Thursday, August 02, 2007

Analysis of the A-B City Council Candidates Forum on 7/23

The six candidates for the Allston-Brighton District City Council seat participated in a forum at the Oak Square YMCA on Monday, July 23, 2007. The format was heavy on prepared statements (five minutes opening remarks, and five minutes closing statement per candidate), with questions contributed by the audience in the middle. The forum was sponsored by the Allston Board of Trade, Brighton Board of Trade, and Allston Village Main Streets.

You can read the transcript of the forum, see the highlights I selected, or those the A-B TAB selected. I tried running a poll to guage people's response to the candidates, but it was later withdrawn due to what appeared to be inappropriate manipulation of the results.

My wife asked me afterwards how it went and I answered, "Oh, it was OK." A few young people I spoke with afterwards were even more blunt: they said everybody sounded the same. I can't quite agree, but neither can I reject their insight completely. I am hoping for much more from the candidates in the next two events -- like clear statements and innovative proposals.

Most Radical Proposal: Leadership in Building Community Consensus

Tim Schofield offered the most radical -- yet subtle -- new idea of the night, although it probably passed right on by many in the audience. Schofield said that the City Councilor should lead consensus-building in the community, rather than stand in the back of community meetings waiting for consensus to be brought to them:
I think fixing [neighborhood differences] is an important part of the job of the next City Councilor, to build consensus in this community around issues... I think there are specific ways to do that, which is to have the City Councilor facilitate meetings and communications between different parts of the community.
Here is an ex-soldier who wants to lead the troops to rally around the flag, rather than remain holed up in the HQ.

Most Over-Used Word: Available

Gregory Glennon's mantras of being "available" to you (repeated 10 times) and "working hard for you" didn't seem to grab anyone -- probably because that ought to be the case for any City Councilor. The repetition made it oftentimes difficult to follow. He added in a little zinger for Mark Alford -- a candidate no longer in the race -- when Glennon insisted that he, as City Councilor, would "always [have] a publicly listed home phone number." I note that Councilor McDermott regularly signs into meetings giving his home phone number, a practice to be lauded.

Honorable mention: Schofield used the word "access" seven times, while Glennon used it three.

Best Producer of Sound Bites

In-between over-using the word "available," Glennon awarded the patient listener with a couple of fairly well-turned phrases: "The most yard signs that I'm seeing are yard signs from local realtors"; and "We need someone who is going to go down to Boston City Hall and be a voice, and not an echo."

Rosie Hanlon takes a close second place with her colorful language:
"I will bring to our community a very maternal, yet pit bull-ish approach, to getting things done. And my kids can attest to that... I will bring a view from a broad.
On the other hand, I had by far the most difficulty culling out quotation highlights from Mark Ciommo. The problem was compounded by him failing to use his alloted time, particularly with a closing remark running only 1'20" out of 5'00" allowed. I am hopeful that he'll find a team of advisors between now and Tuesday to help him prepare, and memorize, a few zingers.

Protecting Open Space

Schofield's statement that institutions should be required to commit to conservation easements is a bold move to address two issues at once: out-of-control institutional expansion and too little unprotected open space in A-B. It's a solution pushed locally by Charlie Vasiliades (not surprisingly a Schofield supporter), as well as by the BRA's Allston Brighton Neighborhood Planning Initiative, and was recently agreed to by Harvard University at the Arnold Arboretum.

Selvig wants to "make Boston the greenest city in North America", but I was unclear whether he was referring to open space, streetscapes, green buildings, or more traditional environmental activism. Or all of the above. Selvig added that he wants to improve access to City parks and waterways.

The worst way to protect open space? James Jenner is already negotiating for a few scraps in exchange for allowing BC to develop the former Seminary land:
The community shouldn't have to suffer the loss of a large green area and not get something in return. Let Allston-Brighton Little League play some games at the new stadium if they want to. Let the kids go into it when it's not being occupied and play some sports. Let Allston-Brighton Trade or CDC or whatever organization wants to use the new auditorium use it when it is not being used. And I would like to see a commitment by the College, in relation to its students, every year, every six months or so, it's mandatory community service weekend where the students come out, side-by-side with us, the residents, and clean up the streets and improve the streets.
Those are all nice things, but I highly doubt that the community -- let alone the Lane Park neighbors to the proposed, 2000-seat baseball stadium -- would accept those small community benefits in exchange for three fenced, locked, and lighted artificial turf fields.

Breaking Out From a Single-Issue Candidacy

Alex Selvig has begun to break himself out from the image as a one-issue candidate who is fervently opposed to BC expansion. He brought up a wide variety of less-travelled issues, like universal internet access and the environment, although he still occasionally retreats back to the comfort zone of institutional expansion. His challenge is to craft some of these disparate issues into a common theme beyond "A-B Fights Back."

Institutional Expansion: Little Offered

Every candidate has said that institutional expansion is one of the most important issues facing our neighborhood. The public is voting with their mouses that institutional expansion is the most important issue in their minds. Despite both of these points, few concrete proposals were offered by the candidates during the forum (other than Schofield's idea to require conservation easements).

Opinions about Harvard's proposed art museum / storage facility? Building heights? Transportation improvements? Weighing BC's proposed baseball stadium against proposed undergraduate dorms on the current baseball field? Article 80 vs. 51? We were offered little on the big, broad issue of institutional expansion.

Chain Restaurants vs. Bookstores

Hanlon was given the question: "What are your ideas to attract businesses other than
restaurants to our community?" She seemed to think this played to her strength, rather than being direct criticism of the current business mix in the Brighton Main Streets area she oversees and promotes. Who among us thinks Brighton Center is better off with the chain restaurant Boca Grande than with the locally-owned hardware store that preceded it? (OK, my daughter loves their quesadillas.) Hopefully no more Chinese take-out restaurants!

Hanlon's answer to the question: we do market research studies, etc. While Hanlon, as Executive Director of Brighton Main Streets, may have had the home-court advantage on this question, Selvig later won the point by proposing to get a book store into the neighborhood. Several in the audience were seen nodding in approval.

Talking Points

Hanlon and Schofield drove in their talking points most effectively. Hanlon gave the most carefully crafted stump speech during her introductory remarks, laying out the tripartite of "experience, commitment, results." Schofield focused on his own triptych: "reducing crime, improving our public schools, and controlling institutional expansion."

Selvig, on the other hand, said that other politicians will "reheat and reuse those bland dishes of... taxes, schools, public safety, and seniors," although he did promise to work hard on them. We'll see how well he can re-frame the debate from more mainstream issues.

Glennon? See "available" above. I'm not sure that insisting you'll work the hardest will win this election.

Most Naive Proposal

Jenner offered the most naive proposal of the night. He wants to create a community fund starting with 20% of the City Councilor's salary if he is elected:
"I've already come out and pledged 20% of my own personal salary back to this community if I'm elected... I'd like to see a few things from BC... a monetary contribution yearly to the community fund... based on the projected revenues of the new buildings and the new softball stadium. The projected revenues: give us 10 percent of it. Give us 15 percent of it... Those funds would also go a long way with helping our crimes, and getting more community activities in the neighborhood, getting kids off off the street with after-school programs... That money is specifically for our infrastructure: roads, parks, lights, crosswalks, whatever needs to be done... "
He doesn't seem to understand the math: 20% of $87,500 is only $17,500 per year. Twenty home games of baseball at 250 tickets per game, $10 per ticket, and 15% surcharge to the community is only $7500 per year. Those two come out to $25,000 per year for his community fund -- yet he wants to spend it on "roads, parks, lights, crosswalks"?

Concrete sidewalks cost around $39 per seven-foot section, so Jenner's proposal could only repave 4500 linear feet of sidewalks per year. That's it. It would cover far less for repaving entire streets. As for parks, the new playground equipment at Rogers Park cost nearly $100,000 (donated last year by New Balance Foundation). Infrastructure costs far more than he seems to realize.


Selvig and Ciommo both swallowed the poisoned pill in the question about tenant collective bargaining: "Do you believe this is the euphemism for rent control?" Both accepted the premise of the question and proceeded to talk about their opposition to rent control. They would do well to study the proposal itself.

Jenner referred to the MDC when discussing the Brooks Street underpass. The MDC doesn't exist anymore; the DCR has absorbed it. And he missed the MTA's jurisdiction underneath the turnpike.

On the topic of proposals and wedded bliss, Jenner offered one last political blunder. He suggested that newly-wedded Selvig might be more distracted than he by potential family life. Voters love newlyweds, as well as a family man (or woman) with beautiful children in tow.

Unofficial Exit Poll

I interviewed briefly around a dozen people immediately after the event. Their ages ranged from 17 to 65, roughly equal numbers from each sex, but, like the attendees to the event, not representative of the racial or economic breadth of Allston-Brighton.

The general consensus was that Tim Schofield came across the best in the forum, followed by Alex Selvig. There were some people mentioning Rosie Hanlon. Only one person each mentioned Gregory Glennon and Mark Ciommo. None mentioned James Jenner. That is pretty much how my scorecard read at the end.

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