Maura In The News

Hub council election matters after all

by Thomas Keane, Jr.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003

It's easy to get cynical about next week's Boston City Council election. Especially when so many councilors don't seem to want the jobs themselves.

At-large Councilor Stephen Murphy ran for treasurer in 2002 and is looking hard at running for Suffolk County sheriff next year. Twenty-two-year incumbent Maura Hennigan has run for state auditor and - twice - for state Senate. She's expected to run against Mayor Thomas Menino in 2005.

Long-time Councilor Charles Yancey, now in the fight of his life against challenger Ego Ezedi, has also run for state auditor and made bids for U.S. Congress in 1992 and 1998. Council President Michael Flaherty toyed with running for district attorney in 2001, as did the North End's Paul Scapicchio. Dorchester's Maureen Feeney ran for state Senate in 1997 and 1998, while Beacon Hill's Michael Ross flirted with a state Senate run in 2002.

(Full disclosure: I too was a city councilor and ran for Congress in 1998.)

And then there are the ones who made it out: Dan Conley (district attorney) and Mickey Roache (register of deeds) in 2002, Richard Iannella (register of probate) in 1996, John Nucci (clerk of courts) in 1994, Menino (mayor) in 1993 and Robert Travaglini (state senator and now president of that body) in 1992.

So are they the lucky ones, while the rest are in a kind of purgatory, desperate souls waiting for salvation? Is the council just a joke, an irrelevancy in a city with a strong-mayor form of government?

Sometimes, perhaps, but not always. Consider three cases.

He may have lost for state treasurer but Murphy learned a lot about the arcane intricacies of public finance. Boston, he discovered, was subject to different financial requirements than the rest of Massachusetts' cities and towns. Whatever it collected in property taxes, it was required to establish an ``overlay'' account (essentially a pool of money available for refunds) of 5 percent to 6 percent. The overlay for every other city and town was half of that.

Why the difference? The rule was a holdover from the 1950s, when state pols deeply distrusted Boston's messy and sometime corrupt finances - a problem, almost everyone concedes, that is no more.

Murphy quickly wrote up a measure to put Boston on the same footing as everyone else, pushed it through the council and testified on its behalf on Beacon Hill. It passed and was signed by the governor this year. The impact? At least $20 million annually in new money - a particularly welcome windfall as the state was cutting local aid.

Meanwhile, Jamaica Plain's Maura Hennigan has proven she doesn't shy from confrontation. A year ago, she started to raise questions about the city's animal control department after learning that euthanized dogs and cats had been disposed of in open dumps. The department's head eventually resigned. This year she began a crusade against potholes, rebuking Menino - the city's ``urban mechanic'' - for slacking off on basic city services. And just this month, when the city quietly tried to settle a lawsuit against the head of inspectional services, Hennigan was the only councilor to object. Her demands for some public accounting eventually triggered a still-ongoing investigation by the Boston Finance Commission.

When Felix Arroyo was sworn into office in 2002, the excitement from Boston's Latino population was palpable. Arroyo, the only at-large non-white councilor and the first Latino ever to join the body, became an enormous source of pride throughout the metropolitan area. Like the politicians elected by immigrant Irish and Italians a century before, his election signaled that a new immigrant group had officially arrived, and - like the generations before - was ready to take its place at the table.

These three cases - and each of the city's 13 councilors could probably recite many others in which he or she has been involved - speak to the three roles the body can play in city government.

Murphy's catch on the tax overlay is the kind of hard, detailed effort that makes city government work better. Hennigan's challenges to the status quo provide a necessary check, especially important in a system that grants enormous power to its mayor. And Arroyo's elevation to the council is an example of how a politician can give voice and prominence to those who sometimes aren't heard.

Is it actually a problem that so many councilors are looking to run for something else? Not really. Indeed, one might argue the opposite: Those who think they have something to add to politics should try to move from one level to the next. What counts is not their ambitions but what they do with them. Sure, it's easy to mock councilors. But the truth is that for all the ink spilled about the Red Sox, the work of the City Council matters much more than a ball team's success.

Talk back to Tom Keane at [email protected]

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