Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dead-Blogging the District 9 City Councilor Forum

The business trade groups of Allston-Brighton sponsored a forum tonight for the two candidates running for the Allston-Brighton District 9 City Councilor seat. Incumbent Mark Ciommo and challenger Alex Selvig took questions from moderator Michael McCormack, former City Councilor-At-Large from A-B, and each other.

Here is my attempt at "dead-blogging" the proceedings, i.e., blogging about it after it's over, not "live-blogging."

Candidates Forum
Sponsored by Allston Board of Trade, Brighton Board of Trade, Allston Village Main Streets, Brighton Main Streets
October 27, 2009
7:00 pm
Jackson-Mann Community Center

The Allston-Brighton TAB has their story on the event here.


SELVIG: [offered welcome in Spanish] I have been in area for two decades, four years working on a moving truck, then started own business. "Allston-Brighton's future is hanging in the balance of this election."

Schools: I'll have a child in the public schools; Ciommo doesn't.
BRA/BC: I stood against it, Ciommo stood in support of it.
Liquor licenses and developers: Ciommo received nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions from them, I didn't.

CIOMMO: Respect today's concerns while preparing for tomorrow's challenges. I helped hold down spending, maintain low property taxes, and create a database of information on property owners.

My vision for A-B: I'm the only candidate who is a product of BPS, and will fight for an A-B school zone.

Moderator Questions

Q1: How would you best represent the diverse constituency of residents and businesses?

CIOMMO: I was a youth worker, assistant director here at JMCC. Helped found group with mission to reach out to immigrants. Was director of the senior center, where I hired both Russian and Chinese translators. Been member of the ABOT and BBOT during that time. Socio-economic diversity is in my background.

SELVIG: Many immigrants don't have papers. Spoke to former D-14 captain Genevieve King about not reporting immigrants during police activity.

Q2: What programs would you initiate to engage the local business community?

SELVIG: "local business should be patronized by local people. let's try to spend our money in their stores."

CIOMMO: As a member of ABOT/BBOT, I attended meetings, went to their events. "I would reach out to them, and be accessible and responsive." Example: Harrell's had problem with newspaper boxes in front of the ice cream store; we got them (re)moved and installed bike racks instead. Not just jobs I held, but also in civic organizations I participated in.

Q3: What are your thoughts about phasing out busing, and what to do with the savings?

CIOMMO: I am on record in support for the 5-zone plan. We are spending more than $80 million per year on transportation; 5-zone plan would save $10 million. I spoke to district councilors, telling them that all the savings should go into the underperforming schools in their districts. Glad that the superintendent is still working on how to implement this plan. "It's time has come." When I went to school, A-B was a pilot program for busing, so I got a multi-ethnic experience.

SELVIG: "It is absolutely vital for the health of this community that we have neighborhood schools." You don't have the opportunity to go to Charlestown and East Boston to visit with teachers; too far away. The 5-zone plan is good for A-B. Regarding the money being spent on transportation, "That money is not strictly for racial integration."

Q4: What do you think are the pros and cons of institutional expansion?

SELVIG: Pros: building trades. "The key to this development has to be a neighborhood that is livable. It is important that we preserve the quality of life for this neighborhood." We have a whole planning department, but there is no city plan.

Downside is that you get ad hoc planning and have problems with your infrastructure. Our traffic problems get worse without a blueprint from the BRA.

CIOMMO: "Our community is inundated with institutional expansion," although a number of other neighborhoods have it to some extent, too. Pros: construction jobs, permanent jobs. St. Elizabeth's MC opened new ER; waits are now down to an average of a half-hour.

The colleges need to house more students. "On Harvard side, we have no development, we have a pause." That's not good for the community.

Q5: How are you going to advocate for commuter rail in A-B, and which stop(s)?

CIOMMO: Previously: studies said that A-B could not support a commuter rail stop. Now: I've attended all EOT meetings, they now see the need. I joined with colleagues (elected officials) to support Everett Street stop pending further study. Guest Street corridor has many vacant commercial buildings that are ripe for development.

SELVIG: "Commuter rail is a shovel ready project that qualifies for federal stimulus money." We should advocate for more than one stop, like Newton has. There are also smaller trains (than commuter rail trains) that could be used instead on the same tracks. With Harvard's buildout we'll have 12,000 more people working in North Allston but who have no way to get them there.

Q6: ISD is supposed to ensure property owners maintain their property. How will you hold ISD accountable in doing this?

SELVIG: Ciommo and the mayor's budget this year cut ISD funding by $300,000. That money could easily have been found elsewhere. $3 million could have been saved by eliminating fire call boxes -- something that people have been talking about eliminating since 1994. I would've increased ISD's budget.

CIOMMO: I started to do that [ensure ISD enforcement] by creating property owner database with instantaneous contact information. We respond to every call. Just did it two days ago -- called a property owner who had an overgrown lot to get him to clean it up. This year, we got $140 million less in state aid -- but we were able to balance the budget by not laying off any ISD person, firefighter, or police officer. If you see a problem with properties, call my office, ISD, DPW [department of public works], or the community service office [at the police station].

Q7: What plans would you initiate to deal with the rat problem in the neighborhood?

CIOMMO: The entire city of Boston has a problem with rats, not just A-B. We have a program ready-to-launch, but it has been delayed. "when you see a rat sighting, please call my office." As well as call ISD and the Mayor's constituent service hotline. Everyone in A-B will be getting a secure-lid recycling bin, once we launch this program.

SELVIG: Going back to the previous question: I think it is a fairly easy decision to remove all the fireboxes to save money. That would give $300,000 back to ISD, $200,000 back to elderly, [and something else].

[Back to rats:] "It needs a real effort to take care of a serious public health problem in Allston-Brighton." Residents told me that they are afraid to allow their kids to play in their backyard. I'll roll up my sleeves to deal with this problem. There are only seven companies licensed to trap/remove rats in the entire city of Boston -- [a disgrace].

Q8: What are the first three initiatives you will implement if you are elected?

SELVIG: 1. Space in local schools for every A-B child. 2. Involve the community in helping ISD address absentee landlord and party houses. 3. Promote home ownership in A-B -- our city services suffer as a result of too low owner-occupancy. Planning process to address low owner-occupancy rate. Also, we have less greenspace than the city of Boston -- we need to build more.

CIOMMO: 1. State $600 million shortfall in this year's budget needs to be dealt with. End of last budget we had a $30 million budget gap we addressed. 2. Continue to advocate and support the 5-zone BPS plan. 3. Creating a constituent service response team, including people from the district councilor's office, ISD, Mayor's ONS/hotline, DPW to work together effectively.

Q9: What is your stance on late hours for bars and liquor licenses?

CIOMMO: With the BAIA and ACA, many establishments ask to extend from 1am to 2am closing hours. "I have never supported one; not one has passed while I have been in office." "I will not support any new [increased number of] liquor licenses in our community."

SELVIG: Pretty much on same page as Ciommo. Our neighborhood is impacted by drunkenness. I opposed extended hours as treasurer of the BAIA.

Candidate Questions for Each Other

SELVIG asks Ciommo: In 2007, you promised you would reform the BRA. In the last debate, you supported an external audit of the BRA. Will you call for a hearing to push for these reforms?

CIOMMO: I will call a meeting -- and ask the chair of that committee to call for a hearing.

CIOMMO asks Selvig: In your campaign press releases, you have said that you worked to improve the schools, which you have said elsewhere that you haven't done [because your son is not yet enrolled]. Why is your campaign saying this?

SELVIG: "That was an oversight in our press releases." The work I've done is landscaping, improving appearances. The press release wording has been corrected -- thank you for pointing this out.

SELVIG asks Ciommo: Absentee landlords and drunkenness are problems in our neighborhood. Why have you taken $20,000 in contributions from liquor interests, [developers, and absentee landlords?]

CIOMMO: "I have never been motivated by money." Lots of those donations to my campaign come as $10, 25, or 50. I give the same priority to those who do and don't donate to me.

CIOMMO asks Selvig: During 2007 campaign you referred to your business selling boats. Why have you not participated in the BBOT?

SELVIG: I don't do a retail business [like those members in BBOT] -- my customers are all over the country and in Canada. I would be happy to be a member if they asked me to join.

SELVIG asks Ciommo: The night before the preliminary election, Wallingford Road voters received flyers under their doors giving direction as to how they should vote for mayor, councilor-at-large, and district councilor. 70% of those votes were exactly as on that flyer. Would you support an inquiry into what's going on over there?

CIOMMO: We all canvas and drop off campaign literature under doors like that. They support me because of my work for the elderly. How would you explain the vote in Ward 22/Precinct 5 [location of Selvig's campaign office] which voted for me at the same rate? The Wallingford Road voting places were investigated several years ago, and I believe that they were cleared.

CIOMMO asks Selvig: How would you split your time between your business and your work as an elected official?

SELVIG: I will not do both.

The last two years I had to spend a lot of time down at City Hall. the Zoning Commission meeting [in May] lasted until 1 am. Ciommo spoke in favor of the BC institutional master plan, then went home at 7:30 pm. When you get a petition of 600 signatures, I will be in that meeting room until 4 am to support them.


CIOMMO: I know how to do this work, because I've been doing it for decades. In the past two years I've launched a "fight-the-blight" program. I worked with EMS -- and a concerned resident -- to improve ambulance response times in A-B. I brought parents, BTD together to improve traffic around the Gardner Pilot Academy. I got the field house opened up for the Brighton High School football team at their practice field.

SELVIG: The more we are involved, the better things will be in our neighborhood. The key is that we call city hall when we have problems. "We are in a tough situation and, frankly, it hasn't gotten better." This whole neighborhood might become a big college campus unless decisive action is taken at city hall.

Half of the property in Boston is tax-exempt. The burden is then on the other half -- us -- someone needs to represent us. The BRA is very powerful -- I want to change it. And I won't take donations from liquor interests or absentee landlords.

Image of [left-to-right]: Alex Selvig, Mark Ciommo, and Michael McCormack.

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