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Mayor Martin Walsh addresses resident questions in Roxbury forum

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Mayor Martin Walsh addresses resident questions in Roxbury forum
Mayor Marty Walsh addressed community resident questions at a “Mondays with the Mayor” forum in Roxbury on May 19. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

The girls’ bathroom at Ellis School is appallingly dirty; who’s in charge of keeping it clean? Will the city of Boston subsidize small homegrown business development? What is the city doing to create middle-income housing?

Mayor Marty Walsh fielded these and other questions Monday at a Roxbury town hall meeting. Attendees wishing to ask questions submitted their names at the start; if their names were drawn, they were called to the microphone during the hour-long Q & A session.

The forum at James P. Timilty Middle School was the second in a “Mondays with the Mayor” series, which started in March with a similar forum in Brighton.

Walsh brought along a fleet of cabinet members and city department heads and called upon them when questions touched on their expertise.

After the mayor promised that the filthy school bathroom would be cleaned this week, interim School Superintendent John McDonough urged the questioner to report such issues to him immediately, and agreed to look into her idea of using parents as cleanliness monitors. Walsh looked to District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson to supply details to a resident asking about a past community meeting process that helped approve siting of a charter school.

Walsh said the city is working to increase summer and year-round job opportunities for teens, strengthen Madison Park High School, and attract light industrial and other employment opportunities to Roxbury.

“If we close the achievement gap for kids, but their parents have no place to work,” he noted, “we’re not solving the problem.”

For the most part, the new mayor answered questions easily and directly or promised answers within 24 hours. A few responses were vague. The query about city government subsidies for small homegrown businesses, for instance, drew an answer more about putting city-owned vacant land parcels up for development and streamlining the permit process than about any plans to directly aid entrepreneurs.

Several questioners touched on a desire for more mid-priced and market-rate housing in Roxbury. Walsh mentioned plans to develop moderate-priced two- and three-family homes on vacant city parcels. David Price of Nuestra Comunidad asked how the mayor might leverage his State House connections to bring back state money for middle-income housing development, to which Walsh replied that state funds are now very hard to come by and non-profit community development groups should band together to tell the state more funding is necessary.

The format and short time left little room for follow-up or deep digging into issues. Having been in office only five months, Walsh was able to deflect criticism for situations stemming from before his tenure, and give assurances that his team will quickly address others. Few hot-button issues arose and the atmosphere of the meeting remained mostly mild.

An exception was a brief exchange about a recent Boston School Committee decision to cut “yellow bus” service next year for middle school students, putting 7th and 8th graders on public transportation (see page 1 story.) Questioner Charles Clemons, TOUCH 106.1 owner and former mayoral candidate, said this change would put youth at risk. As Walsh replied that a good number of students already take public transportation to school now and that officials are taking student safety into account, a few voices interrupted with “No!” and “That’s not enough!”

Applause erupted a few times too, as when Walsh reminded a small store owner in no uncertain terms that stiff fines are necessary to make sure businesses adhere to laws against selling cigarettes and alcohol to minors. A mixture of clapping and laughing followed his assurance that the redeveloped Ferdinand building would not become a “sick building” like the one that briefly housed the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Roxbury two decades ago.

One issue that notably did not arise, even though it has been on many community members’ minds lately, was the selection of tenants for the ground floor of the Dudley Municipal Center set to open in 2015 on the old Ferdinand site. The city has given no official word on the status of proposals.

Leaving the auditorium afterward, or lingering to exchange hugs and conversation, the audience seemed generally appreciative of the mayor’s effort and manner.

“I like that he’s direct,” said Blair Campbell. A member of the Franklin Park Coalition board, Campbell said he was glad to hear an emphasis on simplifying permitting, as the process can hinder activities such as festivals and parades.

Priscilla Flint, a local author and activist who has led protests about minority hiring on city construction projects, did not get a chance at the microphone, but was prepared to ask how the Walsh administration would change the culture of construction trade unions. Still, she was pleased with the meeting.

“I appreciate that he’s doing this. The questions were good — and the answers were as good as they could be,” she said.

Joao DePina, who was a volunteer on Walsh’s campaign, called the forum “very productive,” but wished there was more time. He also felt wider publicity for forums might attract people less accustomed to speaking up. “It’s the same faces in the room,” he said.

The mayor opened the Monday forum with a brief rundown of his administration’s accomplishments so far, highlighting actions to make parks clean and accessible, bolster Boston Center for Youth and Families programs, fix sidewalks, fill 10,000 potholes, and institute a gun buyback program that has purchased 321 guns so far.