BRA status under next mayor is focus at forum

Mayor Thomas Menino created Boston Main Streets, a program that offers financial and technical assistance to local businesses, in 1995, and it has grown in size and scope since then. The city funnels federal grant funding and devotes City Hall staffers to Main Streets, which now boasts districts in 20 neighborhoods, including Fields Corner and Mattapan.

So it’s no surprise that many of their volunteers, executive directors, and others gathered at the Strand Theatre on Monday night to get a closer look at Menino’s potential successors. All 12 of the candidates vying for the mayor’s office appeared on the stage, all appearing to praise the work of the Main Streets program at a forum moderated by WGBH’s Callie Crossley.

Where candidates differed was on the future status of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a powerful quasi-public agency controlled by the mayor that handles planning and development in the city. City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo and former School Committee member John Barros said they would split the agency and put the planning function outside of the BRA. “Nobody in this room should have to depend on the benevolence of the next mayor,” Arroyo said.

State Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, who served as Menino’s housing chief, said she would order a “top to bottom review” of the agency, though she said she would not “burden” the city budget by adding a planning department. Money should go towards fighting crime and improving schools, she said, adding that she would hire an ombudsperson to troubleshoot issues with the BRA.

In other reactions, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said he, too, would not split the agency, adding that its effectiveness would be diminished if that were to happen. He would appoint a task force to review what has worked in the community process. City Councillor At-Large John Connolly said he would term limit BRA board members and usher in a “new era” of transparency. And Councillor Rob Consalvo pledged to hire an “innovative” BRA director. “They do a lot of things right and they do a lot of things wrong,” he said. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The Boston Redevelopment Authority has become an agency everybody loves to hate during election seasons, and this cycle is proving to be no exception. Many of this year’s mayoral candidates who responded to a Reporter questionnaire took up an open-ended question about which government agency they would reform by mentioning the BRA. Connolly was one of the exceptions, sticking to his criticism of the Boston Public School system as a bureaucracy that is “top-heavy.”

Conley and Yancey also answered buy citing the city’s schools, with Conley adding the Inspectional Services Department to his list.

At the forum, the candidates were also asked about City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley’s proposal to reform the city’s cumbersome liquor license process by retaking the city’s ability to dole out liquor licenses from the state, which would ensure that neighborhoods like Mattapan receive a fairer share of liquor licenses. Only one mayoral candidate, TOUCH 106.1 co-founder Charles Clemons, disagreed with Pressley’s proposal. “There are enough liquor licenses out there, we just have to make sure they’re distributed the right way,” he said. David James Wyatt, a Roxbury Republican running for mayor, said he has not seen the proposal.