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Subdued Back Bay mayoral forum follows a day of controversy

by Ashley Rigazio
Contributor
Wednesday Sep 16, 2009
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Menino wins Ward 5 endorsement; Ward 4 to wait until after preliminary election

After a competitive day on the campaign trail that included dueling press conferences and allegations of City Hall corruption, Boston’s four mayoral candidates met Monday, Sept. 14, at Boston Architectural College in Back Bay to discuss the economy, planning, and development at the Boston Wards 4 and 5 Democratic Committee mayoral forum. In the end, incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino received Ward 5’s endorsement, and Ward 4 announced it would endorse after the Sept. 22 preliminary municipal elections.

The possible public records law violation by Menino’s Chief of Policy and Planning Michael Kineavy came up only briefly when the candidates were asked how they would improve efficiency at City Hall.

"Let’s talk about technology-we don’t have voicemail at City Hall. My office regularly keeps a log of when the system crashes, because it happens so often. ... As we heard today, e-mails get deleted," said At-Large City Councilor Sam Yoon, adding, "I think common sense would say that this was deliberate deletion of e-mails."

Fellow At-Large Councilor Michael Flaherty also alluded to the investigation when asked which city services he would eliminate, replying, "Over the last 24 hours, I would actually make the case that MIS [Management and Information Services] has to go."

Meanwhile, South End developer Kevin McCrea proposed "the Total Transparency Project-all documents, all expenses, all job postings should be available online."

Mayor Tom Menino did not address the issue, which the city’s top lawyer Bill Sinnott explained as "unintentional" and the result of a glitch in the electronic back-up system.

Moderator David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix opened Monday’s forum by asking what the candidates would do to stimulate Boston’s economy and create jobs, and whether they would support a gambling venue to increase city revenues.

Menino replied that Boston is consistently "a strong economy," and financial service businesses are interested in returning to the city.

"They’ve moved to some of the smaller cities-but they don’t have the brain power that we have in Boston," he said.

The three challengers agreed that a gambling venue in the city would not be the economic solution, both on logical and moral grounds.

"Casinos, like the general economy, are struggling," said Flaherty, referring to a recent report on Foxwoods’ financial instability. "That’s not the answer to our economic woes."

"It’s been shown that where casinos go in-especially in urban areas-that problem gambling usually goes from about two percent to four percent, which would mean that here in Boston, we could basically fill up Boston Garden with about 15,000 gambling addicts," said McCrea.

Yoon attacked Menino for not fully answering the question: "I think this is an important difference between the mayor and the rest of us."

Yoon asserted that exploiting vulnerable residents is not economic development and backed dismantling the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to increase city property tax revenues.

Flaherty said "hundreds, maybe thousands of jobs" could be created by enforcing the Boston Residents Jobs Policy, which mandates that city-funded construction projects employ 50 percent residents, 25 percent people of color, and 10 percent women.

McCrea agreed, explaining that in his experience, "It can be done." But during Menino’s time as mayor, he said, "It’s gone from 43 percent city residents working on these jobs down to 34 percent."

McCrea also called for an end to police details, jobs he would then fill with civilians.

When asked how they would support and maintain the city’s parks without increasing funding, Yoon called for budget management reforms and Flaherty and Menino supported public-private partnerships, an idea that McCrea strongly opposed.

Yoon said there’s "more than enough" money in the budget to fund parks and recreation. He used the elimination of the city’s mounted police as an example: "If we simply managed the overtime budget of the police department better for one week, we could have saved the entire mounted police, at a cost of $1 million."

"There’s $74 million of savings that we can achieve by enacting simple management reforms that haven’t been done for the past 16 years," he added.

Flaherty responded that he would use a thorough performance review to keep costs down and improve programming.

"It’s about going department to department, line item by line item, identifying what’s working and what’s not working, and how we can eliminate wasteful government spending," he said, adding that Post Office Square could be used as a model for future public-private partnerships.

McCrea disagreed, noting that the Public Gardens and Boston Common have been municipally owned for hundreds of years: "They should be controlled by our citizens. ... There’s been a short little dip in our economy now, but it’s not time to throw away public control."

Calling Post Office Square "a boondoggle," McCrea said city residents have been on the losing side of city partnerships. He then alleged that Menino "gave away Hayward Place," a $23 million downtown property, to the BRA.

"If we could just recover that piece of property, we could pay for two parks budgets," maintained McCrea. "What have the citizens received? Nothing. The mayor gave it to the BRA for free. They’re running that job site as a parking lot. ... But you know who did make out? Twenty thousands dollars in donations to Tom Menino’s campaign fund. That has to stop."

Menino defended his actions.

"We’ve received $10 million so far from Hayward Place, and that’s in a bank account making interest right now," he said, noting that he expects $13 million more by 2010.

For future parks projects, Menino said, "Public-private partnerships are the way to go, and I as mayor am very proud of myself for how we’ve maintained the parks and beautified the flowers we have in the neighborhoods."

Unlike his opponents, Menino did not see a need for a citywide, 25-year master plan, instead opting for neighborhood-based planning.

"This is a unique city. Every neighborhood has its own unique needs," he said.

Yoon, a former housing director for the Asian Community Development Corporation, alleged that this hasn’t been the case under Menino’s administration.

"Mr. Mayor, you don’t support community-driven planning. You don’t," he said. "You’re dismissive of communities. I’ve seen it. ... The community stands in the way of your master planning effort."

Stating that only "participatory planning" works, Yoon backed using charrettes-interactive, collaborative design sessions-to form a community-driven master plan.

"Planning under a strong-mayor system will only represent the view of one person," Yoon continued. "It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been mayor of Boston, you don’t represent the best ideas and visions of the people who you represent."

Flaherty called for both citywide and neighborhood-specific plans for "comprehensive strategic development" over the next 25 years, as well as a stand-alone planning department to replace the BRA. Noting the success of the city’s convention spaces, he backed the creation of 5,000 additional hotel rooms.

McCrea outlined a plan to split the BRA’s duties into two organizations-planning and development-controlled by the City Council, and pledged to visit every neighborhood in the city over a two-year period to assemble a 25-year master plan addressing urban density, mass transit, open spaces, schools, and libraries. This, he said, would end "this spot zoning and pay-to-play system that we have now."

But Menino said his record speaks for itself, and he would continue to reduce overtime, recruit top talents, and smartly manage the city’s finances.

"The city under my administration has made the right decisions in good times and bad times," he said. "We’ve built strong neighborhoods, safe streets, and better schools. We’ve cut residential property taxes the last two years in our city."

The field of four will be cut in half in Tuesday, Sept. 22’s preliminary municipal elections. The two winners will then face off on Nov. 3 in the municipal finals.

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