Old ideas for a new year

Plus, a dirty job for Deval: fix the Big Dig
By EDITORIAL  |  January 16, 2008

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During the past 18 months, the good news out of City Hall has come in the form of fresh faces. Mayor Thomas Menino has brought in promising outsiders to lead the city’s police department, fire department, school system, and information-technology operation. But those hoping that new faces would translate into new thinking from City Hall were surely disappointed by the mayor’s State of the City address Tuesday evening.

In the past, Menino has often used the State of the City to announce his most ambitious plans — not all of which come to fruition, and not all of which deserve to. But those proposals are nonetheless signs of the administration’s vitality, and some of those ideas do go on to truly improve the city.

This year, despite the infusion of so much new blood, the mayor’s ideas seemed well-intentioned but pale. They exhibited more than a touch of anemia.

Menino’s most eye-catching proposal was his declaration of intent to revisit the issue of public-school busing. To be sure, it’s newsworthy and controversial that he wants to push in the direction of neighborhood schooling. But it’s not a new idea, and Menino didn’t even offer the barest outline of his preferred approach, saying only that “I believe we can rethink our school assignment zones.”

Other new initiatives? “Single-stream recycling” (i.e., no more separating paper from plastic). New bike lanes on Commonwealth Avenue. A million-dollar drop-in-the-bucket for improving community centers’ role as “Community Learning” partners. More Advanced Placement classes in the city’s high schools.

These are all fine ideas, but hardly bold ones. But to be fair, barring a major new stream of revenue from the state government, expensive ideas are nonstarters at the moment.

Still, it would be nice to get some sense that Menino is allowing his new agency and department heads to contribute fresh ideas to an increasingly stale administration.

Perhaps there’s still hope. On one of the most important issues facing the city — the already atrocious and still climbing high-school dropout rate — Menino promised that new superintendent Carol Johnson will outline plans later this month.

Another notable part of Menino’s speech highlighted the age-old and increasingly tiresome war of wills between the mayor and the firefighters union.

The union backed down from threats to picket the speech, but Menino lashed out at them nonetheless. “I am astounded by the union leaders’ unwillingness to eliminate substance abuse and unethical personnel practices,” he said, adding that “It is not right to ask for pay raises as a reward for putting a stop to these abuses.”

He’s right, of course, and he’s absolutely right to call public disgust to bear on the union.

But it was also a reminder that Menino has been fighting with — and failing to reform — the firefighters for more than a decade. Most of the improvements he is now so adamant about implementing were recommended to him in the O’Toole Commission report 10 years ago.

If Menino wants to convince voters that his administration is still vital and innovative, he’ll have to do better than we saw this week.

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