28 at the Nate Smith House at 155 Lamartine St.


Courtesy Photo
Chun-Fai Chan

West Roxbury candidates Jim Hennigan and Chun-Fai Chan told the audience of about 30 people they would seek seats on the council’s Elder Affairs and Education Committees. Two of the three Jamaica Plain candidates, Kosta Demos and Matt O’Malley, said they would seek seats on the council’s Arts and Tourism committee—a committee Tobin formerly chaired. JP candidate Sean Ryan also listed the Education Committee among his interests.

Demos and Ryan both would push for far-reaching reforms—though the reforms they seek are very different.

The five will face-off in an Oct. 19 preliminary city special election ballot, with the two highest vote-getters moving on to compete in the final election, Nov. 16.

Sticking to its traditional format, JPP invited the five candidates to fill out a survey prior to the event, and spent about a half-hour questioning each candidate individually at the forum.


Courtesy Photo
Kosta Demos

The candidates’ survey responses are available at www.jpprogressives.org.

Charter Reform
To the extent that an issue has emerged since the race began in September, it has been reform of the city charter—the group of documents that describe Boston’s governmental structure.

Demos has repeatedly portrayed the other candidates, and the perceived front-runner Matt O’Malley in particular, as soft on the issue.

Tobin, who has endorsed O’Malley, was slated to head an ad hoc Council charter reform committee this year.

Boston is an “authoritarian state…We have one branch of government and that one branch of government is accountable to nobody,” Demos said at the forum, referring to Boston’s powerful Mayor’s Office. “Democracies are supposed to have different branches of government and those different branches are supposed to be co-equal.”


Courtesy Photo
Jim Hennigan

Demos also said he would like to see more numerous and smaller city council districts “aligned to the geographic reality” of Boston neighborhoods.

“I don’t see anybody else [in the race] willing to take this seriously,” he said.

O’Malley told forum attendees that he does, in fact, take charter reform seriously. He would like to take up where Tobin left off, he said. But the goals he enumerated were not as sweeping as Demos’s.

He said that he currently is in favor of two specific changes to the city charter.

First, he would like to see City Council gain a “line item veto” over specific budget items, he said. Currently, councilors cast one all-or-nothing up-or-down vote each year on a budget submitted by the mayor.


Courtesy Photo
Matt O’Maley

Second, he would like to see the Boston Public Schools School Committee changed from a body appointed by the mayor into a “hybrid” body with some members appointed and some elected. While the elected posts would ensure community representation on the committee “some element of politics should be removed from the school committee,” he said.

O’Malley said he does not think City Council needs more power beyond an expanded say in the budget process. Despite the city’s “so called strong mayor, weak council system,” city councilors can influence policy “through the force of their personalities,” he said.


Courtesy Photo
Sean Ryan

In his questionnaire response, Chan said “there should be a hard look at term limits for both the City Council and the Mayor,” and that he supports increased budget oversight by the council and a hybrid school committee.

“I believe the City Council has the power it needs under the current charter,” he said at the forum. Later, speaking to the Gazette, Chan said he thinks that City Council should largely focus on facilitating community access to government, and that an increased legislative portfolio would distract City Councilors from that role.

“I feel that, in terms of power, it should be power to the residents of Boston,” Chan said at the forum.

Ryan, a registered Democrat who subscribes to a libertarian political philosophy—he registered as a Democrat to be eligible for endorsement by Democratic ward committees, he said—advocated for a number of significant policy changes. He said he supports lifting the cap on charter schools in the city; redrawing the city zoning map in a “precinct-level” community-driven process; and abolishing all public price controls on housing, as well as the minimum wage. But he said he does not support charter reform. “It’s not particularly important to me, to be quite frank,” he said.

“As a City Councilor, under the current charter, do you think you will have the power to accomplish the goals you are talking about?” JPP co-chair Melissa Threadgill asked Ryan.

“I certainly do,” he said.

Hennigan said he generally supports gradual charter reform. “The charter should evolve as times change,” he said, but “different issues should be taken one at a time.”

While he did not present specific proposals for charter changes, Hennigan did say that city council should have more power, “absolutely…and not only with the budget.”

BRA
All five of the candidates said they support a least reforming the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—the quasi-independent agency largely responsible for overseeing planning and development in the city. Demos and Ryan once again staked out more radical positions, calling for the abolition of the agency.

“It’s a government agency. We need to make sure it is transparent to everyone,” Chan said, saying that the BRA’s budget sometimes appears to be used as a “slush fund.”

The state-chartered agency is a major landowner in the City of Boston. According to the BRA’s website, “Its broad development authorities include the power to buy and sell property, the power to acquire property through eminent domain, and the power to grant tax concession…to encourage commercial and residential development.”

Links on the website—BostonRedevelopmentAuthority.org—to the BRA’s 2010 budget and audited financial statements, generated error messages when the Gazette visited the site last week.

Hennigan and O’Malley both called for reform of the BRA to ensure that community input is given more weight in planning and development efforts.

“I am not a person who says we need to get rid of the BRA. It has grown beyond its purpose and it should be reviewed,” Hennigan said, “Recommendations from the neighborhood councils should be more significant in BRA decisions,” he said.

O’Malley was the most positive about the BRA, saying it “does a good job, but there is room for improvement…I firmly believe you can be progressive and be pro-development if it is done in the right way,” he said, citing the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation-driven (JPNDC) revitalization of the former Haffenreffer brewery complex on Amory Street as an example.

O’Malley briefly mentioned that he thinks a clearer line should be drawn between the planning and development roles that the BRA plays.

Demos and Ryan both support the abolition of the BRA.

Demos said his earliest political memories include “being dragooned into standing in front of bulldozers,” when, in the 1960s, the BRA was working to clear the land that is now the Southwest Corridor Park for an extension of Interstate 95.

He called for separate city planning and development agencies that “respect the community—treat the community like clients.” The agency’s combined mission means “design and planning are ceding everything to development interests,” he said.

The BRA’s community processes now seem to be aimed at “wearing people down,” and pushing through whatever it wants, he said.

Ryan said he thinks, “the BRA is an example of a government agency no longer doing what it was intended to be doing. I think we do not need central planners downtown.”

He said the zoning code should be rethought in community processes “at the precinct level,” and that the code should be “simple and reasonable…making it clear what people can do.”

Ryan said he thinks developers and architects would voluntarily work with community groups to gain approval for development projects under rules where there is little government oversight of development. “I am almost positive they would. I have been to meetings where I have seen them bend over backwards” to address community concerns, he said. “They don’t want to offend their neighbors.”

Education
The Boston Public School (BPS) system is currently in the midst of major reform processes. Faced with budget constraints and a surplus of over 4,000 elementary school seats, BPS administrators are currently working on a plan that could increase the number and decrease the size of the city’s school-zones, and close elementary schools. The city is also in contract negotiations with the Boston Teacher’s union, and state rules were recently re-written allowing increased flexibility for things like curriculum development and hiring and firing at underperforming “turnaround” schools.

For most of the candidates, threading the needle of school choice, neighborhood schools and transportation costs—about 10 percent of BPS’s over-$800 million budget—proved a challenge.

Not so for Ryan. “We should reform the assignment process…provide neighborhood schools for parents who want them [and have] other options for parents with other preferences or special needs…We must phase out busing,” he said in his questionaire response. If taxpayer funded charter schools are allowed, there should not be a cap on them, he said.

At the forum, he described BPS’s complicated policy of opening schools throughout the city to students via a lottery system, and providing transportation for elementary and middle school students, as “forced busing.”

He said the policy, developed as a response to a court order in the 1970s, has “failed” to desegregate schools—inspiring people who can afford to opt out of the school system to “abstain” from it.

He said he is interested in eliminating the cap on charter schools and in exploring the possibility of a school voucher system that would make the school system function more like a market place.

Chan, who has taught in BPS for the past six years, said, “I know what is going on in Boston Public Schools, what works and what doesn’t work.”

Neighborhood schools are a good way “to make sure that parents get involved,” in their children’s education, but “until every school is high quality, we are not going to be able to have neighborhood schools.”

He said the city’s current plan to turn around underperforming schools could be a “potential model” for reforming other underperforming schools.

“Everyone wants to realize the goal of quality schools,” Demos said. While neighborhood schools are preferable, “I am concerned that more well off, more well organized neighborhoods [will just say] ‘I’ve got mine.’”

He said that “de facto segregation already exists” in the city’s public school system, but doing away with busing is an “800 lb. gorilla…[minority communities] see another monster.”

Demos called for “community-based planning” for the school system.

O’Malley called for the school transportation budget to be radically reduced when BPS administrators renegotiate the school system’s busing contract with carrier First Student. That contract is up in 2014.

Echoing general statements by BPS administrators over the past few years, he said those funds should be invested in improving underperforming schools.

O’Malley, who described himself as “a supporter of traditional public education,” said that the path toward improving schools is fairly clear, and includes better expanded extra-curricular enrichment programs, increased public private partnerships, more teachers and longer school-days. Teachers should be compensated for the extra hours they work, he said.

Hennigan also said neighborhood schools are preferable to the city’s current system, but that lack of equity in the education system means that could not happen immediately. “In JP and West Roxbury, basically everyone is on the same page,” he said.

Hennigan said he would like to see more targeted busing—replacing full buses with smaller vans. “It’s money well spent when it targets underperforming schools,” he said. “No matter what neighborhood or corner of the city you are in, you are entitled to the best education.”

Hennigan said he would oppose closing any schools in the district. O’Malley and Demos said they would consider closures if BPS made a strong argument. Demos said he would want to see the buildings “mothballed” rather than sold. Ryan and Chan did not take specific positions regarding school closures.

Green Space
Chan, Hennigan and O’Malley all said they would work to preserve and defend green space.

“One thing I know about green space is once it is developed it is gone,” Hennigan said. During his half-hour at the forum he repeatedly pointed to his participation in an effort, 17 years ago, to preserve the Hancock Woods in West Roxbury from redevelopment by the BRA.

“We need a master plan that makes sure every single acre of green space is protected unless there is a very good reason for it to be developed,” he said.

O’Malley said he would “fight to defend” JP green space, and particularly Jamaica Pond Park, saying he has had a “life-long love affair” with the park.

He also said he would like to see more programming in JP parks, saying he had, that afternoon, been “lamenting” that one of JP’s farmers markets takes place in the Bank of America Parking lot instead of in a park.

Chan and Ryan both called for more local input into how parks are used, singling out dog parks as a potential use for some of JP’s green space.

Demos, however, said much of the park system is designed wrong. “I really consider myself an environmentalist, and a pretty good amateur scholar of urban parks. One of the problems we have in Boston is a misunderstanding of the role parks play. They should be a focal point for community…One of the best things you can do for parks is create congested areas next to them, what makes parks alive is a bunch of people shoved up against them.”

He particularly singled out Franklin Park as too far from neighborhood centers. The park is an “embarrassment. It’s beautifully designed, it should be a national destination,” he said.

For the candidates’ full questionnaire responses, including their positions on labor, youth violence, economic development, affordable housing and other issues, see www.jpprogressives.com.

Endorsements
Hennigan’s campaign announced Oct. 4 that he has picked up endorsements from at-large City Councilors Felix Arroyo—a JP resident—and Steve Murphy. O’Malley is being endorsed by three sitting City Councilors—City Council President Mike Ross, whose district includes a small part of Hyde Square; at-large Councilor John Connolly, and district Councilor Rob Consalvo. Former City Councilor John Tobin, whom the candidates are vying to replace, has also endorsed O’Malley, and local state Rep. Liz Malia has expressed public support for at campaign events.