Why does Boston mayor Thomas Menino seem to have such a chip on his shoulder about the Boston Public Library?
Why does Menino seem determined to politicize the nation’s oldest large free public library, which — until now — has enjoyed 160 years of relative autonomy?
Why did Menino’s administration mount a campaign of disinformation to smear the local reputation of nationally respected BPL president Bernie Margolis prior to orchestrating his firing by a complacent board of trustees?
And why, this past week, did Menino’s chief fiscal operative launch a campaign to seize control of $54 million dollars’ worth of trust funds, which contribute six percent of the BPL’s annual operating budget, in a move that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of state law governing such trusts?
The answer, it seems, is because Menino can.
Menino is a formidable political figure. He lacks the flair of Kevin White and the cunning of Raymond Flynn. But the absence of an articulated vision has not been a quantifiable deficit. With nearly 15 full years as the city’s chief executive to his credit, he is on pace to become the longest-serving mayor in Boston history. Menino will best the record of the glamorous White, who bested the record of the legendary James Michael Curly, when he completes his fourth term in 2009. His place in history is guaranteed. What history will make of him, and those who serve in his name, however, is still an open question.
Behind closed doors, Menino is a control freak. In public, he projects nose-to-the-grindstone diligence. His is ability to actively shirk responsibility when things go wrong — and to get away with it — is a source of political wonder.
If the definition of political success is survival, then Menino is a master. He’s surfed the rip tide of shrinking resources (less money from Washington and Beacon Hill) and changing demographics (the aging of a politically active middle class and the rise of yet-to-be-aligned ethnics and immigrants) with skill. The politics of this Boston moment are the politics of lowered expectations. Mayor Menino is their king.
These factors help explain how Menino is able to do what he does. But they still beg the question: why the library?
That answer, in part, is because the library is there. Unable or unwilling to reform the troubled police and fire departments (the line between wit and will is a truly blurry one in these exceedingly complicated cases), the Menino administration — not known as a carton of eggheads — cannot resist the temptation to muck about with the BPL.
Compounding this unfortunate tendency is a sense of misapplied tenacity. Simply put, Menino did not get to where he is, or hold on for so long, by being a wimp. He climbed the greasy and unglamorous poll of local politics, rising from political foot soldier for others to mayor beholden to very few. The price of this impressive self-invention is that few around Menino are willing — or able — to save the mayor from his less-endearing tendencies.
Menino and his insular team never got over the fact that when a previous board of trustees recruited Margolis for the BPL’s top job, it retained a top professional of independent judgment.
The circumstances surrounding Margolis’s removal cannot make finding a replacement easier — that is, if the goal is to get a professional, rather than a hack or an efficient but pliant clerk.
Forcing the library to surrender the modest degree of fiscal autonomy it enjoys — Menino wants the city to dictate on a case-by-case basis how funds are spent, rather than approve lump sums for the library to use at its discretion, as has been done in the past — is not going to make the BPL presidency any more attractive.
His heavy-handedness with the library throughout the past year or so is not about improving the institution. It is about control. Menino should leave the trust funds alone. If he doesn’t, the trustees should resist his destructive meddling.
The nine members of BPL board of trustees, each appointed by the mayor, have two essential jobs: to make sure the institution is well managed and to insulate the library from undue political influence. The most vigorous defenders of an independent library have been State Representative Angelo Scaccia and former State Senate president William Bulger. So far, they have been silent on the issue. But then, that is their style. They tend to pursue a closed-door strategy, making their arguments in private rather than in public.
Friends of the library hope Scaccia and Bulger will fight this political takeover, which is being proposed under the bogus banner of good management. Too many of the recent trustees see their roles as servants of Menino rather than as stewards of the public trust, which the library represents.
There is no clash of big ideas in this confrontation. It is a rather primitive situation. The library has been — oddly enough — the only sector of the municipality (as opposed to a union) that has tried to resist Menino when it believes that principle is at stake. It’s curious that it is the battle for library independence that brings Menino’s style of governance into such sharp relief.