Maura In The News

When it matters, their silence conspicuous

Council mum on inspections issue

By Michael Jonas, Globe Staff, 10/12/2003

Is it really any wonder why so few Bostonians bothered to vote in last month's preliminary City Council election?

When radio talk host John Dennis made a bigoted remark on WEEI, comparing an escaped zoo gorilla to a black Metco student, no fewer than 10 Boston city councilors rushed to sign a letter condemning the comments and calling on the station to fire the sports show gabmeister.

Yet when the city settled a lawsuit for $240,000 with a former employee who alleges that the head of the powerful Inspectional Services Department, Kevin Joyce, rigged a bid and drove her from her job when she refused to go along with the shenanigans, the reaction from councilors was radio silence.

Except for Maura Hennigan, the lone councilor to raise questions about the matter, members of the city's legislative body seemed more interested in the personnel affairs of a local radio station than in the disturbing possibility that a city department head was involved in the improper procurement of services and firing of an employee who tried to blow the whistle, acts for which city taxpayers have been left to pay a hefty bill.

The reaction is further proof that when the going gets tough, most councilors get going -- straight into the tank with the Menino administration. The councilors' aversion to taking stands that might anger the administration makes it understandably hard for many voters to see what distinguishes candidates seeking election next month. And the fact that one critical council voice was raised on the issue is further proof of why political posturing and the hurly-burly of conflict among elected officials -- the very things it is now popular to say we need to put behind us -- are good for government.

Councilors' reluctance to raise questions about the legal settlement is understandable. Joyce is an old friend of Mayor Tom Menino. What's more, with a battalion of city inspectors under his command, Joyce wields tremendous power, and councilors need good relations with his office if they are to be effective in getting constituent concerns addressed.

But it's a problem when those who represent the only check against unbridled executive power are so beholden to that authority.

''You're supposed to look at the bigger picture and the policy issues,'' says Hennigan, who called on the Boston Finance Commission, a city-funded watchdog agency, to investigate the lawsuit and settlement. The size of the settlement the city agreed to with former ISD employee Julie Fothergill suggests to some that her lawsuit had a lot going for it. And if her allegations are true, they raise the specter of criminal acts that may warrant attention from prosecutors.

''You can never forget -- we don't work for the administration, we work for the people, for the taxpayers,'' says Hennigan. ''If something is not right -- and there is every indication something is not right here -- it's our obligation to say something about it.''

So why is Hennigan the one saying something? Politics. A dirty word in today's culture, politics is actually what makes government work. Hennigan, a 22-year council veteran, is considering running against Menino in two years. Most think it would be a kamikaze mission akin to Peggy Davis-Mullen's flame-out of two years ago. But for now at least, it has emboldened Hennigan to say what many of her colleagues are probably thinking.

Hennigan was among those signing the council letter to WEEI management. ''It was outrageous,'' she says of Dennis's comments. ''But people should be just as upset about this,'' she says of the cloud hanging over inspectional services. And unlike the static generated by the radio host debate, this is a city issue, over which the public might expect council voices to be coming in loud and clear.

Michael Jonas's e-mail address is [email protected]

This story ran on page 8 of the Boston Globe on 10/12/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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