Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Boston and Beyond

By Kevin John Sowyrda
Madness has gripped the city. And Mayor Thomas Menino is at the center of it. Manny Rivera, the extra super superintendent of schools of Rochester, N.Y., was hired to replace retired Boston Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant. Everyone was excited about the hire. Rivera is uber-qualified. But last week, he backed out to take a job in New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's administration.

Since then, a whispering campaign has blamed Rivera's decision not to come to Boston on School Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Reilinger: Reilinger was making it hard to come to terms with Rivera on a contract. She was trying to make key hires for Rivera. Within seconds of this news breaking, At-Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty was calling for Reilinger's resignation. He was quickly joined by At-Large Councilor Felix Arroyo and District 6 Councilor John Tobin.

Don't buy it. This is nothing more than crude spin, which is so reminiscent of the Kevin White days that I'm having deja vu. Knowing what I know about Menino, his advisors and how they think, this has the fingerprints of Menino politburo chief Ed Jesser all over it. Yes, Menino has publicly defended Reilinger, but that's easy to do when your surrogates (hello Flaherty!) are out there doing your dirty work for you.

Let's step back for a moment and put this in a larger perspective. The Mayor had a terrible year last year. Let's call it his Annus Horribilus — not that Menino is a queen. But I digress.

How did things unravel so quickly for the "urban mechanic" who no longer has the ability to even sew up a contract with a perspective superintendent of schools? (Is Menino or anyone else in his administration familiar with the practice of having a high profile hire sign a memorandum of understanding that he or she will stop looking for other employment until a contract is signed?) I'm not sure. But evidence of the unraveling is everywhere.

Last year, Somerville — Somerville — beat Boston on crime stats. Crime was out of control because Menino thinks he has the competence to run the police department when it should be run by duly sworn professionals. That's why Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole departed for the Emerald Isle and that's why the crime fighting measures promulgated by the administration at City Hall were often comical in nature, if not out right, demented. That gun buy back program was just a smashing success, wasn't it? Those Target gift certificates were the ultimate enticement for the criminal element to surrender their lives to Jesus, weren't they? Please.

Then there's the no small matter of property taxes. Property taxes aren't simply stifling; they're fueling a Diaspora of middle class wage earners to locations outside the city limits. Here's a stat that's so obscene I hesitate to print it in a family newspaper: over the last four years, the average increase in property taxes for single family homes in Boston have increased 50 percent. No, that's not a typo. That information comes courtesy of Sam Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. Boston is the nation's ultimate municipality of extremes: A misled and mismanaged abode for the very rich, the very poor — and a decreasing element of working-two-jobs people squeezed in the middle, waiting for the real estate market to finally pick up so they can dump their flats for the best price and get out of town.

Other indignities: The grand tradition of Santa's Village was allowed to wither away. Menino said he hoped that to replace the tradition with a new one: Decorating the outside of City Hall with holiday lights instead. The demise of Tower Records — the building on the corner of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue will become luxury condos.

Menino has tried to bounce back. He's apparently staying up late surfing Google to resurrect old ideas, even those he once ridiculed. Case in point would be the proposal to sell that pathetic excuse for a City Hall and relocate the Emperor's Court to better digs at the waterfront. Does this sound familiar? It should, since this ball was first thrown into the court of public consideration in 2004 when Tobin filed a formal order before the city council proposing basically the same idea. When he did so, he was viciously lambasted by Menino's then press secretary, Seth Gitell.

Lambaste it one day, put your signature on it the next, I suppose. You gotta love city politics.

But we're already seeing signs that 2007 is going to be just as difficult for Hizzoner as 2006 was. Say it with me now: City Council President Maureen Feeney. The district councilor is going to rock City Hall like as if it were sitting on the San Andreas Fault.

Feeney has been an anomaly in Boston for many years for the simple fact that she refuses to kiss Menino's toes every time he strolls the aisle. This absence of bad habit distinguishes her from the plethora of political and business sycophants who pollute this metropolis. Though Feeney's council is legally handicapped by a city charter in serious need of rewriting, it's nonetheless an elected body politic which can garner media attention, if, that is, it's run in a gutsy, independent way. Expect just that of Feeney.

The first sign of that is Feeney's refusal to sign on to the Reilinger bashing currently underway at City Hall. "President Feeney has full confidence in Dr. Reilinger's ability as chairwoman of the school committee," spokesman Justin Holmes told me this week.

Let's just hope this latest mess — and this is a mess, Boston needs an extra-super superintendent and I don't know where we're going to find one now — jumpstarts the 2009 mayor's race. Politicians smell blood better than sharks and they know a wounded and miserable political animal when they smell one. Should Menino run for reelection, it really doesn't matter. People are tuning him out. The heir apparents to the throne include Tobin. He can usually think out of the box, projects a refreshing level of blunt honesty and exhibits all the qualities of leadership lacking in the mayor's office today. (Though Tobin joining the chorus for Reilinger's resignation this week was a disappointment, but predictable — since when does the old boy network at City Hall tolerate strong-minded women?)

Add to the contender's list a very well financed At-Large Councilor Michael Flaherty, venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli — who I dare say has one last run left in him. And, with any luck, names we may not even imagine at this moment in time.

Susan Ryan Vollmer, editor of the South End News, contributed to and edited this column. Kevin John Sowyrda is a political writer and analyst. You can reach him at and check out his daily blog at

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