Council hopefuls take up issues

The eight contenders vying for four citywide seats were split this week over how long pols in City Hall should warm the seats in the mayor’s office and on the City Council.

At a forum sponsored by the nonpartisan voting rights group MassVOTE, the City Council At-Large candidates also reiterated their stances on any reform of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s planning and development agency that has received a fierce drubbing on the campaign trail over an alleged lack of transparency.

The candidates stayed away from taking hits at one another; instead they often praised each other’s ideas in between announcing their names at the start of their answers in a bid to make sure the audience at UMass-Boston’s Campus Center could identify them.

Candidate Tomas Gonzalez, who had worked in Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration as chief of staff of the Elderly Commission, called on the 16-year mayoral incumbent to implement term limits if he wins another four years this November. “It could be the greatest gift he gives the city,” Gonzalez said. The city is “losing dynamic people” because of politicians staying too long in office, he added.

But others echoed Menino’s stance, arguing that voters get a chance to limit politicians’ terms in office every time they go to the ballot box. “I believe in the people’s right to choose who their representative is at all times,” said Felix Arroyo, a labor organizer and the son of the former city councillor at-large of the same name. He pointed to his father getting voted out as an example of the voters installing their own term limits.

Stephen Murphy, a city councillor at-large with 13 years under his belt, agreed.

Tito Jackson, on leave from his economic development job in Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, said he supported term limits, as did former U.S. Senate aide Ayanna Pressley and incumbent City Councillor At-Large John Connolly.

Pressley said she also supported extending councillors’ two-year terms to four years and making their elections concurrent with mayoral races.

Andrew Kenneally, a former aide in City Hall and Congress, said he has heard arguments for and against term limits from voters. Pointing to the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was in office for 47 years, Kenneally added, “He wasn’t able to achieve all he was able to achieve without that time.”

Doug Bennett, the race’s lone Republican and a former Nantucket selectman who moved to Boston, instead chose to accuse the 13-member City Council of being “afraid to stand up to the mayor for too long.”

Jackson said he agreed that the balance of power between the City Council and the mayor was tilted too heavily towards the mayor.
Murphy took exception to charges of the council’s weakness and rattled off a list of initiatives he and other members had championed. “In the mayoral fight, we’re hearing about the vast power of the mayor,” he said of the battle between outgoing City Councillor At-Large Michael Flaherty and Menino. “It just isn’t so. Plenty happens at the City Council level.”

The Boston Redevelopment Authority was another topic where councillors differed. Gonzalez, Jackson, Arroyo, and Pressley said they would separate out the agency’s two responsibilities – planning and development.

“There’s a reason nobody else has copied that model,” Arroyo said of agencies in other cities that do not have planning and development functions under the roof of one agency. “They act as if they’re doing you a favor by a showing up and telling you what their plans for the neighborhoods are, he added.

Pressley called proposals to abolish the agency “impulsive,” but said she’d support separating the two functions and increased transparency.

Murphy said the authority’s community involvement process could be improved, but he added that it was created by a home rule petition, meaning the City Council would have to ask the Legislature to change the city’s charter, which has been unchanged since 1909.

Bennett called for members of the BRA board to be elected.
Candidates were also asked about cuts to the budget, which could face further cuts this year as state revenues, which the city uses to fund local programs, continue to slide.

Pressley said further talk of cuts was “irresponsible” and city officials should look to diversifying the city’s revenue stream. “We are already feeling the brunt of a $150 million cut in local aid,” she said.

Taking a page from the campaign playbook of Councillor At-Large Flaherty, former Flaherty aide Kenneally said the city should move quickly on stalled developments. “There are holes in the ground all over our city,” he said. “That means of thousands of people out of work. You need to develop it, build that building, and then you can get the tax revenue you need.”

The candidates agreed in reforming the state’s criminal offender record information (CORI) and that colleges and other owners of city land that’s property-exempt should up their payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT).

“I don’t think anybody at this table is against it,” Gonzalez said of CORI reform, which has long stalled on Beacon Hill.
Reform advocates say criminal records are often confusing and hard to read, leading to ex-offenders losing out on jobs. Murphy, a longtime reform proponent, called the current system a “disaster.”

“Preventing them from getting a job sends them right back to a life of crime,” Kenneally said.

The forum, co-sponsored by over 30 groups and organizations, also featured some light moments. Jackson used part of the time allotted for an answer to the first question to sing “Happy Birthday” to his mother, Rosa, who was sitting in the audience. The rest of the crowd, and some of the City Council candidates, joined in.

“A very good use of your time, son,” quipped the forum’s moderator, WCVB-TV director of public affairs Karen Holmes Ward.