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Business as usual

Mayor Menino’s back-room deals are bad for the city

In politics, you need to know how to broker deals and strike compromises. But Mayor Tom Menino’s propensity for making deals behind the backs of voters — deals that will affect the city long after he steps down — is not good for Boston.

The latest proof of Menino’s destructive MO came this week, when his attorneys argued in Suffolk Superior Court for a dismissal of the lawsuit brought by Boston city councilor Jimmy Kelly of South Boston and the South Boston Betterment Trust. The suit charged that Menino had broken a binding contract outlining the parameters of waterfront development.

The deal, signed in 1998 by Kelly, State Representative Jack Hart, State Senator Stephen Lynch, and then–Boston Redevelopment Authority director Tom O’Brien, would have funneled million of dollars in mitigation benefits — possibly as much as $65 million — to South Boston. The amount was so large because the deal called for 51 percent of the linkage funds from waterfront development to go directly to South Boston, even though neighborhoods affected by development typically see just 10 to 20 percent of these funds. The deal also would have allowed local business leaders to negotiate directly with developers, under the purview of the South Boston Betterment Trust, for additional mitigation benefits ranging from money to memberships in health clubs.

It’s hard to fault Kelly, Hart, and Lynch for striking a deal that benefited their constituents. (It must be noted, however, that both Lynch and Hart also represent residents who live outside South Boston, and the deal did these people no favors; perhaps it would serve everyone best if the lawsuit were dropped voluntarily.) But Menino represents the entire city — and his decision to kowtow to the interests of one neighborhood, albeit a politically powerful one, showed that his priorities are skewed. Menino’s subsequent decision to walk away from the deal was, as we’ve previously said, a good one (see " Making Amends, " December 28, 2000). But his stance in court, as articulated by his attorneys — that the deal was a political agreement and not a binding contract — is arrogant and deeply cynical.

It’s up to Superior Court judge Allan van Gestel to decide whether the 1998 Memorandum of Understanding was a political agreement or a binding contract. But it’s up to voters to decide whether they’ve had enough of Menino’s political calculations. Menino had reason to believe that no one would ever learn about his deal with South Boston’s political leaders — a deal that would allow him to push a legacy project, the South Boston convention center. So he boldly calculated that he could give away the store to South Boston and get away with it. Indeed, he probably would have were it not for a Boston Globe article detailing the deal’s implications. When the news became public — and the public became outraged — Menino calculated that the convention-center project was too far along to abort and so he could simply abandon the deal. Of course, he didn’t just abandon it — he disavowed any knowledge of it and excoriated the South Boston Betterment Trust for operating outside the boundaries of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. As the Boston Herald has reported, however, court documents show that Menino not only knew about the deal but sat in on meetings in which it was hashed out.

If this messy South Boston deal were the only example of Menino’s extensive behind-the-scenes orchestrations, it would be bad enough. But it’s not. There’s also his cockamamie decision to direct Red Sox CEO John Harrington to build a new ballpark for the Sox in the Fenway — despite Harrington’s desire to find a site on the waterfront. Menino’s motivations aren’t hard to discern: he didn’t want to tick off a voter-rich neighborhood that had already sent one sports owner (Robert Kraft) packing when he hoped to build on the waterfront. Nor did he want to tangle with corporate giant Gillette — which also opposed the plan. So what the Sox and the city ended up with was an ill-conceived scheme that is not only too costly, but probably illegal. Although official estimates of the project put the final cost at $665 million, knowledgeable sources say the real cost is likely to be closer to $1 billion. Regardless, the Sox have been unable to obtain financing for their share of the costs. In the meantime, the question of how the Sox would get the land they need to build has never been resolved. The city, after all, cannot take privately owned land for the profit of a private enterprise — as the Fenway stadium plan would necessitate. (The Sox’ plan for a new park would displace the offices of the Boston Phoenix.)

Again, this was a back-room deal pulled together by Menino for his own political benefit. It hasn’t been good for the Fenway, it hasn’t been good for the city, and it certainly hasn’t been good for the Red Sox, who stand to lose the $100 million in public aid passed by the legislature if the park isn’t built in the Fenway — which, as has become increasingly clear, is an unlikely scenario.

But it’s not just behind-the-scenes development deals that the mayor gets enmeshed in. Take his mystifying refusal to appoint a civilian commissioner to the Boston Fire Department (see " Feeling the Heat, " August 3, 2001). The move was recommended in the city-commissioned O’Toole Report as one way to effect reform in a department rife with racism, sexism, and homophobia. The mayor has used the contentious contract negotiations with the firefighters’ union as an excuse not to appoint an outsider to head the department. Of course, that’s a bogus reason: Menino could make this reform unilaterally, if he were willing.

It’s hard to say what he gains from his move, or failure to move, in this case. But the means by which he reached his decision — in private, with no public explanation — are little more than business as usual for the mayor.

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Issue Date: August 30 - September 6, 2001

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