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Local color
Strictly local, or a vehicle for commentary on national and world issues? The Boston City Council ponders its role.
BY ADAM REILLY
You say you want a resolution

BELOW IS A sampling of Boston City Council stands on national and international issues from 1975 to 1985, arguably the heyday of council activism. The name of the sponsoring city councilor or councilors follows in parentheses.

1975

• Resolution calling for immediate international moratorium on whale hunting (Joseph Tierney)

• Resolution instructing all city and county departments and agencies to buy American-made goods (Christopher Iannella)

• Resolution urging a peaceful solution to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus (Tierney)

• Resolution urging the state Supreme Judicial Court to declare abortion on demand unconstitutional (Louise Day Hicks)

• Resolution deploring United Nations vote labeling Zionism "racism and discrimination" (Gerald O’Leary)

1976

• Resolution calling on Congress to begin scheduled hearings on the situation in Northern Ireland (Iannella, Patrick McDonough)

• Resolution proclaiming January 2, 1976, Ukrainian Independence Day (Hicks, James Michael Connolly, Frederick Langone)

• Resolution welcoming delegates to the fourth National Right-to-Life Convention, held that year in Boston, and designating the week of June 20 Right-to-Life Week in the city (Iannella)

1977

• Resolution urging state congressional delegation to enact pending US House resolution calling for hearings on Northern Ireland (Tierney)

1978

• Resolution declaring January 22 Right-to-Life Day in Boston (Raymond Flynn)

• Resolution endorsing extension of deadline for ratification of Equal Rights Amendment (Larry DiCara, Rosemary Sansone)

1980

• Resolution supporting economic, political, and religious freedom for people of Poland (Flynn)

1981

• Resolution congratulating Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy for taking a bullet for President Ronald Reagan (Flynn)

1983

• Resolution declaring January 22 and 23 a "weekend of prayer and reflection on the value of life" in Boston (Flynn)

1984

• Ordinance calling for divestment of city funds from financial entities doing business in South Africa (Charles Yancey)

1985

• Resolution endorsing farm workers’ boycott of California table grapes (David Scondras, Tom Menino, Yancey, Maura Hennigan, Michael McCormack, Brian McLaughlin, Bruce Bolling, Robert Travaglini, Iannella)

• Resolution congratulating the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation for informing the American people about the dangers of communism (James Kelly)

— AR and DF

IT’S A QUESTION of potholes versus policy. It’s been festering in the Boston City Council for a year. And earlier this month, at the council’s October 1 meeting, it finally came to a head. The overt disagreement was over the merits of Rule 19, which allows city-council presidents unilaterally to squelch discussion of subjects that they think have no "direct bearing" on council business. But the bigger issue was the council’s direction and purpose. Should it confine itself to tractable local issues, an approach championed by council president Michael Flaherty? Or should it delve into bigger national and international questions as well?

On October 1, Flaherty, an at-large councilor from South Boston, remained stoic while District Four councilor Charles Yancey — whose opponent, Ego Ezedi, has Flaherty’s backing in the upcoming council election — panned his use of Rule 19 as "arbitrary, whimsical, and capricious." Yancey’s language stood out for its sharpness, but his basic argument — that Rule 19 should be revamped to require a council vote before discussion of any order, resolution, or ordinance is halted — was also made by District Seven councilor Chuck Turner and at-large councilors Felix Arroyo and Maura Hennigan. (Earlier this year, a proposal to amend the rule in this manner was defeated by a 7-5 vote, with Yancey, Turner, Arroyo, Hennigan, and at-large councilor Stephen Murphy voting in the minority; on October 1, Turner and Yancey proposed the change again.) Another group took a more conciliatory tack. District Five councilor Rob Consalvo and District Six councilor John Tobin proposed giving councilors five minutes to speak on any topic, be it local or international, at the end of each meeting. Murphy again voiced approval for the majority-vote requirement, but urged that any change be deferred until the council takes its annual vote on rules in early 2004. District Two councilor James Kelly and District Three’s Maureen Feeney were considerably less moderate: both defended the status quo, praised Flaherty for keeping the council focused, and scolded Yancey and his compatriots for creating what they described as an unnecessary distraction.

"I can’t understand why there isn’t more effort into talking about everyday issues that have a devastating impact on the quality of life of the people that live in the districts that we represent," Kelly said with exasperation. After adding that some of his colleagues, whom he did not name, were focusing excessively on Rule 19 and failing to address drug and crime problems in their districts — an obvious reference to Yancey and Turner — Kelly condemned his opponents’ presumed motives. "If we allow ourselves to get into those hot-button issues, then we won’t have civil discourse in this body," the former council president said. "There are just too many issues out there that I feel very, very passionately about, and I know my colleagues feel equally passionate on the other side. I don’t raise those issues because they’re provocative. But they want to raise those issues. They want to provoke." Feeney, who occasionally raised her voice to a full-out shout, was even harsher. "I am so tired, so offended, so nauseated with Rule 19 being used as a weapon," she complained. "I am so disgusted that we spend every week, week after week, [debating] Rule 19.... I implore each and every one of you — grow up! Start acting like the adults and legislators we were sent to be!"

This debate — and its occasionally visceral tone — dates back to October 2002, when Flaherty invoked Rule 19 to halt discussion of Turner’s resolution opposing US military action in Iraq. Two months later, Flaherty twice used Rule 19 to halt attempts by Yancey — who, with Turner, is one of the council’s two African-American members — to revisit the council’s recent redistricting, which Yancey claims was based on flawed data and resulted in the unfair partitioning of his district. In 2003, Flaherty has used Rule 19 to table the following: a third attempt by Yancey to reopen the redistricting issue; a resolution opposing a pre-emptive attack on Iraq without proof of an imminent threat to the US; an order for a hearing on the Iraq war’s fiscal impact on Boston; a resolution calling on the city of Philadelphia to exonerate embattled Providence activist Camilo Viveiros, arrested while protesting during the 2000 Republican National Convention (see "Rough Justice," News and Features, January 18, 2001); a resolution opposing the Patriot Act and affirming support for the Bill of Rights and the Constitution; and a resolution urging Congress to oppose the Bush administration’s cutbacks in funding for active US troops and their families. Last month, Turner, Yancey, and Arroyo, the council’s only Latino, called a press conference to criticize Flaherty’s use of Rule 19. When Turner injected discussion of race into his critique, an uproar ensued; Turner quickly downplayed his comments, but the subject had been imbued with an abiding emotional charge.

In other words, the intense back-and-forth that played out earlier this month wasn’t a surprise. Still, the October 1 council meeting — at which both Yancey and Turner’s proposed change to Rule 19 and Consalvo and Tobin’s five-minutes-per-councilor suggestion were relegated to committee — was truly bizarre. Kelly, for instance — who spoke so fiercely in support of Rule 19 — hasn’t always felt this way. In 1985, he put forward a resolution "endorsing [the] president and his policies to bring peace to this hemisphere." Kelly’s proposed resolution, which doubled as a paean to Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and a call to support the Nicaraguan Contras, lacked any obvious connection to the day-to-day concerns of his constituents. It also took a potentially combative stance on issues that were as inflammatory then as they are now.

It’s been 18 years since Kelly suggested the pro-Contra resolution, and he has every right to change his mind. But the discrepancy between his past actions and current point of view indicates the magnitude of a shift apparently completed under Flaherty. Back in 1985, Kelly’s proposed resolution was nixed under the very rule he now defends. (It was Rule 17 at the time.) But throughout the 1980s, resolutions like Kelly’s, often dealing with loaded questions over which the group has no jurisdiction, were routinely proposed and passed. The council has criticized Roe v. Wade and endorsed Ukrainian independence, pushed to end apartheid and weighed in on Northern Ireland, panned the PLO and praised the Secret Service agent who took a bullet for Reagan in 1981 (see "You Say You Want a Resolution," page 20). Frequently, was done so when the slate of local problems was dauntingly large. Today, this no longer happens. But is that a good thing?

FLAHERTY DECLINED to discuss his thinking about Rule 19 for this article. But while campaigning in front of the West Roxbury Branch Library on September 23, the day of the preliminary city election, he addressed the subject at some length. Flaherty argued that the council should devote its energies to local issues like affordable housing and public education, and claimed that failure to do so would represent a betrayal of the council’s constituency. "That’s what the city council does — focus on daily life and city issues," he said. "You start dabbling in international issues, and you get into a gray area."

As if on cue, a Flaherty backer walked over with some words of encouragement: "Hey, keep those guys’ minds on city business!" Flaherty looked gratified. "Thank God," he said afterward. "I’ve been getting that for the last two weeks. I’m all for making personal political statements, but not in the city-council chambers and not on council time. That’s not why I’ve been elected."

There was a hint of ambivalence to Flaherty’s argument. He said that he has "some major issues" with the Patriot Act, and that he’s open to signing letters on national and international issues with other councilors outside of council time. But he also seemed unsure that such testimonials would have much of an effect. At one point, he slipped into a mock dialogue that highlighted this skepticism: "‘Mr. President? I have a letter from the Boston City Council telling you not to cut military pay.’ ‘Get Rumsfeld on the phone!’ Can you imagine?" (See "Ticket Topper," This Just In, September 26.)

Nancy Talanian — director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a Northampton-based organization dedicated to grassroots civil-liberties activism — says she’s heard this critique before. "That’s the standard response: ‘It’s not a local issue, we’re just concerned with local issues,’" she says. Even so, almost 200 communities around the US, including Arlington, Brookline, and Cambridge, have passed resolutions designating themselves "civil-liberties safe zones." In addition to focusing public attention on the issue, Talanian says, these resolutions can have profound practical consequences. "As a city council, you have purview over what the local law enforcement can and cannot do, and it would make people in the community feel better that at least their own local law enforcement isn’t going to violate their rights and liberties," she explains. "Then it becomes a matter for the federal government, the FBI and the INS, to come in and do the work. And if that’s the case, they may be less likely to do so, because it costs time and money."

Earlier this year, Chuck Turner’s proposal for a resolution condemning the Patriot Act was Rule 19–ed away by Flaherty; last year, he offered a similar proposal that brought approximately 250 people to a council hearing at Dudley Square Library, but it was ultimately rejected in a close council vote. Turner, who cites Flaherty’s about-face on the Patriot Act’s relevance as evidence that Rule 19 needs to be altered, says he’s simply serving his constituency by focusing on the Patriot Act’s downside. "Particularly for people of African descent, we have experienced historically as well as in the 1960s the government using its power to suppress our struggle for equality in this country," he says. "The Latino population has also experienced in various ways governmental oppression historically. So when we’re faced with an act of Congress that knowingly gives power to the government to move beyond constitutional protections, we would be foolish not to be concerned and not to view it as an issue that our elected leaders should be discussing."

His take on the Iraq war — which has been the subject of approximately 140 local ordinances and resolutions nationwide — is similar. "Wars cost money," Turner says. "We are at a point where the finances of states and therefore of cities throughout the country are in disarray because of the recession and other factors. It’s critically important that local elected leaders who see close-up the situation in the neighborhoods, and the needs for resources for educating, for housing, et cetera, speak out on issues in terms of national strategies which will further weaken our resource base."

But while Turner and others want the council to re-embrace an activist approach, Flaherty has reason to maintain his position. As he seeks to continue his council presidency next year — and if he runs for mayor in the future, as many speculate he will — Flaherty’s image as the man who’s steered the council clear of superfluous dawdling is likely to be an asset. Meanwhile, his philosophy has been embraced by a majority of the council as well as by some of the stronger challengers running for council seats. This year, for example, aspiring councilors like at-large candidates Patricia White and Matt O’Malley have made a point of praising Flaherty’s leadership style and voicing approval for his locally oriented philosophy.

Some former councilors also defend Flaherty’s stance. During Larry DiCara’s tenure on the council — which included the tumultuous mid 1970s, when the Boston busing crisis was at its height — national and international issues were fair game. The resolutions that engaged them had no consistent ideological content: in the same year the council made symbolic statements asking the state Supreme Judicial Court to declare abortion illegal and calling on the Soviet Union to release Ukrainian dissidents from prison, DiCara — an avowed fan of migrant-labor leader Cesar Chavez — introduced several successful resolutions calling on the citizens of Boston to boycott grapes and lettuce harvested by nonunion workers. While DiCara doesn’t apologize for the approach the council took during his years of service, he defends the right of the current council — and Flaherty — to create and maintain its own distinctive ethos. "Every January the council elects a president; that person has [at least] seven votes, and if the person who’s running the meetings doesn’t have the authority to conduct the meetings, then you’re really in a state of anarchy," DiCara says, adding, "I’m not trying to toss the ball, but I think they have to have the leeway to run the meeting as they see fit. If, hypothetically, everyone on the council believes it should be a forum for all issues of significance to the world, so be it. That’s democracy, and I’m not so sure that one is good and one is bad. But I also happen to think that there’s plenty going on that the city council can deal with, whether it be the recent rise in crime, the whole new school-assignment issue, the cost of housing, you name it. There are tons of issues the council can talk about."

Others are more skeptical. "The city council meets once a week; it has plenty of time," says David Scondras, who served on the council from 1984 to 1994. In 1988, three years after Kelly’s pro-Reagan, pro-Contra resolution was dismissed, a Scondras resolution arguing the opposite point of view met the same fate. This happened more frequently in Scondras’s era than in DiCara’s; in the latter part of the 1980s, resolutions and ordinances on issues from apartheid to the Tiananmen Square crackdown to human-rights abuses in Colombia were consigned to oblivion. Even so, the council remained attentive to issues originating outside of Boston’s city limits, reiterating support for Chavez’s efforts to unionize migrant workers in California and mandating divestment of city funds from financial institutions doing business in apartheid-era South Africa.

Scondras rejects the notion that the concerns of Boston residents can be neatly compartmentalized into local, national, and international categories, and he questions the merits of Flaherty’s more parochial approach. "It’s legitimate to say the council’s business should be the business of people living in the district the councilor represents," Scondras says. "But people who live in Boston aren’t just affected by what the mayor does; they’re also affected by other things.... Your job is to represent the interests of your constituents, and not to pretend there’s some artificial geopolitical boundary that can’t be crossed."

During Scondras’s years on the council, he clearly had a more left-wing perspective than most of his colleagues. Today, the debate over Rule 19 focuses on resolutions proposed by members of the council’s so-called progressive wing. According to Heidi Hobbs, a political scientist at North Carolina State University and the author of City Hall Goes Abroad: The Foreign Policy of Local Politics, this fits a larger pattern. Historically, Hobbs says, outward-looking municipal activism has been a liberal tendency. "It really gets very active in the 1980s," Hobbs says. "You had the anti-apartheid movement, the nuclear-free-zone movement, the sanctuary movement [for Latin American refugees], the movement for a comprehensive test-ban treaty at that time. Why was that? Well, you had a Republican administration that sort of had its own agenda, and really was not very in touch with what probably a majority of Americans were thinking about international issues at the time."

Hobbs, who argues that local activism on apartheid and nuclear weapons eventually shaped federal policy on those issues, believes a similar dynamic exists today. "I think you’re seeing that same phenomenon again. Now you have a Republican administration that again sort of goes out in its own direction, and suddenly you have local activism resurfacing in a big way — you have these resolutions on Iraq and resolutions on the Patriot Act. It’s obviously a feeling that government is not listening to them.... People say, if the federal government is not listening to me, maybe the local community will listen to me."

But the musings of Raymond Flynn — a former city councilor, mayor of Boston, and ambassador to the Vatican — show that municipal activism on national and international issues resists easy ideological pigeonholes. Like former council president Christopher A. Iannella, Flynn, a staunch Catholic, often used the council to push his anti-abortion views. But in 1985, after his election as mayor, Flynn also signed the South African–divestment ordinance crafted by Yancey. Today, Flynn proudly recalls a discussion with Nelson Mandela in which the South African leader cited that piece of local legislation as a seminal development in the anti-apartheid movement. "Boston has always been a strong voice for human rights," Flynn says. "Why limit our elected officials from expressing their point of view on behalf of their constituents?"

"I respect an informed and enlightened public official," Flynn adds, "somebody who can express their point of view about the war in Iraq or tax cuts for the wealthy.... [The council] will pass a resolution congratulating the Red Sox on winning the World Series, we hope. It’s an expression of how people feel, and it’s an important one. But, I mean, so is the war in Iraq."

Additional research by Deirdre Fulton. Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com


Click here for the Talking Politics archives Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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