Out of Control

John Ruch

JP feels impacts of ‘home rule’

The complaint at the Jamaica Plain traffic safety meeting several years ago was simple: Cars were going too fast on a neighborhood street. The proposed solution was simple, too: Lower the speed limit.

But there was one little hitch that left a reporter and some residents new to the state flabbergasted: Lowering the speed limit would require a vote by the full state Legislature.

The speed limit falls under “home rule.” Just about everywhere else in the country, that means the hometown rules and can make such changes on its own. In Massachusetts and especially in Boston, it’s an oxymoron that means state permission is needed for virtually any change, significant or petty.

The unique home rule situation was recently dragged into the spotlight by Mayor Thomas Menino’s attempt to institute a new meals tax to reduce property tax reliance, and by a scathing Boston Foundation report on home rule’s negative economic impacts. Gov. Deval Patrick has responded by promising a proposal to allow more local control over taxes and fees.

But home rule’s impacts go beyond revenue issues. In JP, home rule has directly or indirectly guided many local issues, from rent regulation to airplane noise—often in directions opposite to that of local sentiments.

“Does the state really need to be Big Brother?” asks local City Councilor John Tobin, who for three years served as a top staff member on the joint State House committee that deals with home rule requests, known as petitions.

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez said he sees both sides of the argument, especially when it comes to regional economic issues.

“I think in some cases it’s good, in some cases, not so good,” Sánchez said of proposals for expanded home rule powers. “It’s great for towns to have more autonomy…but at the same time, where does that autonomy allow for the state to grow as a collective?”

The recent Boston Foundation report, titled “Boston Bound,” says that the unique home rule situation creates “a drag on local action that is both problematic and unusual.”

It argues that the restrictions leave Boston inflexible and uncompetitive compared to other major cities; discourage creative and controversial proposals; and force financial reliance on property taxes and state aid.

In a highly detailed history, the report explains that until the 1800s, most US cities operated as extensions of state government with appointed officials. But most switched to “home rule,” with varying degrees of local authority and autonomy.

Massachusetts was a latecomer to home rule, with a constitutional amendment passed in 1967 and a home rule law as well. But, the report says, this home rule is “something of an illusion” and very different from what the term means in places like Chicago and San Francisco.

The law spells out major exceptions to home rule powers, including a bar on creating local taxes and borrowing money. Courts have interpreted the restrictions broadly to include limits on establishing local rent control or raising local fees.

Boston operates under even more specific restrictions and unique institutions. Boston is the state’s only city to have a state-appointing liquor licensing board and a state Finance Commission overseeing its spending. Only Boston has an agency, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, that combines planning and development boards into one entity. The rest of the state operates under a different zoning structure.

For more than a century, from the 1850s to the 1960s, Boston didn’t even choose its own police commissioner. Instead, the governor appointed someone to the office. That move appears to be one of many ways that upper-class Bostonians of the day used home rule restrictions to control a city increasingly run by Irish immigrants.

The report explains that Boston’s limitations on raising revenue have contributed to fiscal crises. In turn, Boston has often dealt with such crises by selling land to the state or otherwise ceding even more local control.

One such crisis, the report explains, resulted in the creation of Massport, a quasi-independent state-appointed authority that took control of Boston’s airport, seaport and a major bridge. The City of Boston gave up control of about 10 percent of its land and most of the direct revenue from those major urban features in that move.

And years later, it impacted the local controversy over a runway and air traffic expansion at Logan Airport strongly opposed by residents in JP and other neighborhoods. Menino opposed it as well—but he could only complain from the sidelines to a port authority that is completely out of the city’s control.
JP impacts

Cities can ask for more local control on specific issues. One way is the home rule petition, which is a request for a city-specific change. The other is to attempt to pass a statewide law that grants power to all cities and towns.

Boston officials are constantly using both methods. For example, Menino’s proposals to allow local meals and telecommunications taxes are statewide bills. But the city has several active home rule petitions just for Boston, such as a request to raise fines for breaking local ordinances.

Both methods have been used in a wide array of JP issues in recent years—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

The lack of local control on housing issues has been a hot topic ever since a 1994 statewide referendum banned rent control. JP had about 4,700 rent-controlled units at the time, and JP voters strongly opposed the ban. Menino attempted a home-rule petition to retain rent control in Boston, but failed.

A wide variety of rent regulation and tenant-protection proposals have come out of JP since then, always against the backdrop of tenants being priced out and the lack of affordable housing increasingly seen as a drag on the city’s economy. But all of them have required state approval, which typically has not been forthcoming.

The Legislature has also overseen requests for much smaller changes in JP—proposals to put flashing pedestrian-crossing signs around schools, or to raise the fine for driving through a crosswalk. State Rep. Liz Malia successfully shepherded a home rule petition a few years ago to ban novelty noise-making car mufflers in Boston.

A major home-rule change several years ago was the addition of more local members to the city’s zoning Board of Appeal and Zoning Commission after controversial approvals, including a proposed asphalt plant that was driven out of JP.

Over the years, several citywide proposals that enjoyed strong JP support, such as a ban on handgun sales, have require home-rule petitions.

Tobin said his time working for what was then called the Local Affairs Committee (now the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee) taught him that cities and towns “have to petition the Legislature to blow their nose.”

“It was my job and I enjoyed it, but it’s becoming frustrating as a city official,” said Tobin, who still helps shepherd home rule petitions as chair fo the council’s intergovernmental relations committee. “It seems really duplicative in nature and somewhat unnecessary.”

“The mayor’s looking for an increase in the local meals tax,” Tobin said. “I disagree with that, but I think the mayor should have the opportunity to do that with [City Council] approval. We need other revenue streams.”

Tobin said he understands some state oversight is a good thing and doesn’t consider the Legislature an enemy. In fact, he said, the frustration can cut both ways.

“I can recall clearly having committee meetings and members saying, ‘What the hell are we dealing with this for?’” Tobin said.

“Our [liquor] licensing commission…is appointed by the governor. Does that make any sense?” he asked, recalling the difficulty in passing a recent increase in the number of Boston liquor licenses.

“We were looking for additional beer and wine licenses, basically for mom-and-pop businesses on our main streets,” Tobin said. “It took three home rule petitions.”

Sánchez acknowledged that home rule petitions sometimes surprise him as well. He recalled one from his first term in office—a local proposal to limit the weight of books children were required to carry home from school.

“That was one where I was like, ‘Where does that come from?’” Sánchez recalled.

But, Sánchez said, state oversight can be important on shaping issues with regional impact. For example, he noted, Boston may wish it had the power to be more progressive on affordable housing, but other communities wish they had the power to be more conservative on the issue.

“Some communities use home rule to try to stop things,” Sánchez said. “In Boston, they use home rule to try to start things.”

The regional point of view can, of course, involve different political nuances.

“In the Legislature, there’s a feeling that if we were to give a city like Boston [a meals-tax approval]…it would be seen as a pro-tax vote,” Sánchez said. “It could look bad in other towns. You could get branded as a pro-tax legislator.”

To Tobin, there are problems with asking suburban legislators to approve Boston-specific issues and vice versa.

“What does someone from Western Mass. care, and why do they have a vote?” Tobin asked. “That system pits people against each other.”

On the other hand, Tobin acknowledged, home rule petitions can offer local officials political cover on controversial issues. They can approve proposals they know will simply die in the Legislature.

“No question,” he said. “It’d be easy to do that.”

Meanwhile, Boston still doesn’t control its own speed limits. A statewide bill requesting that power is still floating around the State House.

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