THE MAYOR OR THE ACTIVISTS : WHO ACTUALLY GOVERNS BOSTON ?

Michelle Wu

^ City Councillor Michelle Wu : can she set Boston onto a course  not that of Mayor Walsh, and of which he may well disapprove ?

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We’re at the point right now, in Boston, of upending the City’s strong-Mayor system. The City Council, given scant power under the City charter, is moving to block the Mayor’s directives on many fronts. It may well succeed, because a large segment of actives support the Council’s agenda

Political mistakes on Mayor Walsh’s part have abetted this movement : it hardly boosted his clout that four of the five candidates he openly backed in September’s Democratic primary — Congressman  Capuano, State Representative Jeff Sanchez, 3rd Congress District hopeful Daniel Koh, District Attorney candidate Greg Henning — were defeated, and that his one “win, ” Dan Cullinane’s re-election as State Representative, was a fairly narrow one. These defeats add to an already weak record : defeats in State Representative and City Council races , the 2014 Governor contest, and the defeat of Warren Tolman by now Attorney General Maura Healey. Walsh is said to have an excellent relationship with Governor Baker; if so, Walsh staying neutral in Baker’s re-election campaign was probably a plus for both men.

The old Tammany Hall saw has it that in politics, “you don’t back no losers.” By this standard, Walsh looks politically bled. This is not a great position for him to be in at a time when city governance, generally, is trending away from City hall and out to the activists in the streets. On almost every issue, from schools administration to diversity in hiring, and from police issues to Air BnB regulation, traffic control, and real estate development, agendas forged by activists have already won the day in many instances and now challenge almost every major decision the Mayor is supposedly empowered to make. Consider the matter of Widett Circle and its environs: the Mayor wants to sell the major Widett parcel to developers for a soccer stadium — but the City Council, led by Michelle Wu, taking its cue from neighborhood activists who want “affordable” housing (whatever that means), insist that the parcel be set aside for housing purposes.

For me, this matter cuts both ways. I certainly side with the many activists who want the City’s housing to not price itself out of reach of most Bostonians, and who want development, where it is acceptable at all, conform to neighborhood characteristics rather than upend them. Yet is the City better off having its decisions made by the activism of a moment, than by a Mayor elected to make decisions for the longer term ?  I doubt it. Consider the analogous situation that rules today’s stock market: companies seek short -term advantage, at the expense of longer term investment goals, in order to satisfy shareholder activists who want instant quarterly results. I doubt that anyone but a speculator thinks that short-term fixations have made corporate governance better for anyone — employees, management, actual investors. So, why even have a strong Mayor with a four-year term if we the voters aren’t ready to give him discretion to decide major questions on his watch ?

The four-year term is not carved in stone. Boston mayors once upon a time served for one year; the Council, too. What might Boston government be like if that were the set up today ? It’s not hard to answer this question. If a Boston Mayor had to face the voters every year, he or she would surely avoid making controversial moves whose benefits might not be visible that quickly.

We see some of this already even with a four-year term. Walsh in his 2013 campaign set forth a city-wide school building reconstruction plan that would consolidate 126 under-utilized, budget-wasting, old school buildings into 90 much more efficiently used, newly constructed schools. Opposition to the plan from several activist groups led Walsh to backpedal this plan until now, five years after — five years of millions of dollars wasted on staffs not needed and utility costs not warranted; and even now the plan has aroused opposition forcing Walsh to forgo re-configuring the under-performing McCormack School.

Somehow Walsh must find a movement which will regain him his full four year power. I do not know what that will be. He has staked all on being the “building boom Mayor,” and as the acknowledged leader of the City’s powerful construction unions — and the Construction industrialists who hire them — being the “building boom Mayor” matched the City’s major fact : economic expansion, population growth, need for much more housing and commercial building. Yet the boom has become so big, and its consequences so expensive,. that almost the entire City is rebelling. If not development overreach, then traffic jams. If not these, then the price of everything.

Some Bostonians like the new use density; they want more of it, not less, and applaud micro-apartments, or backyard hives, rather than decry them. Perhaps these voters approve Walsh’s bottom line as Mr. Construction: but far more voters dislike what is happening, and that unrest has now become a serious threat to Walsh’s agenda, to his power and even to his re-election in 2021. The City Council — Councillor Wu, but not her only — is moving its own agenda for the Air BnB riddle, for development impacts, housing affordability, climate and sea rise resilience, utility lines and power stations, vehicle use, and land sales. If Walsh can’t quickly find a competing agenda that can mobilize a significant part of the City’s activists, he may well lose the political initiative to a Council whose members know how to use social media to solidify an energized and noisy following — one much more nimble than Walsh’s sometimes old-fashioned insiders.

I am uncomfortable with government by unelected activists. Much of what activists want contravenes the City’s long-term interests, in transportation, economic growth, taxation, and free trade. What are my options ? Perhaps this :

Walsh still has the unions. Can he make effective electoral use of their cadres ? So far, he has failed the test. If his failure continues, and his re-election begins to look dodgy, we may well see City charter change on the 2021 ballot, beginning with an elected school committee — this, a move certainly worthy given the recent history of grievous administrative mishandlings by the City department that accounts for one-third of the total money spent every year by Boston’s government.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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