NEW GUARD: Members Arroyo, Pressley, Connolly, and Ross have re-energized the Boston City Council.
Boston City Hall politics, normally a year-round spectator sport, was largely overshadowed this year by state and national campaigns. With the attention off, a surprising amount of activity has been going on — not in the mayor's office, but down the corridor in the Boston City Council.
As we turn toward the city-election year of 2011, city councilors have been taking positions, holding hearings, and gathering community support, sometimes in opposition to Mayor Tom Menino.
In fact, the current activity of the council is in striking contrast to the usual perception that it is weak and nearly irrelevant. Some of last year's candidates for mayor and City Council were even advocating a re-writing of the city charter to give the council more power.
You hear a lot less of that kind of talk now. According to many observers, the past year has seen the City Council play a more important role than it has in years.
That was most evident in the very high-profile battle over a new contract for the city's firefighters. Everyone expected the council to rubber-stamp the controversial deal that came out of mediation. Instead, it held public hearings that ended with the firefighters' union offering new concessions to the city — concessions the mayor had not obtained.
Council members have also taken the lead against Menino's plans to shut down libraries and community centers. They have held hearings on failings in public safety and education. This year's budget hearings featured unusually harsh questions and criticisms of Menino's staff.
"I think there's a sense of independence," says Bill Linehan, district councilor from South Boston, "of defining the role of the council, now and for the future."
Partly, this activism has been triggered by events, as Boston's financial constraints have forced the city into very difficult decisions about the budget and services.
Some also suggest that Menino has been less forceful — or dictatorial — in directing the council's behavior. Since his re-election a year ago, these City Hall observers say, Menino has taken a more hands-off approach. Some even suspect his health is limiting him, pointing to the mayor's reduced public schedule and instances when he has cancelled meetings and activities. Others say he's had more important things to deal with, such as restocking his administration after the departure of key personnel, including budget director Lisa Signori.
But Menino may have less to do with it than the council members themselves. The addition of at-large councilors Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley, to go along with second-term at-large councilor John Connolly and district councilor Mike Ross, has created a solid core of independent-minded young progressives. It's a group likely to grow after next week's special election to replace John Tobin, and eventually another to replace Chuck Turner, who is expected to be expelled from the council next month following his conviction for accepting a bribe.
Plus, the "old guard" councilors have proven not to be the stereotypical kowtowers to the mayor. Nor are they neighborhood conservatives in the Jimmy Kelly or Jerry McDermott mold.
"This council is demonstrating now, more than ever before, that we are not a rubber stamp," says Pressley. "Every one of the tools available to us is being utilized."