As Council moves left, Wu charts moderate path
Councilors buck Wu on policing, housing, budget
One doesn’t have to look far back in Boston history to see the degree to which Boston City Council, an institution often seen as a rubber stamp for whoever happened to sit in the mayor’s seat, has changed dramatically.
Some of the changes are obvious. In 2020, after decades of domination by white men, the Boston City Council comprised for the first time of a majority of women and people of color.
Meanwhile, 2022 marked the first year in the city’s history that the Boston City Council wielded new budgetary powers, approved by Boston voters via a 2021 ballot measure, that give councilors’ agendas new weight in the city’s all-important budget process.
At the same time, the Council has moved decidedly to the left of Boston’s political spectrum — and, arguably at times, even to the left of Mayor Michelle Wu, who was for years part of the body’s growing progressive faction.
Wu ran as the progressive candidate for Boston mayor and to many observers has so far lived up to that reputation. But Wu has also seen pressure from the left, both from within the Council and from activists outside it — pressure that as mayor, she has at times resisted.
Arguably the starkest example of tension between the new liberal Council majority and Wu was the political standoff over the city’s police budget last summer.
In 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, then-City Councilor Wu had joined a majority of her colleagues in calling on then-Mayor Martin Walsh to cut the city’s police budget by as much as 10%. When Walsh instead proposed modest cuts to the police overtime budget, Wu voted with colleagues in an unsuccessful attempt to veto Walsh’s budget.
But Wu’s own first proposed budget as mayor, for the 2023 fiscal year, proposed a cut of only about 1% to the police budget.
A majority of Council members rebelled, rejecting the mayor’s budget and unanimously passing a package of amendments that included some $13 million in cuts to the police budget (largely from unspent or underspent line items from the previous year and police overtime).
Wu, in turn, rejected those proposals, countering that because current police contracts require the city to pay all overtime worked, whether budgeted or not, the cuts to overtime spending represented a false reduction of police spending.
In the end, Council members, led by Council Ways and Means Committee Chair Tania Fernandes Anderson and District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara, attempted to amend the mayor’s budget to cut just over $2 million to the police department’s personnel and contractual services funds, sparing overtime, and reroute that funding towards youth jobs initiatives. That amendment failed, falling short of the two-thirds vote needed to override the mayor.
Elected School Committee
As the only municipality in Massachusetts that doesn’t elect its school committee, Boston has seen calls, mostly from the progressive left, for an end to the current system of a school committee fully appointed by the mayor.
On the campaign trail, Wu voiced support for a so-called hybrid model — with some School Committee members elected and others appointed by the mayor.
But Wu has not voiced support for a fully-elected school committee, putting her seemingly at odds with not only a majority of voters, who approved in 2020, by nearly 80%, a non-binding ballot measure in support of an elected committee.
Such a change requires a home rule petition be passed by the Council and mayor and sent to Beacon Hill, where it must in turn be approved by the state legislature.
District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and at-large Councilor Julia Mejia sponsored a home rule petition in 2022 to overturn the fully-appointed school committee model — but the petition expired from the Council’s legislative docket at year’s end without a vote.
Arroyo says the two will be refiling a similar petition this year, and that the Council will hold public hearings on the bill before it goes to a Council vote.
Wu, however, has not said whether she would sign such a petition — making the City Council, for now at least, the obvious pressure point for activists supporting the measure.
“The mayor has had plenty of time to consider her positions,” Lisa Green, of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, told the Banner. “We have confidence the city council will pass it; we have confidence the people of Boston want it. What we don’t have confidence in is the mayor listening to the will of the voters.”
In December, Council members passed a resolution calling on Wu to institute stricter affordable housing requirements for new development in Boston — specifically, urging Wu to lower the threshold for the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy to apply to developments of five or more units, down from 10 units; and to raise the number of required affordable units from 13% to 20%.
Less than a week later, Wu unveiled her own proposal for new affordability requirements — meeting Council members, it seems, at least halfway, with IDP affordability requirements kicking in at construction of seven or more units, not five, and requiring that 17% of units be set aside as affordable.
Councilors generally praised the mayor’s new proposals, noting they look forward to public hearings this year.
Some advocates were less enthusiastic. In a statement, members of the Coalition for a Truly Affordable Boston said the mayor’s measures fall short, calling the standards for affordability unrealistic and noting that the new requirements would not apply to development in some of the city’s lower-income and working-class neighborhoods.
Control over the budget
While not an issue that splits neatly across political lines, the question of how much power the City Council can and will exercise over the city’s nearly $4 billion budget — the document that lays the groundwork for all city services, policies, initiatives and more — remains unresolved.
The passage of the 2021 ballot measure known as Question 1 gave the City Council, for the first time, the ability to make line-item amendments to the mayor’s budget — which previously the Council could only approve or reject in whole.
2022 saw Council members embrace that new power, amending Wu’s proposed budget to the tune of $13 million in changes (largely, again, in cuts to police overtime spending) — only to be rebuffed by the mayor’s office.
While Wu’s main objection to the Council’s amended budget was over cuts to police overtime, her administration also claimed the Council had overstepped its new authority, citing the legal opinion from city lawyers that while the Council does now have a certain ability to amend the budget, that power is strictly limited in scope. (Specifically, the administration argued that Council members may move funds between departments but not within them).
The administration, in a redrafted budget, did adopt some of the changes put forward by the Council — but rejected the bulk of them.
With the budgetary clock ticking, Council members pushing the changes successfully overrode the mayor’s budget in some areas, but failed, by and large, to successfully override portions of the mayor’s budget that left out Council amendments — leaving intact, and so far unchallenged and unresolved, the extent of the Council’s new powers.
District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara says the Council will continue to push its members’ agenda this year.
“Mayor Wu and all of the new elected Councilors were sent to City Hall with a very clear progressive mandate,” Lara told the Banner, adding that Council members will be engaged to “make sure we are bringing the will of the voters to the chamber.”