Council to take up leadership question
Arroyo bids today to replace Flaherty
By Kevin Joy, Globe Correspondent, 1/5/2004
Boston's only Latino city councilor, coming off a surprise election victory fueled by minority voters, faces a new challenge today when he attempts to wrest the leadership of the council from the two-term president.
Councilor at Large Felix D. Arroyo appears to have little chance at gaining enough of his colleagues' votes to win the gavel from City Council President Michael F. Flaherty today, but he hopes his candidacy will elevate the concerns of minority voters and minorities on the council.
"It's important to assert independence and establish our agenda for the council," Arroyo said yesterday. "If elected, I promise that the council will practice the politics of inclusion to bring Boston together around issues of importance to the city's diverse residents."
Two issues of note for the councilor are education and development.
For his part, Flaherty said he wants the council to find ways to be more inclusive and productive. He wants to closely examine the city's school assignment plan, making sure students have the option to attend class close to home. He plans to focus on boosting drug prevention programs for youths and gathering more financial support for community health centers and senior citizens.
Flaherty endorsed Arroyo in last fall's council elections at a point when it appeared that Arroyo's candidacy was struggling. Arroyo wound up with a strong, second-place finish, and he said last week that he had been considering a run for the presidency ever since Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan proposed the idea after his victory.
Arroyo acknowledges that the odds of him winning the presidency are long. "Several of the councilors let me know they already have a commitment to vote for someone else," he said. Nonetheless, he said, it is important to run for the post.
Flaherty said he has the support of at least nine of the council's 13 members -- more than enough to grant him a third term -- even though the council has seen recent division among its ranks due to a number of issues and personality clashes. The president serves for a one-year term.
"We're a small group, not a 200-person legislature," said Councilor John Tobin, who said internal disagreements could be attributed as much to the council's size than to any member's philosophy. "Sometimes it feels like we're on `Survivor: City Council.' "
Councilors have recently been at odds over a 75-year-old practice known as "Rule 19," which gives the president power to stifle open debate he believes is not germane to council business. Flaherty used Rule 19 nine times during his tenure, ending council discussion about matters such as the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. It infuriated Arroyo, Hennigan, and the group's two black councilors, Charles C. Yancey and Chuck Turner.
The divisions reached an apex in September, when Turner said at a news conference that Flaherty was tabling business brought forward by minority councilors in a manner that amounted to "institutional racism."
"If an issue affects Boston, the council should be open to discuss it," Arroyo said last week. "It doesn't mean we have to approve of it or spend much time on it. We only meet once a week, but if we have to do so two or three times, so be it."
Flaherty maintains that if a member wants to alter a council policy such as Rule 19 he or she should round up the seven council votes necessary to enact a change in the rules.
"At the end of the day, it takes a majority of the council to approve rules," Flaherty said. "The council president doesn't make the rules."
He said that the council could rewrite its entire agenda if it had the collective desire, but that too often small disagreements between members that he said can act "contrary for the sake of being contrary" stand in the way.
"We have an independent council majority that knows that grandstanding isn't the way to get things done," Flaherty said. "In the old days a mayor could get his budget passed by handing out a few summer jobs and fixing a pothole in someone's district. Today, he knows he has to work with a council that is focused on the big picture and the small details."
Other councilors say they aren't convinced.
"Clearly, there are times to work with the administration, but it's important to challenge decisions," Hennigan said. "We're supposed to be a check and balance. Constituents are better served by discussion so that you get a better product in the end."
Arroyo said he plans to fight for the elimination of Rule 19 and push a limit restricting a council president to two terms. Another priority, he said, is to involve neighborhoods in municipal planning, as opposed to merely the developers. He wants to improve the city's schools, doing so with his core principles of "equity and respect."
Both Arroyo and Flaherty said they want to unite the city council in terms of fairness and cooperation, even though its past has been checkered by dissension. Each said they would still hold an amicable professional relationship with the other following this afternoon's vote.
Arroyo said he is proud of what his decision stands for -- stepping in to lead a council and offering the public an alternative -- and remains hopeful about the outcome.
"You have to stand for what you believe in and take the risks that are necessary," he said. "This is an assertiveness of my own independence."
Globe correspondent Donovan Slack contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.