Feeney reign a model of 'unity' politics

Maureen FeeneyMaureen Feeney

The plastic nametags on the concrete walls of City Hall's fifth floor are shuffling again, workers are pushing dollies full of files down the corridors and the walls of the President's office have already changed from hot pink to powder blue. Though she will be back in the small office she had three years ago, City Councillor Maureen Feeney doesn't plan to leave the building anytime soon.

Starting her 14th year as District 3's councillor, Feeney is past the 20-year mark as a city employee due to her previous job as a community liaison with former Councillor Jim Byrne. That makes her eligible for a significant pension, and many - particularly the political hopefuls waiting in the wings for an open shot at her seat - have speculated on her future. Will she move the private sector? Will she seek another position in the city? Retirement? Whatever may come in future days, Feeney said she's looking forward to at least one more term.

"I know that I'm running this time and then we'll see," she said from a cozy blue chair in her half-packed office Monday. "It will be great to really re-focus on District 3, especially in these very challenging times that are facing us. It will be great to be deeply rooted again."

Feeney managed to push through a respectable agenda in her role as president of the council, even as major conflagrations in her district kept her busy.

The Archdiocese proved itself a particularly distracting entity. Early in 2007, she pulled together elected officials to discuss the Archdiocese's plans to consolidate Dorchester's eight parochial K-8 schools, and watch-dogged the process from end to end. Though there are kinks still to work out, she said, parents are largely happy with the results.

Later that year, she also became one of the loudest advocates for saving the Archdiocese's Caritas Carney Hospital on Dot Avenue after rumors that it would close or have its range of acute care services gutted. She convened several meetings with elected officials and the Boston Globe's editorial board that October.

"The biggest thing to me was the Carney Hospital," she said, modestly citing her "small role" in suppoting the facility. "That was critically important to me."

Though his words came on the tail of the elimination of 50 jobs, new CEO Ralph De La Torre in May announced to a crowd of advocates and other elected officials that Caritas would reinvest in and revamp the Carney.

On a smaller scale, Feeney also addressed a rash of churches in residential homes that were disrupting neighborhoods, including one whose minister cut a hole in the living room floor and installed a hot tub/baptismal pool, supported only by sawhorses. That house is still for sale and unoccupied.

Despite helping to put out these fires and many others, Feeney created a number of changes in the Council that will likely outlast her term.

First and foremost is probably the two-year term limit on the council presidency. Before that change, a Council President could consolidate power with his or her power to appoint chairmanships to the council's committees and stay in office for years on end.

"Its absolutely changed the dynamic of this body, and this [president selecting] process," said District 8 Councillor Ross, widely expected to be elected president when the council convenes Monday.

Feeney also pulled together the Boston Civic Summit, where a crowd of over 450 largely from civic and neighborhood associations chose education, public safety and the environment as their top priorities. A group started at the summit still meets regularly.

"I think the Civic Summit was a great concept," said Ross. "I think that's a concept that should be continued in some form."

Less is likely to come of a report Feeney introduced in September 2008 that called for a review of legislative powers of the council and the open meeting law, though it added to the ammunition of critics of procedures like the home rule petition, which - Feeney likes to remind people - recently came into play in the city's latest wave of corruption scandals.

"This is the challenge of operating in a home rule city," she said. "We need to go hat in hand to the state legislature and plead our case over and over again."

Though Feeney herded through a number of other ordinances for her constituents in the last two years, including a rate increase for taxi drivers at the height of the past summer's gas price explosion and a shake up of a sleepy community board at the Murphy Community Center, Feeney's role in 2008 is more likely to be remembered as part of the sordid story of the FBI sting on former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and District 7's City Councillor Chuck Turner.

At the behest of Wilkerson - for a set of economic development reasons Feeney still defends as sound policy - Feeney sponsored a home rule petition for 40 non-transferable liquor licenses and 30 beer and wine licenses in under-developed areas. It was approved by the council in September and later approved by the Senate. It foundered in the House.

"For me, the legislation that was proposed, I felt it was a very positive outcome because it really targeted those areas of need," said Feeney in early November, after the FBI revealed that a cooperating witness was allegedly bribing Wilkerson to obtain a particular license in Roxbury.

Later that month, the FBI released a photo of Councillor Turner and his iconic white beard allegedly palming a wad of cash said to be $1,000. Investigators charged him with bribery relating to the Wilkerson case.

Council President Feeney promptly stripped Turner of his committee assignments, a move she still defends despite raucous protests held by Turner's supporters in Government Center. For a week or two she was the constant focus of Turner's fiery oratory skills, along with anyone considering themselves a member of the "corporate media."

"Probably one of the best things we've done is remove him from his committee assignments," she said Monday. "What we saw on the street is probably what we would have seen in the chamber."

To assess Turner's fitness for office, Feeney appointed former federal magistrate Charles Smartwood, at a rate of $500 an hour. (An assistant will be paid less and legal interns will do the light work.) His report is expected in February.

But among some of her colleagues at least, including Ross, Feeney's time will be remembered as a time of relative peace in the Ianella Chamber.

"For most of her time she brought unity to the council," said Ross. "It works best when we work together. Divisions have historically plagued this body… There's a couple people on the council I know that would have liked to have seen a couple more years of Feeney because she was just that good."