Wednesday, September 16, 2009

First District 9 City Council Forum: No Blood Drawn

The first of this week's two candidates forum for the Allston-Brighton District 9 City Councilor race took place Tuesday night at the WGBH auditorium in Brighton.

Two years ago, challenger Alex Selvig walked the streets of A-B knocking on doors while hanging a pair of boxing gloves over his shoulder. This year, Selvig hung up those gloves, but came after incumbent Mark Ciommo with a few well-placed jabs.

While a few punches -- body blows -- were landed by Selvig and the other two challengers against Ciommo tonight, none of the them drew blood.

The questions -- ranging from trash and rodents to schools and federal money -- were submitted and prepared by members of the Allston-Brighton business community sponsors of the event, and read to the candidates by moderator state Senator Steve Tolman.

Everyone agreed on a few issues: rats are bad and everywhere; the schools need improvement; and that commuter rail trains should stop somewhere in the neighborhood.

The next candidates forum is Thursday night at 6:30 pm at the Brighton Elks Lodge (326 Washington Street).

Ciommo Defends Record

Incumbent Ciommo [right] was ready from the start with examples of his record from the past two years: a "Fight the Blight" program to clean up the streetscape; working with EMS to improve A-B ambulance response times; working with ISD and IT to create an internal database of landlord names for every property; voting against the meals tax (because we compete with other neighboring communities for restaurant business) but for the hotel tax; chairing the Ways and Means Committee during a deep recession year.

He also mentioned a couple of issues on which his involvement might be considered a bit more of a stretch: improvements to Commonwealth Avenue (a state project in the works for many years); delivery of 65-gallon recycling barrels next month (a city-wide program associated with Mayor Thomas Menino). And there was also an accomplishment he claimed that I, frankly, didn't understand: creating a "partnership with ISD" to deal with the rat problem in A-B.

A Few Punches From the Challengers

"Every two years we have a referendum on the direction of the city," opened Furey [left], noting that the neighborhood now has increasing problems with rodents, closed store fronts, and dirtier streets in some neighborhoods.

"As a constituent," she also said, there are "a number of cases where resident voices are not being heard."

Selvig pointed out that Ciommo's budget, as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, cut money for shelters by 8% at a time during the recession when they are most needed. And the city's budget doesn't fully fund the new recycling bin program that is being rolled out. Fund them instead with the $2 million currently used to maintain fire call boxes, he said, echoing Sam Yoon's mayoral campaign issue.

Challenger Benjamin Narodick [right], a 3rd year law student at Boston University, called Ciommo's database a "start," not a solution.

Getting (To and From) Commuter Trains

While all four agreed that the neighborhood should get at least one commuter rail station built, there were a few distinctions. Ciommo expressed it as, "We need a commuter rail stop now," Selvig called the project "shovel ready" and a "perfect project to qualify for federal stimulus funds," while Narodick said that he would make it a top priority if elected.

We were in the WGBH auditorium, after all, so it is not surprising that Ciommo would point out that he favors the nearby Brighton Landing site on Everett Street.

Furey struck out with a different issue: the plan from the state's Executive Office of Transportation doesn't address how commuters will travel to-and-from any new commuter rail station. She called for the EOT to integrate local transit options into the commuter rail plan.

Before the meeting I spoke with a WGBH employee who made that exact same point.

Oops Moment

When responding to the question, "What should be done about the BRA?", Narodick said that the City Council "should use the power of the purse" to rein in the agency.

Ummmm... the whole issue, according to critics of the BRA, is that the City Council has basically no oversight or control over the agency or its budget -- they can't even stop the BRA from taking over city property for its own use through eminent domain. That is why some people think there should be a planning department in the city, because it would be subject to greater City Council control than the BRA currently is.

*** See comment number 1 below. ***

Concerns Over Schools, But Few Solutions Offered

The candidates were united in their concern for the quality of the public schools, noting it as an issue that discourages families from moving into the neighborhood.

Beyond that, only a few concrete solutions were offered.

On charter schools, Narodick [right] stood out as opposing charter schools under the principle that they create a two-class system of education; Furey opposed new ones in A-B since we already have charter and pilot schools here, instead arguing that opening new schools would further weaken the neighborhood.

Ciommo pointed out that Massachusetts has had charter schools for 16 years, and that now is the time to integrate their "best practices" into the Boston Public Schools system -- saying that he would "work with the unions" to accomplish this, natch. (The Boston Teachers Union endorsed him.)

Selvig and Ciommo appear supportive of a school zone restructuring plan which would make Allston-Brighton into its own zone. Selvig, who vowed to send his infant son to the public schools (when he is older), said that he didn't want kids to be sent on long daily bus trips to East Boston. Ciommo made the argument over re-zoning as one of saving money.

Furey bought none of this, pointing out that A-B already has schools that are currently under-enrolled with kids who live in the neighborhood. "We should be focused on stabilizing our neighborhood" instead of following the proposed re-zoning plan, she said.

Narodick also wanted to address the dropout rate by encouraging students to "get on the bus" in the morning with sports, music, arts, and after school events.

Biggest Stretch

Selvig put forward his idea to brand one or more main streets sections of the neighborhood (e.g., Allston Village) as destinations -- marketing them for nightlife, particular kinds of shopping, or unique character. I thought I could see some heads nodding in approval from the business interest sponsors of the forum.

But then he said that parts of Allston-Brighton remind him somewhat of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district.

Maybe Haight-Ashbury without all the bookstores. Or the stoned guys on the street. Or the other stuff.

Institutional Expansion

BU student Narodick offered a different perspective from the other candidates on the issue of institutional expansion. "You can't be blaming universities for student problems," he said, "or blaming students for institutional expansion." None of the others challenged him on these points, however.

Ciommo probably raised the eyebrows among his two challengers who are founding members of Brighton Neighbors United when he responded to a question about improving the relations between A-B and the universities by saying that "you have to make a decision of what is in the best interests of our community while also letting the university expand."

An Army of Inspectors

Several challengers raised the problem that the city's ISD is not doing sufficient inspections of improper trash storage, rodents, and substandard rental housing issues.

The few rental units that are being inspected aren't the problem, said Furey, it's the ones that aren't. She noted how certain neighborhoods, particularly Allston Village, are having increasing problems with trash.

Narodick argued for a 5-mile rule: landlords who live more than five miles away would be required to have a registered agent on-site to maintain the property on a regular basis.

Furey and Narodick agreed on instituting twice-weekly trash pickup for certain neighborhoods where the trash piles up quickly, such as Allston Village.

After earlier apologizing for putting a rat in everyone's mailbox, Selvig [left] suggested setting the fine for improper storage of trash (i.e., no trash barrel, one overflowing, or without a lid) to be the cost of delivering a new trash barrel with a lid to the property owner. On top of that, Selvig charged that the "laws on the books" (such as inspections of rental housing whenever the lease turns over, and the Four and No More law) "are not being enforced at all."

Sounding like this criticism struck a tender spot, Ciommo retorted, "I don't want to live in a world where we send out an army of inspectors to inspect each home."

From Delete-Delete-Gate to Release-Release-Emails

The recent email Delete-Delete-Gate scandal in city hall figured into the proceedings near the end.

Furey noted that she was part of a state Public Records Law request that she now realizes the city did not fully respond to because many of the requested emails were deliberately deleted by city officials.

Selvig concluded by calling on Ciommo to release copies of all of Ciommo's emails that were sent to -- and presumably received from -- Michael Kineavy, chief of policy and planning for Mayor Thomas Menino.

Ciommo didn't respond to Selvig's call, but I bet we haven't heard the last of this one from the candidates.


Ben N. said...


I just wanted to say that I thought your characterization of my point on the BRA during last night's debate was a bit unfair, particularly in the context of my entire answer. As to the specific point you raised, the BRA does receive funds annually from the city as part of its budgeting process in addition to its independent revenues. Therefore, the city council can exercise some (albeit limited) control over the BRA through the funding process.

More importantly, it's worth noting that the BRA is in part governed by state law - MGL Chapter 121B is particularly interesting in the context of some of the candidates' claims to disband the BRA or curb its eminent domain powers, since the city council would not have the power to initiate that process. It's also worth noting that the city of Boston has a large amount of discretion in how it runs its redevelopment agency, but the city has not done so in the past. "Some critics" that you mention are confusing a lack of city action with an inability of the city to act. Their critiques also suggest a lack of awareness of the city's obligations to the state in regards to the BRA.

- BN

Michael Pahre said...

My comment in the post itself was based solely on the issue you raised of having the city council exercise the "power of the purse" over the BRA to get some degree of change -- not the other possible avenues of reform that have been mentioned.

I'm no expert on municipal finances, and particularly not on the BRA (especially since it is supposedly not fully disclosed publicly). The city's FY10 budget item for the BRA -- i.e., the only line item I can see that the city council would be legally allowed to approve or disapprove -- is just $170,000 (page 331).

The whole BRA budget is far, far larger. The BRA's known payroll was nearly $10 million in 2008, which probably needs to be revised upwards by 50% (or more) to account for benefits (health care, employer FICA, pension/retirement). Add on various consultants, overhead, stuff here and there. Then there are millions of dollars in other big BRA-run projects, but I think they are funded by other sources (like the BRA's real estate, federal/state grants, etc.).

So if I understand it correctly, the city council only has a say over 1% of the BRA's budget. If the city council threatened the BRA with a loss of 1% of their budget unless they handed over the reins of power back to the city council, I know how I would wager on that proposition in Governor Patrick's casino.

Ben N. said...

I understand how it would look like that for a moment, but consider this:

Why would an organization with a $10 million budget bother going through the city budgeting process for $170,000 (a lower number than in past years) unless it really needed to?

The reality of the matter is that the BRA likely has millions of dollars of expenses to match the millions of dollars of independent revenue it receives. The money that the BRA receives from the city is therefore crucial to its operation, and it gives the city some level of leverage as a result.

I agree that the funding situation is not optimal. I also agree that the power of purse isn't the only or best path of addressing BRA reform, but it is one avenue, and it is open to the city council.

Finally, it's worth noting that, in past years, the BRA has asked for much more money from the city. The low figure you mention seems like an outlier.