City Council

^ taking the oath of office : Boston’s City Council preserving appearances

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As the primary voting day comes nearer — it’s barely two months away, September 26th — one looks at the major contests and cannot help but ask the question : why does our City even have a City Council ? What are its members elected to do ?

It’s a cliche to say that government has become the captive of “special interests,” but when one peruses the donor records at the Office of Campaign Finance (OCPF) one sees the cliche readily at hand. Most of the donations come from very, VERY interested parties. (disclosure : I am consulting to a campaign in Council District One and so am not an objective observer of these events.)

Overwhelmingly, the donations listed at OCPF come from two sources : labor unions and the building boom-developer-real estate pool, including architects, attorneys, brokers, investment firms, construction companies). Given the enormity of the building boom, it’s no surprise that donations from those who make it happen far, far outweigh donations from labor unions. As for labor union donations, dwarfed by building boom money, they far outweigh donations from candidates;’ personal friends.

But why do the building boom people donate at all to a Council candidate ? In Boston, the mayor is all. Read Section 17 of the current City Charter and you see that though the Council can initiate ordinances, and hold hearings — even have subpoena power to force witnesses to testify at hearings — nothing happens that the Mayor does not approve. So why not just donate to the Mayor ? (Clearly many do just that. Walsh has almost $ 3,000,000 on hand in his own campaign account according to OCPF.) Yet the building boom interests do not only donate to the Mayor. Right now, in Council District One, the candidate showing almost exclusively building boom donors has out-raised the labor union donated candidate about FOUR TO ONE in dollar amount.

As for ordinary voters, who go about their business every day in the usual manner, they hardly show up at all on the various Council candidate donor lists. What, then, is our role in the election process, we who are “ordinary voters” ? (I count myself as one, because although I am an “operative,’ I do not belong to, or lobby for, any of the “big interests” that almost monopolize donor lists.) True, we do the voting. We’re the jury, we give the verdict. But for what ?

Perhaps you have figured out what I am implying here but not saying. So let me say it : the building boom people want their projects approved. That’s how they earn their gelt. No approval, no construction, no pay check, no commissions, no rents. All such projects are approved, or not, by the Boston planning and Development Agency, which answers directly to the Mayor and which, these days, gives the impression that it will approve almost everything, as the Mayor presses forward his goal of building 53,000 new housing units by 2030. So the last thing the building boomers want is a Councillor who might say, “hey, wait a minute, perhaps this or that project needs to be rethought.” And such like.

But again I say, if  a Councillor is not to weigh in on something as major as developments that change utterly the arrangements (and the face() of the communities he or she represents, why have a Councilor at all ? When we created the current system of four at large and nine District Councillors, the whole idea was to give major city neighborhoods their elected voice in processes of governance. Can there be any issue more in need of a District voice than the Building Boom ?

Little wonder that the donors who have inundated a candidate’s bank account do so. At the very least, the goal is to have said candidate go silent. Little wonder that the most common words I hear from voters is “they don’t listen to us.”

This is not a unique situation, is it ? In today’s elections it’s quite the norm. Because money is the lifeblood of a campaign — with not enough of it, you can’t do even the basics that a campaign must be able to do — candidates have little choice but to accommodate those who have it to give.  Make sure that the Councillor you’re donating to does not impede the Mayor from doing his thing.

In which case, why do we even have City Councillors ? To put a fig leaf of democracy on one-man rule ? I’m afraid that it sure looks that way.

People run for Council for many reasons. Some run because it’s a start toward a really important elected office. Others hope to represent this or that interest group. I do not mean to disrespect any. Quite a few are my friends. I wish them the best. But I do expect that their service will make Boston civic life better than it would be if they did not serve.

We who created the current Charter — and I was there — were perhaps naive. Our view was that Councillors still have to get elected, and thus the voters are the ultimate source of legitimacy and authority. That, they are, but with their voices sidestepped, diluted, moot.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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