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Public attraction
So few people attend Boston City Council meetings that public participation is almost nonexistent. Here are nine ways to boost attendance.

by Dorie Clark

THE BOSTON CITY Councilís weekly meetings are a lonely place to be. Attendance usually hovers around half a dozen people: council staffers, a die-hard activist or two, and the dayís honorees (South Boston Midget " A " League hockey players, heroic cops who save old people from fraudulent schemes), who wait until their names are called and then depart soon after. Most weeks, just one or two journalists are on hand; the Herald frequently doesnít even send someone down from the press room upstairs, where reporters can watch the proceedings on a television monitor.

If even the press canít be bothered to attend in person, itís easy to understand why the average person doesnít want to take time off work or find a babysitter, schlep to Government Center, and sit through meetings that Susan OíNeill, who covered the council for a year and a half for the Boston Tab, calls “monotonous” and “not at all interesting unless youíre specifically interested in government process.” Many people just donít see a reason to attend either the weekly Wednesday meetings or the frequent yet irregular public hearings on specific issues. “Most people feel that the city council has little to no impact on their lives,” says former councilor John Nucci.

But it does have an impact, of course. Insiders quibble over how much power the council has compared to mighty Mayor Tom Menino, but the cityís budget requires council approval; thanks to at-large councilor Peggy Davis-Mullenís innovative decision to hold Ways and Means Committee hearings this year before the mayor released his budget draft, the councilors now exercise more fiduciary clout than ever. They can make bold statements, as when they approved domestic-partnership benefits for city employees even though they had no specific authority to do so under state law (Bostonís grant of domestic-partnership benefits was later struck down in court). And from unsexy decisions about cemetery fees to crackdowns on sidewalk knife peddlers, the council often acts in small but important ways to improve a communityís quality of life.

To be sure, some councilors donít see a correlation between public participation at meetings or hearings and quality of representation. “I donít know if getting people in to city-council meetings has ever been the goal of the city council,” says Jimmy Kelly of South Boston. “Weíre not here to entertain people; weíre here to do our job and discuss legislation. If people can attend hearings, then thatís good, but we realize that most people work for a living and they just donít have the luxury of taking time off to go to a city-council hearing. I guess thatís why weíre elected.”

But in a city where the last municipal elections drew only 13.8 percent of eligible voters, many activists see it differently. “Whatever your issue is, itís important that [elected officials] know youíre there,” says Betsy Smith, the executive director of Citizens for Participation in Political Action (CPPAX). “Itís easy to ignore people unless theyíre saying, ĎThis is my story, this is why itís important, and you need to do something about it.í ”

The following nine suggestions, culled from interviews with current and former councilors and local activists (and from my experience working the City Hall beat), are ways the city council could make itself more accessible ó and understandable ó to the public.

1) Improve publicity for hearings, and distribution of the weekly meetingís agenda. Although the council meets to discuss legislation every Wednesday at noon, the schedule for hearings ó the only chance for the public to share its views during special meetings on issues as diverse as bicycling and voter participation ó is far more sporadic. The councilís Web site lists the next few weeksí worth (at www.ci.boston.ma.us; click on Ďcity councilí and then Ďhearing scheduleí). In January, the council began e-mailing the hearing schedule, as well as the agenda of the next Wednesday meeting, to interested parties (you can sign up by calling 617-635-3040). But the service is not really publicized ó I didnít even know about it until I interviewed city-council chief of staff Ann Hess for this article, and Iíve been attending meetings for six months now. A listing in some of the local papers could increase attendance, or at least raise public awareness.

In the meantime, when citizens actually make it to the weekly meetings, the proceedings can be immensely confusing. “When I first ran for the council, I remember coming to meetings to check it out and I remember having no idea what was going on,” says Councilor Paul Scapicchio of the North End. For those not on the e-mail list, the council recently began posting the weekly agenda online every Tuesday afternoon, which is a great idea ó if theyíd update it. This past Monday, May 14, the agenda from three weeks ago was still up, with no sign of the agendas for the two subsequent meetings.

For someone wandering in off the street, Hess points out, “weíll usually have copies [of the agenda] in the chamber, depending on how crazy the morning is, and people can ask the receptionist.” But often no copies are available, and most people donít know they can ask for one ó much less whom to ask, or where the receptionist even sits (on the other side of the floor from the council chambers). A well-marked stack near the door, at every meeting, would be helpful. Scapicchio even goes a step further: “Itíd be nice if we had a summary to hand out to people, saying the way we conduct business is that the first third of the meeting, we review things submitted by the mayor. The second part of the hearing is dedicated to things the councilors submit, or other orders submitted by department heads, and the third part is committee actions. Itíd be nice to have a thumbnail. Iím not sure itíd attract people, but itíd be nice for when they come.”

2) Put comfortable chairs in the council chambers. The hardy souls who brave the chamber know that the bleacher-like seats are probably less comfortable than sitting on the floor, because theyíre so narrow that not even an average-size pair of buttocks can fit on them. In fact, the average rear end goes completely numb after less than an hour. “The seats are very uncomfortable ó extremely incommodious,” says Shirley Kressel, president of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods, whoís attended quite a few council meetings over the years. It should be noted that the section cordoned off for reporters and staff members has luxurious wide seats with armrests and fold-out surfaces for taking notes. We donít begrudge them their comfort, but itís not exactly fair to everyone else.

3) Improve acoustics. “The biggest complaint I get from people who have to testify is the acoustics are terrible, and itís impossible to hear,” says former city-council candidate Greg Timilty, now an institutional stock trader with Fechtor, Detwiler & Company. The council ó after a painful three-year wait ó got a new sound system earlier this year. But councilorsí own decorum sometimes makes it hard to hear them anyway: they move too far from the microphone. Also, itís extremely difficult to make out what assistant city clerk Ed Kelley is saying when he reads the council agenda. A little more enunciation would be much appreciated in the gallery. The Multilingual Voting Rights Coalition floated the idea of purchasing simultaneous-interpretation equipment and maintaining a modest cadre of translators, all for under $100,000, for non-English-speaking spectators ó a helpful notion, given that one in five Bostonians is an immigrant. “The goal,” says Lydia Lowe of the Chinese Progressive Association, “is to really increase the participation of all Boston residents in helping to make decisions and improve their communities.”

4) Make better use of the publicís time during Wednesday meetings. If more people are going to come see government up close, their time shouldnít be wasted with incessant ceremonial interruptions. To be sure, some councilors believe that the photos and awards are all part of responding to the community. Says Kelly of the Midget League hockey-team photo op, “They came in, we had pictures taken with the team, and it made the kids and the coaches and the parents feel good.” But others are frustrated by the lack of serious business. “Itís great for the constituents,” says Timilty, “but maybe you can schedule a time out of the meeting so they can come in for the pictures, because it breaks up the meeting.” A better use of citizensí ó and reportersí ó time would be to set aside every Wednesday from noon to 12:30 p.m. for the awards. The meetings ó and the business of the day ó could then start promptly at 12:30.

It would also increase interest if councilors allowed a brief public-comment period at the start of each regular weekly meeting, as they do in Cambridge. Currently, Bostonians can comment only at hearings ó which means that if a bill never advances to that stage, no one except councilors can address it during deliberations. Allotting such time each week would allow more input on more issues. Of course, things can get out of hand, as they have in the Peopleís Republic: “Sometimes [public comment] will go for two hours; they certainly try to limit it to that,” says John Moot, the president of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, who notes that Cambridge City Council meetings frequently run nearly six hours, until 11 p.m. or midnight. One Boston city councilor fears the outcome of such a policy: “Sometimes we canít get through a council meeting in three, four, five hours with just listening to ourselves. What if we added John Q. Public to that?”

But a firm time limit of an hour, or even half an hour, could address that concern. If the councilors arenít willing to go that far, they could at least change the way testimony is taken at the public hearings. Councilor Maura Hennigan of Jamaica Plain notes that many people are frustrated when theyíre forced to wait hours to speak while councilors grill members of the administration about policy. “We could limit council questioning to one hour, and then if people just wanted to come to testify, they could come when the public would be on,” she suggests.

5) Hold more hearings (and maybe even some weekly meetings) in the evening. The Somerville Board of Aldermen holds its regular meeting every other Thursday at 7 p.m. The Cambridge City Council convenes each Monday at 5:30 p.m., which “makes it tremendously more accessible to everybody,” says Moot. Some would like to see a similar schedule in Boston. Says Brian Wallace, who ran unsuccessfully for city council in 1993, “They really have to have meetings ... when people can get there; otherwise, itís an inside game with only lobbyists and people who work in City Hall.”

But even more important to activists is regular nighttime scheduling for council hearings ó a time for fact-finding by the council, and the official time for public comment on specific issues. “If youíre going to have a hearing at City Hall, particularly if itís an important issue, those hearings should be in the evenings” so working people can attend, says Bob Terrell, the executive director of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition. Some of these hearings are held in the evenings already, but because there are so many ó 18 in April alone ó thereís simply no way every one can be conducted after working hours. Indeed, even Cambridgeís council holds some during the day. Still, the council should make an effort to schedule them at night as often as possible.

6) Hold neighborhood hearings. On a related note, many people feel that some ó if not all ó the hearings should be moved out of City Hall and into the neighborhoods. Roni Krouzman of the activist group Boston Mobilization thinks the convenience factor could beef up participation: “People might not travel an hour to sit for three hours and maybe speak for two minutes, but they might do that if it were three blocks away.” Scapicchio suggests changing the hearing location on a rotating schedule: “Maybe we could do one month in each district,” he says. Former councilor Larry DiCara is skeptical: “Youíd probably just get a higher percentage of unhappy people with nothing else to do whoíd keep the councilors out all night.” But, says Scapicchio, “it would make people feel that what weíre doing is important to their neighborhood, and maybe theyíd come and stop in.”

7) Hold real debates during the meetings. If the people are going to get involved, they need to feel it matters. “One of the problems historically has been that many of the decisions are made before the meeting and there isnít much substantive public discussion or debate,” says Nucci, adding that heís sure the practice is “a violation of the open-meeting law.” He says, “Itís reasonable to expect that councilors will confer with each other between meetings. But itís also reasonable to expect that once the meeting starts, theyíll have a real debate” ó and not a private discussion on the council floor when the president calls the council to the podium. Former Boston School Committee member Felix Arroyo, who is running for an at-large seat this year, has another suggestion. Building on Davis-Mullenís early budget hearings, Arroyo wants the council to reach out not just to department heads, but also to the public. He wants to “have hearings in each neighborhood, and say, ĎWhat would you like to see in the next budget?í rather than just being reactive.” Heíd also like hearings on issues such as housing that bring together both city councilors and state officials, “so there will be a common agenda.”

8) Solicit public input. Some of the best suggestions are ones reporters, pundits, and councilors would never dream of. Thatís what they realized in Cambridge, where the councilís Government Operations Committee, chaired by Councilor Jim Braude, spearheaded a movement for the body to re-examine itself. The council paid for a telephone poll of Cambridge residents and sent out questionnaires to every household in the city, asking citizensí opinions of city services and the councilís performance. Councilors held community meetings on the subject, and eventually went on a one-day retreat to discuss the feedback. Says Braude, “We didnít just say, ĎCome down to City Hall.í We decided we had to reach out.” Though he cautions that “the results have been imperfect,” he notes that “the effort was there.” Outreach on that level would be a lot tougher and more expensive in Boston, which is six times the size of Cambridge. But it would go a long way toward making residents feel that councilors care about their opinions.

9) Move to better quarters. Perhaps the most quixotic ó and best ó suggestion comes from at-large councilor Michael Flaherty. Itís no secret that City Hall is ugly. “The building is somewhat intimidating,” says former councilor Mike McCormack. “When I first worked in the building, I thought it was the most uninviting place Iíd ever been.” Flahertyís language is even stronger: “I consider this building to be user-hostile, intimidating to citizens trying to access basic services,” he says. He calls the council chamber, where meetings are conducted and citizens testify, “atrocious.” The buildingís wall on Congress Street is “life-sucking.” He says, “Iím frankly embarrassed when the city council welcomes guests and dignitaries into the chambers.” But even more important, more than 300 City Hall workers have recently complained of health problems attributable to their workplace. Says Flaherty, “Iíd be in favor of putting this building and the other buildings [which house City Hall employees who canít fit in City Hall] up for sale to the highest bidder and leasing a more modern building where all our services could be accessed by someone walking in the front door.” Amen.

The political will to implement these suggestions may be hard to muster. " Iím not so sure the council wants to gin up all the enthusiasm in the first place, " says McCormack. " All it means for them is more work in terms of constituent services. " At least one current councilor agrees with him: " To take more on, I wouldnít do that for all the tea in China. Frankly I donít know if I could do it; Iíd probably take a gun out. "

But thereís also an irony at work. “They probably would love to play to a packed house,” says Nucci. “Itís just that people donít get worked up about them. One of the frustrations of being a councilor is you look around and thereís empty seats every Wednesday. Thatís why so many of them are looking at leaving [for other elective positions].”

The council may never draw a packed house. But to fill it a little more ó and make the system fairer and more accessible to the voters ó the councilors ought to take a hard look at how they do business.

Dorie Clark can be reached at dclark[a]phx.com.

Issue Date: May 17-24, 2001






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