An At-Large Council gabfest: Issues aired at forum

Six of the seven candidates running for the four City Council At-Large slots faced off on Tuesday night in the first forum of the city’s election season, covering their positions on school transportation costs, city finances, and Boston’s bike-friendliness.

Two of the incumbents sought to praise their fellow city councillors at-large, saying the current line-up – John Connolly, Stephen Murphy, Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley – works well together, with Connolly stating that the four are the “best slate” since the city moved to the current system of four citywide councillors at-large.

“Each of us comes from very different places and very different life experiences and we don’t agree on everything,” said Connolly, who is seeking a third two-year term. “But in our two years together we’ve always worked together to bring Boston together.”

Murphy, who also serves as City Council president, dismissed complaints about a “strong mayor, weak council” system of government that has drawn criticism from past and present candidates for municipal office. Murphy, who has been a councillor since 1997, called the four incumbents a “divergent group,” and said they have often pushed back against Mayor Thomas Menino.

“I’m proud to tell you that we have not lost a single branch library,” City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo told the forum’s crowd, largely made up of members of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee, at the First Church in the Back Bay neighborhood. Arroyo was referring to Menino’s abandoned plan to close four branches, including the one in Lower Mills.

But Michael Flaherty, making a bid for an at-large seat after giving his spot on the council up to unsuccessfully run for mayor in 2009, argued that he would be a more independent voice.

“I know they want to keep their jobs, I get it,” he said. “That said, I’m beholden to no one.”

In his closing remarks, which followed Murphy and Connolly praising their colleagues, Flaherty said, “I think they’ve all endorsed each other.”

City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley, who was elected in 2009 along with Arroyo, was unable to attend because of her mother’s illness. In a letter to ward committee members, Pressley apologized and said she was spending most of her time at the hospital with her mother Sandra.

“I serve as her medical proxy and the seriousness of her condition requires me to make decisions about the course of her treatment, day and night,” Pressley wrote. “But watching my mother fight her illness has only strengthened my resolve to win reelection in November. My mother would have it no other way.”

Hyde Park’s Will Dorcena, in his first bid for public office, and Jamaica Plain’s Sean Ryan, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council At-Large in 2009, also participated in the forum, which was moderated by Boston Phoenix reporter David Bernstein.

Dorcena, who grew up in Uphams Corner and is the brother of Dorchester state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, said his platform includes increased transparency in government, fixing the schools, stopping “senseless” youth crimes, and growing the economy.

Ryan, who avoided mentioning his past support for eliminating the Federal Reserve, said he would focus on “schools, services, and safety,” arguing City Hall reforms were “overdue” and referencing last week’s conviction of former North End politician Salvatore DiMasi, the third House speaker in a row to face federal charges. “We have to ask ourselves, why hasn’t progress been made?” Ryan said.

Most of the candidates appeared to agree that busing – imposed in the 1970s through a court aimed at desegregating Boston’s schools – was an expensive relic of the past, costing the city $80 million a year.

Connolly, who chairs the council’s education committee, said spending that $80 million amounted to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Connolly added that he has a young child who will enter the school assignment system, administered through a lottery, this fall. “We shouldn’t put our kids in a lottery,” Connolly said. “By definition it means some children win, and some children lose.”

Candidates also discussed the city’s $4.5 billion unfunded health care costs for retirees. Dorcena called the figure “scary,” and said he supported looking at the city budget “line by line” and prioritizing education. He called the Menino administration’s proposal to move the Boston Public Schools headquarters from downtown Boston to Roxbury “not the best use of city money at this point and time.”

Flaherty and Murphy called for new employees to pay more into their health care plans.

Asked whether the city was doing enough about environmental issues, Arroyo said the city has rapidly become bike-friendly, and both he and Connolly said more recycling bins need to be out on the streets.

Asked how many of them supported Menino’s argument that a Newbury Street Nike store should remove a display that featured t-shirts appearing to encourage drug use, Connolly, Murphy and Flaherty raised their hands.

After the forum, the Ward 5 Democrats voted to endorse three of the incumbents, Arroyo, Connolly, and Pressley, for election on Nov. 8.