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Walsh sees stronger role for City Council

Martin J. Walsh spoke of his priorities.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Martin J. Walsh spoke of his priorities.

As Boston’s next chief executive, Martin J. Walsh will have sweeping authority to hire top officials, spend taxpayer money, and push his agenda, because almost all municipal power resides in the mayor’s office.

But in a city where a former mayor once joked about ruling like an emperor, Walsh has an unusual proposal: He wants to give the City Council a larger role.

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“I’m not afraid of having them as a partner in government,” Walsh said in a wide-ranging interview Thursday, noting that Boston’s legislative body is often overlooked. “I view a whole different relationship between myself and the council.”

In his first 100 days in office, Walsh said, he will focus on finding a new school superintendent, increasing public safety in neighborhoods beset by frequent gunfire, and maintaining Boston’s economic momentum. But Walsh remained cautious in the 30-minute interview and did not speak in detail about his agenda or incoming administration.

“I’m still learning,” Walsh said. “I’ve never really done a transition into mayor of Boston before.”

Walsh said his proposal to overhaul the Boston Redevelopment Authority was “almost like a piece of legislation” he proposed during the campaign.

“As we get toward what it’s going to look like and do,” Walsh said, “I’ll take advice from business leaders, community groups, and activists and architects about how the changes can be positive changes for the city.”

Walsh added: “I want the culture and mind-set of the [Boston Redevelopment Authority] to change.”

Mayor Thomas M. Menino will host a meeting Friday at the Parkman House with Walsh and local business leaders, according to Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce.

In the interview Thursday, Walsh said he may add positions to the mayor’s Cabinet, including posts for youth affairs, arts and culture, and a chief diversity officer. But he said he wanted to make sure the positions are needed.

“I don’t want to grow the Cabinet to the point there are 350 people just to say we did it,” Walsh said. “I just want to make sure the roles that they do, whatever they are, have responsibilities.”

Walsh said he hopes to have a school superintendent in place by the start of the next school year, in September 2014. Carol R. Johnson stepped down from the post in August.

In neighborhoods racked by gun violence, Walsh said, he will promote neighborhood policing, which would include officers on bicycles in summer. He said he wants to improve communication between police and residents, push crime prevention initiatives in schools, and address the long-term impact of trauma felt by crime victims and their families.

Acting Police Commissioner William Evans “is a good man,” Walsh said, and the mayor-elect said he will consider keeping Evans in the post, but will also explore all options. Walsh said essentially the same thing about Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser.

“I’m going to sit down and have conversations with people,” Walsh said.

During the campaign, Walsh often talked about the need for more transparency in government. When asked how he would accomplish that at City Hall, Walsh suggested he would lead by example.

“I want to make myself accessible to the press, obviously,” Walsh said. “And if questions are asked, we answer the questions. I’m not saying the current mayor isn’t doing that, but I think that’s part of the transparency.”

With East Boston voters rejecting a proposed Suffolk Downs casino, Walsh reiterated his concern about the racetrack potentially shifting the gambling hall to the part of the property that is in Revere. But Walsh stopped short of saying he would try to stop a casino by blocking construction of hotels on the Boston side of the property.

“I wouldn’t say block it,” Walsh said, adding he needs to have more discussions about the project. “We’ve still got a little time to go. I’m not ready to answer that one yet.”

The mayor-elect’s pledge to share power with the City Council will surely ring unfamiliar in a city whose mayors historically have relished near-absolute authority.

Consider a famous anecdote from 1967, when Kevin H. White was elected to succeed Mayor John F. Collins. The outgoing mayor suggested that in Boston, the chief executive had so much power the officeholder deserved a different name.

“It is not ‘mayor,’ ” Collins quipped. “It is ‘emperor.’ ”

The 13-member City Council was not designed to have the muscle of Congress or the Legislature, where Walsh has served for the last 16 years.

In the interview Thursday, Walsh sounded more like a longtime legislator than a soon-to-be chief executive as he spoke about building coalitions and seeking the opinions of others.

On Thursday, members of the City Council reacted positively to Walsh’s suggestion that the council take a larger role.

“I’m very supportive of this,” said Councilor Matt O’Malley, who endorsed Walsh’s opponent in the mayor’s race, John R. Connolly. “To his credit, I think Marty has a career that has been defined by collaborative policies. Clearly, he’s built coalitions. So I’m very heartened to hear this approach. I think the council will absolutely work well with our next mayor.”

Councilor Charles C. Yancey, the longest-serving member of the body, described Walsh’s proposal as an “olive leaf.”

“It’s a very graceful way for Marty to enter City Hall,” said Yancey, who was first elected in 1983. “He knows he needs the City Council to get his budget through and to get any legislation passed.

“But he also knows that historically, the City Council has not been viewed as a major player in city government,” Yancey said.

Walsh, taking his seat behind a small desk in a cramped campaign office with a deflated air mattress in the corner, brandished his phone and shook his head at the volume of incoming messages awaiting him: 513 texts and 18 voice mails.

“I’m trying to stay ahead of it,” he said. “I can’t.”

Walsh said he was uncertain how he will use one of the trappings of the office, the Beacon Street mansion that Menino used for ceremonial occasions and meetings with lawmakers until deciding to make it his temporary home while recuperating from illnesses.

“I don’t even know what the Parkman House is used for,” Walsh said, adding that he did not plan to spend the night there.

“I don’t know what would make me stay at the Parkman House,” he said. “I mean, I have a house on Tuttle Street.”

Jim O’Sullivan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.
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