With Election Day less than three weeks away, South Enders had a valuable opportunity to hear from the candidates for the District 2 City Council seat, incumbent Bill Linehan and challenger Suzanne Lee, as well as from six of the eight candidates for the four City Council at Large slots at Wednesday, October 16’s candidate forum at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. The question and answer session was sponsored by the Ellis Neighborhood Association, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, and the South End News with South End News Co-Publisher Sue O’Connell moderating.
In her opening remarks to the audience of approximately 100, O’Connell noted the importance of this election and stated the hope that "we all can evoke as much passion for the issues as we have for the Patriots and the Red Sox." With that, the District 2 candidate information session began with introductions from Linehan and Lee. Linehan asserted that in his six and a half years representing District 2, "This seems to be the most important time to be running for office. The entire city government will be in transition, and my position is a formidable one." He cited his 20 years of experience in various city government positions prior to the council, and said, "I try to leverage that experience and the skills I’ve acquired in my 26 years to serve you." Linehan cited density as the key issue in development, advocated a transportation master plan, and called for the city to "incrementally expand the police force." Lee opened with her achievement in the area of education, specifically her 35 years at the Josiah Quincy School as a teacher and a principal, stating her pride in having worked at one of the highest-performing schools in Massachusetts. She named as priorities access to jobs, affordable housing and inclusiveness to make sure "everyone has a voice at the table in decision making."
On the subject of trash, an ongoing subject of vigorous discussion in the South End, Linehan pointed to improvements, recalling his efforts as a councilor to enact single stream recycling across District 2 with the result of recycling more materials, cutting costs and tripling total recycling. He also stressed the need to find ways to consolidate and limit the amount of time trash is on the street. Lee called trash and cleanliness a quality of life issue and reiterated her emphasis on bringing residents together to explore solutions through the lens of budgetary and other local concerns.
O’Connell brought up Mayor Menino’s plans for two last-minute appointments to the BRA and asked the candidates about the appropriateness of the move and the BRA’s structure. Lee asserted such appointments are not appropriate, and that the appointments should be short-term, as they may not fit in with the vision of the new leadership in years to come. Lee feels that the current structure of the BRA no longer serves the city well and wants to see a "real planning department to look at the whole city" and a separate economic development body that work together but are not combined. Linehan explained that BRA chairman of the board "Jeep" Jones was departing, but did not comment on the appropriateness of the appointments. Likewise, he made procedural explanations but stated no opinion on the idea of separating the planning and development functions and restructuring the BRA.
The St. Patrick’s Day parade and its continued exclusion of gay and lesbian groups drew quite different responses from the two District 2 candidates. Linehan cited his lifelong participation in and attachment to the parade as a celebration of Boston history and Irish culture, and explained the exclusion of LGBT groups as being grounded in their being issue-oriented as opposed to being a social, school or neighborhood group. He said that the marshal of the parade said that if they started accepting position groups, it would open a floodgate that might include the KKK and skinheads wanting to march. Lee wants to see greater inclusiveness, observing that the parade has also excluded a Veterans for Peace group. Lee feels that a more open parade would reinforce Boston’s image as a welcoming city.
An audience question about the housing inspection ordinance drew vehement opposition from Linehan, who opposed it when it came up for a vote and wants to see repeal, while Lee said that the inspection ordinance grew out of a legitimate concern about irresponsible property owners, but that the current ordinance is expensive and impractical. The Executive Director of the Castle Square Tenants Organization commented that their organization finds the inspections a drain on their finances that robs funds from their youth and upkeep programs.
In his conclusion, Linehan contrasted himself with Lee by virtue of his extensive experience in various city government positions, while Lee emphasized her many years in education and the importance of offering young people hope by providing good schools and community support for their education, development and safety.
After a brief pause, City Council At Large candidates Ayanna Pressley, Michelle Wu, Martin Keogh, Michael Flaherty, Council President Stephen J. Murphy and Jack F. Kelly III fielded questions from the moderator and the audience, while Jeff Ross and Annissa Essaibi-George were absent due to prior commitments. The session began with the controversial issue of level 4 research at the BioLab on Harrison Avenue. At Large Councilor Pressley expressed unequivocal opposition and said she was disheartened by the recent federal ruling that lifted the injunction on level 4 research. Pressley called the BioLab an environmental and social justice issue for the South End and the city, stating, "The reason why there are no level 4 biolabs in residential communities is because there shouldn’t be." Candidates Wu, Kelly, Keogh and Flaherty shared Pressley’s opposition, with only Murphy stating that he did not oppose level 4 research when it came before him as a Councilor. Flaherty recalled the tularemia scare of a few years back and noted that the evacuation route signs oppose each other in some places, pointing to a lack of preparedness in the event of a release of pathogens from the lab.
Continuing the local focus of the discussion, O’Connell asked the candidates about the biggest challenge facing District Two. Pressley pointed to her advocacy for women and girls on the issues of sexual violence, teen pregnancy and human trafficking, noting fervently that "Poverty, violence and trauma are not contained. They impact all of us," and called for city government to address these and other social problems holistically. Councilor Murphy noted the influx of new residents to the city particularly in the downtown areas of the South End, North End, Back Bay and Beacon Hill and the stresses this increased density puts on resources at the same time that the state has reduced local aid to Boston and the vast majority of city revenue has shifted to property tax. Flaherty and Wu expressed concern about residents being priced out of the neighborhood by ever-rising real estate values, with Wu praising the neighborhood’s "incredible socioeconomic diversity." Flaherty and Keogh pressed the need to retain young people and families, with Keogh advocating for more police to promote retention through public safety and Flaherty calling for improvement of the public schools to attract and retain families. Kelly pointed out that "we can’t arrest our way out of a problem. We need to get to the fundamental reason why we have these issues in the South End, South Boston and Chinatown." Kelly maintained that substance abuse is at the root of many of the city’s problems. "Poverty, crime and safety are all connected," Kelly said.
The candidates agreed that more community involvement in schools and less control from Court Street is key to improving public education throughout the city, and had differing ideas on the obstacles and how to achieve better, more community based schools. Keogh and Murphy expressed frustration at the cost of busing and would prefer to see that funding reduced to transfer spending to the schools themselves, while Pressley cited a deeper need to address poverty and called for immigration reform to allow recent arrivals to come out of hiding and focus on quality of life for their children and families. Wu, the guardian of her sister who is a junior at a BPS high school, pointed out that while some BPS schools have turned around with parental involvement and contributions, such success is harder to achieve in poorer areas of the city.
An audience member asked what the City Council actually does, emphasizing Boston’s strong mayor system. Current councilors Pressley and Murphy described their role as having influence outside the statutory limits of their job, Murphy having worked to promote CORI and PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) reform and Pressley having launched a home rule petition to transfer authority over liquor licenses in Boston from the state legislature back to the city. The candidates also saw themselves as voices for their own and constituent concerns, with Wu citing the importance of the constituent services role. Keogh, who worked in the past for former Councilors Peggy Davis Mullen and Maura Hennigan, said, "The Council can be used as platform for advocacy. We are the voice of the people and it is not weak. It will be a relevant form of government."
In closing statements, Kelly and Keogh drew on personal hardships and accomplishments that broadened their perspective, Keogh having dropped out of school and gone back to complete a GED and law school, while Kelly battled drug problems and found his way back to sobriety and a productive life. "I was one of those forgotten people," Kelly said. "When I was living in Boston Kingston House, there were blacks, gays, HIV positive people, people with hepatitis C, and not one second did anyone look at color or anything. I took everything I’ve learned from that experience and looked at it that we are all one. I took that with me in five years in the Mayor’s office." Council President Murphy described himself as "the voice of experience and a steady hand on the fiscal rudder."
As she closed the proceedings, O’Connell recalled asking city council candidates in the past why they want their job. "You don’t have any power," she said. "But over years I have come to realize that council has enormous power."