Council hopefuls face off at forums

The seven candidates jockeying to fill the second district city council vacancy created by James Kelly's death early this year faced off at a pair of forums Tuesday evening where they touted their neighborhood-centric credentials and highlighted the district issues that would dominate their work as councillor.

Six of the seven candidates who will appear on the ballot are from South Boston: Mary Cooney is a neighborhood activist and physical therapist; Bob Ferrara helped found South Boston's Pop Warner football program; Ed Flynn, who ran for an at-large council seat in 2005, is a substitute teacher and son of former Boston mayor Ray Flynn; Bill Linehan is a special assistant to the city's chief operating officer; Brian Mahoney is a neighborhood activist and former 'mayor' of South Boston; and Bob O'Shea ran against state Rep. Brian Wallace when that seat was open in 2002 and works as a community relations consultant. South End resident Susan Passoni is a former financial analyst and public education advocate.

While several candidates speaking at a meeting of the McCormack civic group specifically addressed issues facing Dorchester's chunk of the district (the South Boston-centered district also includes Chinatown and a portion of the South End) a forum held earlier in the evening at the South Boston Educational Complex revealed that slowing the pace of development and addressing quality of life issues in South Boston were likely to drive the race.

"I can tell you why we need a strong leader at city hall: basic city services in South Boston have declined," said Flynn in his opening remarks.

Mahoney said several times that working to preserve the district's middle class character would drive his work.

"It all goes back to gentrification," said Mahoney. "In South Boston and everyplace else, whatever big developer comes in with the big bucks, they get what they need, and all the promises are ripped out."

Several candidates insinuated that the work of the city's powerful Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has not always kept the best interest of the city's residents in mind. Some said they would support a recent home rule petition introduced by At-large Councillor Felix Arroyo to split the planning and development functions of the BRA into two separate agencies.

"The BRA is the elephant that sits in the middle of the room. I support the petition that would create a separate planning department with oversight by the city council," said Cooney. "The BRA represents developers… whose projects are often built to the detriment of the city."

During the question and answer portion of the South Boston forum, one civic leader asked each candidate whether they would support Mayor Thomas Menino's plan to move City Hall from its current location in Government Center to a city-owned pier on the South Boston waterfront. Six of the seven candidates were strongly opposed to the proposal, with the exception of Linehan.

"I think it's a real good idea to sell city hall and to implode that building. I've worked in it… it's inefficient, it's ineffective… it breeds that sort of culture."

Linehan added that if City Hall were moved to South Boston, he did not think the currently proposed site, a city-owned pier, would be an "appropriate location."

Also present at the South Boston forum were At-large Councillor Michael Flaherty, who lives in South Boston, and Sam Yoon, who is often associated with Chinatown because of his work there for a community development corporation before being elected to the council.

As the South Boston forum drew to a close around 8 p.m., candidates raced to the tail end of the monthly McCormack meeting taking place in the basement of Blessed Mother Teresa church on Columbia Road. There, several candidates spoke to issues facing portions of Dorchester that fall within the second district &endash;tracts north of Columbia Road from the Polish Triangle up to the South Bay Shopping Center.

Flynn said that he had learned while door-knocking in the neighborhood that traffic along Boston Street and Dorchester Avenue were major resident concerns. Mahoney applauded the work that Councillor Kelly had done to curb an uptick in crime at the JFK T stop in 2005. Cooney recalled the work she did early in this decade to block an asphalt plant from moving in near the South Bay Shopping Center.

Both Flynn and Mahoney pledged to hold regularly scheduled office hours in the Dorchester portion of the district if elected.

All seven candidates will appear on the ballot in a special preliminary election on April 17. The top two vote-getters in that contest will move on to a special municipal election on Tuesday, May 15. Because 2007 is an election year for all city councillors, this special election is complicated further because a forward thinking contender could file papers as a candidate for the general election and run again in the fall even if they lose in the special.