Bringing City Hall to you: City pols seek new ways to reach voters, activists

City Council President Maureen Feeney is moving ahead with plans for a city-wide civic engagement summit set for May, aides to Mayor Thomas Menino have started holding office hours from Allston to West Roxbury and Councillor-at-Large Michael Flaherty is making his own forays into the neighborhood kitchens. All three initiatives, while unique in their own way, reflect a renewed effort by longtime politicians to shift their resources and re-engage a city electorate that has been dramatically altered by technology and shifting demographics.

As speculation swirls over who will run against Menino if he opts for another term in 2009, observers say that the more aggressive outreach are attempts to tap into the energy typified by Gov. Deval Patrick's grassroots campaign in 2006.

"To some extent, each of them is taking advantage of a favorable wind," said Lawrence DiCara, a former Boston City Councillor.

While regularly scheduled civic meetings in church halls and community centers across the city remain critical venues for connecting constituents to their public officials, the emergence of e-mail chains, blogs and websites over the last decade has changed the terrain for politicians, who still need to satisfy the demands of an increasingly diffused and empowered activist bloc. While the technology revolution has helped the grassroots spur important projects, such as the restoration of the MBTA's Red Line stations in Dorchester, it has also made it tougher for pols to cultivate one-on-one relationships with constituents who are clearly good voters.

Feeney announced this week that her one-day summit, which prompted criticism from Menino earlier this year, will be scheduled for Saturday, May 3, at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. She says the summit, first floated when she was elected to her second term as council president in January, is a response, in part, to the fact that only 1 out of 10 residents showed up to vote in last fall's municipal election.

An eight-member advisory committee, made up of former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, UMass-Boston McCormack Graduate School Dean Stephen Crosby, and Waldwin Group CEO Clayton Turnbull, among others, will oversee the summit's infrastructure and agenda.

Feeney said the summit will offer a chance for the city's normally-provincial neighborhoods to share ideas, but not gripes.

"This isn't to focus on what's broken," she said. "This is to focus on solutions to problems that exist city-wide."

Feeney said she hopes Menino, who has raised questions about the summit's feasibility and working with such a large group of people instead of smaller ones, will participate. The summit won't need public funds, she said, but Feeney anticipates having to fundraise "tens of thousands for sure."

Feeney brushed off concerns that the summit could become politicized.

"This is about the people who are giving of their time," she said. "This isn't going to be a political rally for anyone."

A leader of one of Dorchester's more-potent civic organizations agrees.

"Regardless of the political motivations, people stand to gain" with more access to government, added Deirdre Habershaw, head of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association.

For his part, Menino announced earlier this month that the 18 coordinators and two assistant directors within the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) would start holding office hours in local community centers and libraries. The coordinators, who are also charged with responding to direct constituent inquiries on Menino's behalf, are already regulars at civic meetings and other public events in their assigned part of the city. Under Menino's tenure, however, the coordinators have been based at City Hall.

Menino aides say this new weekly deployment isn't political.

"With the office hours, they're spending time in the community," said spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan. "It's a new aspect of their job."

In Dorchester, aides Karine Querido and Lauren Smyth will have office hours on Monday and Wednesday afternoons at St. Peter's Teen Center on Bowdoin St. and Murphy Community Center on Worrell St., respectively. Freda Brasfield, Menino's point-person in Mattapan, will host office hours at Mildred Avenue Community Center on Thursdays from 3-7 p.m.

All coordinators have e-mail devices, but the officer hours will allow for some privacy or a meeting at a coffee shop for those who lack e-mail capabilities, Mehigan said.

Councillor-at-Large Flaherty, widely seen as a potential contender in the next mayoral election, launched his own plan this month, dubbing it a "Kitchen Table Conversation Tour."

Flaherty said he has done several sit-downs already. Topics have included Menino's proposal to move City Hall from Government Center to the South Boston waterfront, street-cleaning complaints, and taking advantage of technology to better track citizen complaints to city government.

"People are feeling disconnected from City Hall," he said. "The list is endless," he added.

Flaherty said he will push for year-round street cleaning, instead of April through November, and advocate for putting more trash barrels on corners.

This renewed push to expand constituent services with more opportunities for face time with city officials is not without precedent. In the 1970s, Mayor Kevin White set up Little City Hall offices throughout the neighborhoods. They functioned as sub-stations of city government in each neighborhood, as well as nerve centers for White's political machine. In Dorchester, a trailer situated on a traffic island next to Town Field served as the neighborhood's Little City Hall.

"It was a phenomenal concept," Feeney said.

"Those are now known as community centers," said Councillor John Tobin, who represents Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, where he just opened his own satellite, district office.

Since the closing of the Little City Halls in the 1970s, the closest equivalent to a permanent presence in Dorchester has been Menino's CityLinks: Dorchester, a storefront office on 247 Bowdoin St. that serves as a clearinghouse for certain city services. That office opened in 2002.

Feeney's civic summit, her office notes, is not a specific attempt to reach out to activists in her own district, which she has served since 1993.

"This is an opportunity for all of us to learn what's going on throughout the city," she said. "Every neighborhood has a story."