Boston’s 13 city councilors — especially the four members elected at-large — hold high-profile jobs. Their positions, however, come with extremely limited authority. Under the city’s “strong-mayor” form of government, the Council’s principle role is to review the budget. But even there, its authority is circumscribed: it can dispose, but it can not propose. It is, essentially, a review board that can do little of consequence without the mayor’s approval. And the current mayor, Thomas Menino, guards his prerogatives jealously. He is a master of undercutting and co-opting the Council. That, admittedly, is not always a bad thing. But neither is it always the best way to run the city. No one, after all, is right all of the time. When you add Menino’s propensity for political royalism with his commitment to micro-management, you get a government too often defined by ego rather than ideas. This is the reality of the moment.
Boston could use more than a few good ideas. It is an extremely livable city for many, but its cost of living is high. Menino can justly share in the credit for stabilizing a once-declining school system. But the rate of improvement is still not what many hope it could be. The plague of murders and shootings that afflicts swaths of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury could — until relatively recently — be attributed, in part, to City Hall’s failure to hold the police to standards. And there are ominous signs that the fire department may have serious problems of its own. These are just some of the more noteworthy challenges Boston faces.
It is against this backdrop that the recent campaign for City Council has been waged — if such a word is appropriate for what has been a low-velocity exercise.
Over the past two years, two veteran at-large councilors whom the Phoenix declined to endorse in the last election have weighed in with strong performances. MichaelFlaherty and StephenMurphy both deserve re-election.
Since being ousted as council president, Flaherty has become a more vigorous, daring, and thoughtful councilor. He has been active in holding hearings, generating ideas, and — at times — providing a countervailing voice to Menino. The fact that he has been able to do so without looking as if he is reflexively naysaying the mayor makes Flaherty’s performance all the more impressive. Flaherty knows the city. And when he talks about change, he is practical, not pie in the sky.
Murphy, meanwhile, is an interesting case. He is a classic lunch-bucket politician who has done a very good job of growing, changing, and evolving. He has one foot firmly in the old Boston and another in the Boston of the moment. Murphy is doing his part to help steer Boston toward the future, and is doing so admirably. Some in the progressive community see Murphy as an opportunist. If he were only that, we wish there were more of his stripe.
Two progressives the Phoenix endorsed two years ago again win our nod — though with a bit less enthusiasm this time around. Newcomer SamYoon and long-time political fixture FelixArroyo clearly have a deep and abiding love for the city they serve. And their commitment to broadening the political horizons and looking out for those who are economically less fortunate is undeniable. But Yoon and Arroyo get too caught up in the game of trying to define themselves against Menino, even when common sense suggests that Menino is not wrong, but realistic. It is time for Yoon to realize his considerable potential, and for Arroyo to apply the wisdom his experience has granted him.