By Seth Daniel
Special to the Gazette
If there’s anything that Council President Michelle Wu hopes that Jamaica Plain residents get out of her year in the top City Council seat, it would be better informed of Council business.
Wu told the paper in an interview last week that her top priority is to make sure Jamaica Plain residents and residents citywide know what’s going on at the City Council—whether with expanded online presence or with meetings in the neighborhood.
“For right now, my number one priority is more transparency,” said Wu. “So much of what we do our residents never know about…It’s very hard to find documents and information about what is happening at the Council. Locating our Council hearing scheduling and our calendar online isn’t easy. It’s very hard to track where items are and how long things have been there.”
It is certainly true as many in the public have often struggled to glean information from the City’s website, only finding biographies of the Council members and rarely able to look up agendas and public hearings—something that is a staple of most municipal websites in much smaller communities.
Ending that, she said, is priority number one as she sets up her new office.
Wu started that kind of transparency when she first came into office, having heard constituents complain about not knowing how to find out the results of legislation and public hearings. So, she began publishing her weekly Council notes into a type of newsletter for residents who were interested. Now, with the power to codify that, she plans to have that and more available to anyone with an interest in the Council’s business.
“We need to take those Council notes a little further and make sure our website has everything you may want to know, including hearings and calendars and much more,” she said. “My number one priority being transparency, I plan to revamp the Council website, create more access to the calendar, and create more access to information, such as Council minutes.”
Wu said that would also include councilors getting out into the neighborhoods more often with their committees—a process she looks to really strengthen.
“Transparency also means getting out in the neighborhood more,” she said. “I’ve asked each committee chair to hold a Town Hall meeting in the districts focusing on the committee’s priorities. We’ll be able to hear proactively what the residents want each committee to focus on.”
And when it comes to those committees, Wu has made some changes.
First and foremost, she has created the Parks, Recreation and Transportation Committee. That new committee already existed, but Wu added transportation to the mix—a nod to an all-inclusive discussion about traffic and transportation issues at places like Forest Hills.
“I think we’ll be trying to head in a direction of thinking comprehensively about transportation,” she said. “We really can’t be just thinking about cars, but focusing on comprehensive transportation, which means bicycles, walking, and public transportation too. The focus on open space, parks, and transportation together showed it’s not just cars, but bicycle paths and walking paths that get you to open spaces.”
She’s also eliminated some committees—such as the Ad Hoc Committee on the 2024 Olympics—and folded other committees into larger focused bodies.
One committee she has kept is the Special Committee on Charter Review.
The City Charter is a very important, yet rarely discussed, document that sets out the powers and responsibilities of City government. Such a document can make mundane fixes or major changes—such as giving the Council more power.
Dorchester Councilor Frank Baker has been the chair of that Committee and last year proposed such things as term limits and longer Council terms. Several councilors have also indicated they would support shifting more power to the Council through a Charter change.
“I think we’re certainly going to continue exploring that concerning ways to strengthen the Council’s voice, but recognizing the Charter process is a long, long process with State Legislature approvals and potentially a ballot question. Even before we get to that long-term Charter changes, there are things we can do right now, like increasing transparency to the residents.”
Beyond the glitz of cutting edge policy discussions, Wu said she has found her new position in the early days to be about paperwork and making sure things run smoothly.
“Early on, it’s been a mix of big picture policy discussions, identifying common goals and talking about how we put forward legislation this term,” she said. “It’s really about a lot of the nitty-gritty things like setting the Council calendar and making committee assignments and making sure the agenda is organized and the paperwork is done.”
That said, after such mundane tasks, she said she is excited to move ahead with a Council that has a few new faces and works well together amongst itself and the administration.
“I’m so excited for this term and for all the energy we have on the Council,” she said. “It’s a group of 13 strong advocates committed to the residents of Boston and making change. I am really grateful to my colleagues and their support and for them wanting to work hard to make sure this term is focused on substantively and effectively collaborating with each other.”