The excitement was palpable at my polling place Tuesday morning, and not just because one of the finalists for mayor lives in my neighborhood. Election Day in Boston is kind of like Christmas morning. Everything is new and filled with hope and promise.
And now we arrive at the day after. We turned a page Tuesday. We elected a new mayor for the first time in 20 years. But that’s not all we did. We gave ourselves a chance to start over, to rethink a few things. Here is some early direction for Marty Walsh.
Suggesting a few changes is no slight against Tom Menino. For me, he goes down with James Michael Curley and Kevin White as one of the makers of modern Boston. If you don’t believe that, take a ride around the South Boston waterfront, think back to all the parking lots that were there for 50 years and then we’ll argue.
Some of the issues Walsh must address are obvious. Menino’s cautious and incremental approach to improving the city’s schools has raised test scores a bit. But it hasn’t helped the way people feel about the schools, or kept people who can afford it from bailing out. It’s progress that we have reached the point where no serious candidate can afford to defend the school system. But that’s just a start.
The new mayor must also take on the mess that is the development process. The candidates jostled over whether to “blow up” the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but the truth is that the agency became an afterthought years ago. Menino wanted to make major development decisions himself, and he was savvy enough to know he didn’t need to abolish anything to do it.
Instead, he just ignored a lot of pesky old policies and procedures, leaving himself the leeway to do whatever he wanted. And he packed the BRA board with individuals who understood that their role was to carry out his will, people blinded by their proximity to power.
Sometimes, Menino’s development decisions were good. Occasionally, his instincts failed him. Always, it was an unfortunate approach to public policy, because it removed any semblance of a fair and consistent process. Changing this is much more important than the debate over whether planning and development should be run out of the same agency.
All of this is representative of a bigger issue. Over a couple of decades, city government has become something that happens to people, not anything they believe they control. Think that’s an exaggeration? Try to name one area where residents feel they have more of a voice than they did 20 years ago. Take all the time you want.
Look, our municipal government, by design, invests great power in the mayor’s office. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. People trusted Menino’s judgment, and he leaves Boston a better place than the city he inherited.
But now we need a government that listens to critics, instead of silencing them. We need an administration that builds real relationships between communities. We need robust debate and real consensus, qualities missing for so long that we’ve practically forgotten what they feel like.
I think both mayoral finalists believe in all of those things.
But being a candidate is far different from being a mayor. It’s not just the power that changes people, it’s the responsibility. The desire to listen and to build consensus is often at war with the need to make decisions. In the short term, running everything yourself is incredibly efficient.
The problem is the long term. Sure, almost everyone in Boston has met Menino. But for all his accomplishments, we have seen the limitations of expecting one person to solve the city’s problems.
Taking back City Hall may be a cliche, but the chance for the residents to speak with a louder voice is real. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.