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Councilors-at-Large: Where do they stand?

Candidates weigh in on jobs, police, charter schools, affordable housing

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Councilors-at-Large: Where do they stand?
At-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley makes a point during a forum at the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury as councilors Michael Flaherty and Michelle Wu look on.

As the November 3 municipal election approaches, at-large city councilor incumbents Michael Flaherty, Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu met Monday for debate at the Boiling Building in Dudley Square. Joining them was sole contending candidate Annissa Essaibi-George, who received Attorney General Healey’s endorsement that day. Stephen Murphy came to the event early, then left, telling organizers a prior commitment made him unable to attend.

Major topics included employment, policing, school support and affordable housing.

Candidates agreed that Boston needs to prioritize hiring its own residents for its construction contracts as well as giving residents the jobs in those new buildings.

“[New construction] means there’s growth, development. But if we’re not able to hire our people to work those jobs, it’s very limited growth and it only serves the trucks coming in from New Hampshire, the trucks coming from Rhode Island,” Essaibi-George said.

Wu, Flaherty and Pressley added that when the city does business, it must ensure women and people of color have a more equal share in those jobs. And that means minority hiring requirements and transparent monitoring of company compliance with them, said Pressley.

“If people of color aren’t succeeding — aren’t getting employment and contract opportunities — then the city isn’t succeeding,” stated Pressley.

To remedy this: “We need more than good faith efforts. We need collective will and leadership and a mandate. Every law passed is only as good as its enforcement and that has been our struggle as a city,” she said.

Make teaching desirable

Boston lacks a diverse teaching force, especially black men. Councilors offered thoughts on barriers and solutions.

An early impediment: Black children may not seriously consider teaching as a career option, said Wu.

“It’s key to connect with children and have them see education as a pathway to economic opportunity,” she said.

Wu said the BPS is working on a pipeline for high school students ultimately to become teachers. High School to Teacher Program is BPS’s seven-year mentoring and training program that starts with grade 9 students and runs through college.

An unwelcoming work environment also discourages interest in the teaching, added Pressley.

“Often these environments are not welcoming, are hostile,” she said. She noted that inclusive policies and protocols do not always translate into experienced change.

“It’s one thing to say you’re an environment that’s inclusive, but it’s another thing to make it feel that way.”

Once minorities do enter the job, evaluations can push them out, Essabi-George said.

“The biggest problem with retaining teachers of color is the evaluation system,” she said. Often, these evaluations are conducted by outsiders who may be well-educated but who have no hands-on experience in Boston classrooms, she pointed out.

Police and fire who reflect the city

Many councilors agreed on the value of greater diversity among fire and police forces.

“In terms of public safety, it’s important for trust to have officers and firefighters who know the neighborhoods and have relationships with them,” said Wu.

The recently revived police cadet program, said Wu, is a useful tool for increasing diversity. She also emphasized that minority youth recruitment needs to be ongoing — not just before each new cadet class starts — in order to encourage a view of policing as a viable career option. Flaherty said individuals in these careers who reach out to their community can have powerful impact on recruiting.

Gender diversity matters as well.

Pressley said that the BPD needs to emphasize recruiting women and to reexamine its hiring criteria. The physical test could prevent women entering the force, she said, and the civil service test fails to comprehensively evaluate a person’s potential as an officer. Assessment also needs to consider personality, disposition, leadership and languages spoken, Pressley said.

Flaherty emphasized local hiring.

To take the civil service test, applicants must have lived in Boston for one year. Flaherty proposed increasing the residency requirement to three years to prevent suburban youth — who may be able to borrow a relative’s Boston address or move temporarily — from competing with city youth for these jobs.

City Council candidate Anissa Easaibi-George speaks during a candidates forum as councilors Michael Flaherty, Ayanna Pressley, Michelle Wu and moderators Gintautas Dumcius and Yawu Miller.

Improving police relations

Last month, Police Commissioner William Evans announced intentions for a body camera pilot program. In August, Pressley and Wu stated their support for body cameras; at the debate, Wu spoke in favor of policy that outlines privacy protections and rules for data storage. Flaherty opposed body cameras.

To promote empathy for police, Flaherty suggested a program in which civilians follow police about their day and see detainments from an officer’s point of view.

“I would love for folks to do ride-alongs with the police department and walk in their shoes when making a stop or approaching a group of individuals, and see if everyone can learn from each other,” he said.

Policing is not the whole solution to crime, cautioned Pressley and Wu, who pointed to economic security is a major violence deterrent.

“Many of our youths who are gang-involved just need that summer internship or that paid school-time job,” said Wu.

More livable wages is a key step, Pressley added, saying that many gang-involved youth are raised by single mothers who struggle to make ends meet. Another economic bolster, Wu said, would be reducing the paperwork and legal fees involved in starting a business, thus opening that option to more people.

Charters vs. BPS

Candidates also took sides on the charter cap controversy, following announcements issued by Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin Walsh this month in favor of raising it.

Essaibi-George, Pressley and Wu spoke against lifting the cap. Essaibi-George said the problem with charters is that the city has no authority to affect change in their systems.

“We need to maintain our diligence on the schools that we can improve,” she urged, referring to BPS.

Pressley said charters push out students with harder life situations: impoverished living conditions, trauma experiences and/or pregnancies. To educate these students, BPS needs funding for providing social and emotional wellness services as well as nutritional food for students, she said.

Meanwhile, Flaherty’s opinion was that charters generate healthy competition for BPS. Good schools from any sector need to be supported, he said, and called for more assistance to be provided to students who are falling behind.

Affordable housing

Councilors’ foci included homelessness, quality of existing housing stock and senior housing.

Essaibi-George called for providing more transitional housing and general life support to help families in need move from temporary homeless shelters into permanent housing. Wu said she especially is concerned with youth homelessness.

Pressley’s concerns included holding existing housing to safety and quality standards and spreading affordable options through all city neighborhoods.

Flaherty said quality of life in senior housing would be improved by ending the practice of sharing housing between non-elderly adults with disabilities and seniors. The arrangement, he said, was disruptive to seniors having quiet, calm living spaces.

“Seniors are stuck next to loud music, prostitution” Flaherty said. “[They are] literally prisoners in their own homes.”

Various methods were proposed for increasing funds or developer will for creating more affordable housing.

Streamlining the permitting and licensing process, Wu said, would reduce costs, making affordable construction a more attractive venture.

Another current tool supporting affordability is linkage fees, which levy charges on developers of new buildings and use those funds to subsidize or create affordable housing. Flaherty said it is time to increase the fees.

Urban renewal

The Boston Redevelopment Authority seeks reauthorization of this urban renewal powers, set to expire in April. Candidates were largely wary of this request, but most said they did not oppose urban renewal in every case.

Flaherty said that the BRA needs to be restructured so that it no longer handles both planning and economic development. The BRA depends on developers and development projects for financing, creating a conflict of interest, he said. The solution: an independent planning committee.

Wu, Flaherty and Essabi-George said they promoted considering urban renewal on a case-by-case basis for each community, depending on what local residents want. Pressley said she opposed urban renewal powers for the BRA and did not speak on urban renewal decisions for neighborhoods.

Pay raises and pipelines

When it comes to his pay, Flaherty said he supports the mayor’s compromise of a 14 percent raise, which is scheduled to go into effect automatically on Election Day if the council continues its position of non-action.

Meanwhile, Wu and Pressley opposed the increase on grounds that councilors should not have the power to vote on their own raises. Essabi-George, who left early for another commitment, was not present to answer the question on the pay raise.

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