City Council starts year with activist agenda
Councilors file for hearings on city charter, police reform
The first Boston City Council meeting of the year followed a scripted format, with at-large Councilor Michelle Wu formally nominating District 7 Councilor Kim Janey for president of the 13-member body. Janey had secured the votes for the presidency weeks in advance, so her election by 12 votes (District 3 Councilor Frank Baker voted “present”) came as no surprise to anyone.
In the body’s second meeting on Jan. 15, the councilors rolled up their sleeves and got to work, providing a preview of the year to come. Hearing orders and ordinance proposals came fast and furious, with several challenging the power of Mayor Martin Walsh.
District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell called for a hearing order probing the city’s Citizens Oversight Ombudsman Panel (COOP), which was established to review civilian complaints of police misconduct. Campbell noted that Walsh in 2017 issued an executive order calling for expansion of the board’s work and increasing the number of members from three to five. As of November, however, the board had just two members, one of whom who has since resigned.
“Because we haven’t had a hearing on this, no one really knows what’s going on,” she said.
Campbell also called for a hearing on the Boston Police Department’s body-worn camera policy, looking at the policies governing use of the cameras and their implementation.
The Mattapan/Dorchester councilor has taken an increasingly combative tone with Walsh, criticizing his administration of the Boston Public Schools in a press release following the State of the City address two weeks ago for what she said was “a lack of a vision and a plan.”
Boston and ICE
At-large Councilor Julia Mejia filed a hearing order to review the city’s policies on undocumented immigrants, citing revelations that Boston Public Schools made available to federal immigration officials 135 school incident reports between 2014 and 2017. She noted that in 2017, arrests of undocumented immigrants in Boston went up 50%, while the national rate increased by just 30%.
“We have a responsibility to protect our most vulnerable and uphold our most basic civil rights: the right to freedom from harm and the right to be heard,” she said.
District 1 Councilor Lydia Edwards filed a hearing order to review the city charter, which currently defines a strong-mayor system in which the city council has limited power over the city’s budget.
“This will kick off a very long conversation about how the city of Boston chooses to govern itself,” she said. “As we kick off this new decade, we need to talk about how we run things, and are we running this city in the most effective way, the most reflective way, in a way that impacts the day-to-day lives of every Bostonian?”
While questioning the strong-mayor system reads like a challenge to Walsh’s power, Edwards said her aim is to bring clarity and transparency to a system of governance that includes state supervision of basic functions of city governance such as liquor licenses and, at times, the whims of city department heads.
“I am not standing here trying to challenge the power dynamic,” she said. “What I’m asking is to be very clear about what it is. Right now, courts would describe our charter as a patchwork of special acts.”
Edwards said she would like to shape the patchwork of laws, ordinances and special acts into a single document that could be amended in a uniform way.
Edwards also filed an order to require the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) to ensure fair housing laws are upheld in new developments when planning for new housing. She noted that the Boston Housing Authority and the Department of Neighborhood Development already have adopted fair housing guidelines.
“We want the BPDA to also affirmatively further fair housing in its planning stage,” she said, holding up the nearly all-white Seaport District neighborhood as an example of recent development where race wasn’t taken into account.
In another hearing order, Edwards called for a reform of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal, an order she originally filed last year after a city official was charged with receiving a bribe to shepherd a development proposal through the board’s approval process.
At-large Councilor Michael Flaherty, along with Edwards and at-large Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George filed orders reviewing and reforming the Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, through which large nonprofit organizations such as universities, hospitals and museums make voluntary payments. Under the current program, such institutions pay the equivalent of 25% of what they would pay in property tax, half of that through so-called community benefits. Edwards and Essaibi-George called for a task force to review and define community benefits.
“It’s critical that we are holding the institutions that occupy so much real estate in the city accountable,” said Essaibi-George.
Flaherty noted that the city has not increased the rate of payments for the PILOT program in more than 10 years, even as property values have soared in much of the city.
“I think it’s unacceptable that our tax-exempt institutions are paying PILOT Program payments on 2009 values, while city residents are paying on 2020 values,” he said.
Of the four new members of the Council — Ricardo Arroyo, Liz Breadon, Kenzie Bok and Julia Mejia — three won seats formerly occupied by white males. The new makeup of the Council, with eight women and seven people of color, marks the first time in history that white males no longer make up a majority of the body.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am to lead the most diverse city council in the history of Boston,” said Council President Kim Janey in an interview with the Banner following last week’s meeting. “This council has demonstrated its ability to take on tough issues head-on.”
Janey said the diversity of the Council will be important as the body takes up issues stemming from the growing economic and racial disparities in the city, such as the lack of city contracts going to minority vendors and equity in the growing cannabis industry.
As a representative of a district that includes Roxbury and parts of Dorchester, the Fenway and the South End, Janey said her district contains many of the disparities affecting the city as a whole.
“We’ve got to do more to ensure the people I represent aren’t being left out of economic opportunity in the city,” she said. “Roxbury is ground zero for many of the disparities and inequities that we’re trying to address on this council.”
The raft of hearing orders and proposed ordinances coming out of last week’s meeting was just a start, Janey said. She anticipates that her fellow councilors will file a range of additional hearing orders and ordinances aimed at improving the lives of Boston residents, besides those filed last week.
Janey noted that the increased diversity on the Council comes as black officials have taken top positions in law enforcement —
including the Suffolk County District Attorney’s and Sheriff’s offices and the District 7 Congressional seat. She noted that earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley brought members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Boston for the first time ever to speak with Janey and other local residents about issues affecting their communities.
“This is why it’s so important to have people representing us who look like us,” Janey said. “[Pressley] brought her colleagues to our district so that we have a voice in shaping policy. This is huge.”