Moments after winning another term as president of the Boston City Council, Stephen J. Murphy pushed through a vote for a longtime political ally.
With no public notice or discussion, Murphy unexpectedly called last week for the reelection of his former colleague, Maureen E. Feeney, as city clerk, extending her tenure until at least 2016. The job has long been criticized because the clerk draws an annual municipal pay of almost $102,000 and is also allowed to collect tens of thousands more in fees for weddings performed during the workday at City Hall.
The timing of Feeney’s reelection was a departure from the City Council tradition of electing clerks just prior to the start of their term in February. Councilors learned of the vote just before it occurred, but none objected.
Councilors did not stop to discuss the performance of Feeney, who resigned from the council after almost two decades and become clerk in January 2012. Nor did any councilors ask whether Feeney had complied with new rules enacted last year to regulate weddings in the city clerk’s office, a measure passed to quell criticism of elected officials handing a lucrative job to a longtime colleague.
The unanimous vote took less than two minutes as each of the 13 councilors spoke Feeney’s name aloud. As the City Council chamber erupted in applause, Feeney turned to Murphy and mouthed “thank you.” She then walked to the council president’s podium, reached up, and shook his hand.
“I’m the person who pushed the motion,” Murphy said in an interview Monday. “It’s a City Council personnel issue. The City Council controls the city clerk.”
When the council first elected Feeney as clerk in late 2011, Murphy said he made the process public and felt burned by what he saw as unfair criticism. Murphy said he decided to hold the vote last week to get it done because he had been pleased with Feeney’s performance. In the past, the City Council did not notify the public that it would be holding the vote, he said.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said that tradition is not an excuse not to notify the public of a coming vote.
“This is a step in the wrong direction.” Wilmot said. “It’s the public’s business whether it’s in [the City Council’s] discretion or not. Agenda items should be noted unless they are true emergencies. Clearly this was not an emergency.”
Since the new requirements went into effect in late June, Feeney and the city’s assistant clerk have performed 938 weddings during their workday at City Hall, according to records provided Monday to the Globe. On Dec. 14, they officiated at 17 ceremonies in a single day.
In an interview Monday at City Hall after a handful of weddings, Feeney said that she splits the nuptials with the assistant clerk, Alex Geourntas, who has an annual municipal salary of almost $89,000. The officiant charges $60 for each ceremony, which means Feeney and Geourntas have each collected about $28,000 in six months on top of their city paychecks.
The new ordinance imposed a $15 fee that goes into city coffers, bringing the price of a City Hall wedding up to $75. The new fee raised roughly $14,000 in the last six months of 2012, according to the clerk’s records. Under state law, they could charge as much as $100 per wedding.
The new regulations also limited the hours people could marry in the clerk’s office from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on all weekdays except Wednesday, when there are no weddings.
“We did not break those rules; I’m a rules person,” said Feeney, who produced a color-coded spreadsheet of weddings with time stamps. “Really and truly, we have complied. I don’t think we could abide any closer than we do.”
Since becoming clerk, Feeney said she has been surprised by the range of couples who trek to the drab sixth floor of City Hall to exchange vows. They come from across Massachusetts and even overseas, Feeney said. On Monday morning, one couple was headed to Puerto Rico for a destination wedding, but they wanted to officially tie the knot in Boston.
“If somebody said to me there would be this many weddings, never in a million years would I have believed it,” Feeney said. “What drives people to come to City Hall, I don’t know.’’
In 2011, after Feeney resigned from the council to become clerk, two of her colleagues proposed an ordinance that would have prevented the clerk from keeping fees collected for weddings during business hours at City Hall.
The measure by Murphy and Councilor Michael P. Ross ultimately failed because the councilors determined that it could be at odds with state law.
On Monday, Ross said that an effort to reform the practice at the state level failed and that he had moved on to other issues.
“I had no problem voting for Maureen Feeney because it was placed in front of me,” Ross said of last week’s election.
“But If you want to know about performance measures or any of those things, I would refer you to council president [Murphy]. It was his decision to move that matter the way he did.”