City councilors go head-to-head with the mayor, the election department, and the mayor ... again
BY DORIE CLARK
WHEN SUFFOLK COUNTY district attorney Ralph Martin announced in May that he wouldn't seek re-election next fall, four Boston city councilors floated their names as possible candidates. Over the next year and a half, the mission of Hyde Park councilor Dan Conley, Allston-Brighton councilor Brian Honan, North End councilor Paul Scapicchio, and at-large councilor Michael Flaherty will be to show that they have the field organization, campaign funds, and leadership skills to head the county's prosecutorial staff. But at least on the leadership front, that task got considerably harder last month when the council - with the support of all four potential DA candidates - voted to eliminate the budget for the city's law department, which provides legal services to the mayor, the city council, and other city departments. The move nearly caused the office to be shut down. It was quite an ironic twist for the four ambitious pols who hope to become Suffolk County's top litigator.
The council, which has sparred with Mayor Tom Menino repeatedly over issues such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority's taking of City Hall Plaza, has long requested that the body be allowed to have its own attorney, who could defend the council's interests and - if necessary - sue the city. But Menino has insisted that the law department can meet the needs of both the mayor's office and the council. When negotiations failed, the council passed Menino's annual budget on June 27, but cut $5.1 million in funding for the law department in retaliation for the mayor's unwillingness to bend.
Two weeks later, when Menino requested a supplemental budget for the law department, the councilors, in a deal endorsed by all four prospective DA candidates, approved a compromise. They restored the funding (ensuring that staffers wouldn't go without a paycheck) in exchange for a "legislative analyst" who can draft and scrutinize bills, but can't take the city to court. "I think the compromise was very favorable to all parties," says Conley.
But the gunslinger-style showdown with the mayor certainly wasn't the best move for the DA wanna-bes. Says Honan, "I knew when we were taking the vote [to cut the law-department budget] we wouldn't be the winners in that one; we wouldn't win the publicity war." It remains to be seen whether the episode will affect voters' perception of the DA candidates. But Conley, for one, is confident that it won't. "Not a soul said a word to me on the streets," he says. "It was such inside baseball. I did get a few e-mails [before the compromise was brokered] - but they were from lawyers in the law department saying, 'Dan, I want my money.'"
Boston election commissioner Nancy Lo - who has tangled with the Boston City Council in the past over her get-tough management style and last November's voting irregularities (see "Florichusetts," News and Features, December, 7, 2000) - took it on the chin again last Wednesday, July 18. Councilor Mike Ross of the Fenway, who defended Lo when her leadership practices were previously under scrutiny, criticized her for 10 minutes on the council floor, citing her inaction on relocating two polling places in the Fenway to make them more accessible to elderly and handicapped residents. "This was just a complete disregard of my residents in the Fenway, and it shocked me completely," he said. In an interview the next day, at-large councilor and mayoral candidate Peggy Davis-Mullen was even more disturbed: "When the election department has over a year's notice to accommodate voters and it falls on deaf ears, you wonder - are they trying to keep the vote down in the Fenway because they know people aren't happy with the Fenway Park issue? I can't understand why the commissioner wouldn't want people to vote."
The dispute dates back to last August, when Ross, at the request of a group of residents, approached the election commission about moving the polls for Ward Five, Precinct Two from Simmons College (which voters must reach by crossing Park Drive and the Back Bay Fens) to the Boston Arts Academy on Ipswich Street, and moving the polls for Audubon Circle residents from the Boston Arts Academy to the Landmark Center, which would shorten their walk by roughly 10 minutes. Lo told him it was too close to the election to move the polls, but that she would look into making the changes the following year. Recalls Ross, "I said, 'Thank you, I understand.' I went back to my constituents and said, 'Why don't we do it for next year.' They didn't like that, but they understood the logistical issue." But several weeks ago, when a Ross staffer called the commission about making the changes this fall, her messages went unanswered three times in a week. Lo says the miscommunication resulted from her trying to follow procedure by communicating through Amy Dwyer, the mayor's liaison to the city council.
Finally, Ross hunted down Lo in her office. "She said to me, 'Well, you know, with the redistricting of the city council, it really doesn't make sense to make movements right now,'" he says. "I realized then she was coming up with every excuse she could not to do her job and service the people in the community." Lo insists, however, that her caution is the result of wanting as many people to vote as possible. "You're talking about moving around close to 3000 registered voters, so you've got to be careful," she says. Changing polling places can confuse voters, so the commission has to ensure that a given location will remain available for at least several years. There are other concerns, as well: "Ideally you want to be able to vote on a main level, especially when dealing with ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] issues. It has to be easily identifiable, and convenient for voters." (The Boston Arts Academy, which already serves as a polling place, obviously meets these criteria. The Landmark Center, which was recently constructed and therefore required to be ADA-compliant, would be a prominent and convenient polling location if its use for that purpose could be guaranteed for long enough.)
After a meeting last Thursday between Ross, Lo, and mayoral chief-of-staff Peter Welsh, Ross had cooled off. "I think they're going to do both," Ross said. But, he cautioned, "nothing is finalized." To keep the heat on, he's scheduled a hearing at the Boston Arts Academy (174 Ipswich Street) for this Monday, July 30, at 5:45 p.m. Says Ross, "You have to use the stick sometimes to get to where you want." He says he'll probably cancel the hearing if a firm deal is brokered beforehand. (To find out whether the hearing is still on, call Ross's office at 617-635-4225.) But with elections coming up this fall, the council is certain to keep a close eye on the election department.
Mayor Menino is taking it from all sides over his handling of the Boston Fire Department. From last December's annual holiday trolley tour to the State of the City address to opening day at Fenway Park, he's been dogged by picketing protesters from Boston Firefighters Union Local 718, angry that they've gone 25 months without a contract (pay raises and preserving the current liberal injured-leave policy are the main sticking points). Part of what's held up the contract is the mayor's insistence on making some reforms recommended by the January 2000 O'Toole Commission report, including the creation of two new non-union leadership posts - which must first be okayed by the union.
But in both a press conference and a hearing today, July 26, at City Hall, Boston city councilors Chuck Turner of Roxbury and council president Charles Yancey of North Dorchester will take the mayor to task for not going ahead with the reforms that can be put in place without union approval. In particular, they're focusing on recommendations for addressing allegations of discrimination against women, gay men and lesbians, and people of color in the department (see "Fireworks," This Just In, January 11).
"While there was a lot of positive initial reaction to the report by the administration, there doesn't seem to be anything concrete that has happened to implement those recommendations," says Turner. "There's a concern that the more time passes, the less likely it is that the city will follow through."
The councilors' major demand is the appointment of a permanent, civilian fire commissioner. "The O'Toole Commission pointed out that the culture of the fire department itself is very difficult to change in terms of attitudes toward diversity, and change in general," says Turner. "So the next commissioner needs to be somebody who is not from that culture and would have more strength in challenging opposition to change." Turner held another hearing this past Monday addressing a separate race-related problem in the department: the refusal of Dudley Fire Station captain John P. Joyce to put up signs welcoming the public into his Roxbury firehouse. Turner says of Joyce, "He said he was afraid of drug dealers and prostitutes, and that people would steal things from inside the station. We know there are other fire stations around the city that have displayed the poster, so if the captain of our fire station is saying no and other captains are saying yes, obviously that's disparate treatment."
The city's chief operating officer, Dennis DiMarzio, has served as acting commissioner since December 1999, and says the mayor plans to wait until the union contract is settled before appointing a permanent leader. DiMarzio insists, however, that in the past year and a half the department has already made progress, by hiring a new human-resources director (who started this past Monday) and holding a number of diversity workshops. "Not only are we doing [the workshops], we mean it," says DiMarzio. "It's a new game, a new day in the fire department, and no form of harassment or discrimination is tolerated, and any allegations of that will be thoroughly investigated to the best of our ability. Disciplinary action will be taken against anyone who is found guilty of that." He adds that the department probably should have done a better job of publicizing its efforts. "Basically we're paying the price publicly for not beating our chest," he says.
But some in the department - including Karen Miller, president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, a minority firefighter group - believe that problems still exist. And with Miller and others bringing their complaints to City Hall, the pressure on Menino is mounting. "I don't understand why they haven't moved forward, and that's an issue we hope the hearing can bring to light," says Turner. Menino may yet get his chance to make it right, however. Ordered back to the table by arbitrators, the city and Boston Firefighters Local 718 are having another round of negotiations this week. If the talks succeed, the mayor may be able to get both the union and the reformers off his back. DiMarzio is optimistic that a contract is in sight. "Both parties have a really sincere desire to get it done," he says. "But having said that, I've made that same statement before and have been wrong." If he is, Menino - just two months away from the September 25 preliminary election - will make an even juicier target for critics on both sides.
Dorie Clark can be reached at dclark[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: July 26 - August 2, 2001