City Council welcomes new faces, president
2016 to bring education, urban renewal before council
An air of camaraderie and celebration filled City Hall on Monday as the Boston City Council welcomed newcomers and elected a new president.
A morning swearing-in brought on District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell and Councilor at large Annissa Essaibi-George. The council reconvened at City Hall in the afternoon where Councilor at large Michelle Wu won the presidency by a unanimous vote. On Sunday night, presidential contender District 6 Councilor Matt O’Malley announced he was dropping out of the race.
As councilors continue to — or join— work on ongoing issues, contemplate new decisions fast approaching and outline their agendas for the term, many officials praised the new council’s diversity of gender, race and backgrounds and said this will be a source of strength.
“A big part of the council is your diversity,” Mayor Martin Walsh told councilors at the swearing-in. “[This] is a council with new faces but also a lot of experience.”
Wu highlighted the diverse perspectives of a council whose members’ histories include entrepreneurship, labor union membership, longtime public employment and teaching.
The city council enters its 106th year at a time when income inequality is stark and issues of affordable housing and improved and equitable education are at the forefront.
“Too many Bostonians are worrying that coming generations will be worse off,” Wu said. “Against this backdrop, the work of city government is more important than ever.”
Wu said the council will take action on income inequality, criminal justice system reform, educational opportunity improvements and climate change preparation.
Helping further this are the expansion and introduction of several committees. The Public Safety Committee’s purview will extend to include criminal justice. Wu also announced new committees on Homelessness, Mental Health and Poverty and Jobs, Labor and Workforce Development.
Many city councilors’ 2016 agendas take on particular slices of education reform.
Essaibi-George is a former teacher who said she hopes to join the Committee on Education. Among her top concerns is helping Boston Public Schools’ homeless students, she said.
Meanwhile, Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley will concentrate on school food, teacher diversity and ensuring equity in special education students’ transitions to life after high school.
City councilors soon may be forced to take sides on education policy as it pertains to charter and district school debates. With a statewide campaign to lift the cap limiting the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, pressure is rising on several fronts.
A proposed unified enrollment system — in which parents seeking placement for BPS schools simultaneously would receive charter school options under the city’s existing enrollment policy — likely will come up for a vote when the council considers the budget in April.
“I have grave concerns about universal enrollment and the potential it has to override the two-year process that led to the current assignment system,” District 7 Councilor Tito Jackson told the Banner. “The focus for the city should be on the Boston Public Schools, which we control.”
Essaibi-George — who supports keeping the cap on charters — said she was not sure yet of her stance on universal enrollment or on the Boston Compact as a whole.
Councilor at Large Michael Flaherty — who favors lifting the cap, saying it will create useful competition between schools — weighed in on budgets both charter and district school reform. He said steps need to be taken to ensure charter schools educate all children and that he and colleagues are working to ensure appropriate funding is provided to the city when students move from charter schools back to district schools.
Currently, if a student elects to attend a charter, funds that would flow to BPS to educate that child are diverted to the charter instead. But no funds are returned to district schools if the student transfers back into BPS mid-year.
A contentious issue coming to councilors for vote this month is the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s quest to retain their urban renewal designations in several Boston neighborhoods. Wu proposed that the council vote on the districts one by one, rather than all together.
Pressley and Jackson said they had concerns about extending the designations.
“There are still some very real questions,” Jackson said. “The burden of proof is on the BRA as to why we should extend urban renewal and how that would benefit
Roxbury and Dorchester.”
Meanwhile, Essaibi-George appeared to favor granting a modified version of these powers.
“Urban renewal certainly has room for change and improvement,” she said. “I don’t have a position on whether we should be getting rid of it or not, because I haven’t heard an alternative to urban renewal.”
Flaherty said he had not yet committed himself to either side and would wait for more information on the plan in each neighborhood.
Union contracts and body cameras
Also up this year: In early February, councilors will have to vote on a proposed 28 percent pay raise for the Boston Police detectives’ union. The decision could set a precedent for other public employee unions whose contracts will have to be renegotiated soon, said Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. If approved, the raise would cost the city an estimated $23 million.
Several councilors said they awaited further information before taking a stance.
The council also has before it the opportunity to push forward the implementation of police body cameras and establish policy for their usage.
In September, Police Superintendent William Evans indicated he would initiate a pilot program outfitting some officers with body-worn cameras. Meanwhile, the city council still has a proposed ordinance before it that, if they enacted, would mandate implementation and set requirements for how body cameras are used and the videos are stored, accessed and shared.
Officials invoked the power of collaboration, with Wu and Mayor Walsh crediting collaboration between their branches as a driver of the past year’s successes.
“We are a city on the rise,” Walsh said. “With all of us — council and mayor’s office — working together, no one can stop Boston.”