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Lawrence Harmon

The urban mechanic: What are the nuts and bolts of Menino’s legacy?

A five-step program to achieve mayoral success

GARY HOVLAND FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Now that Mayor Menino has put the kibosh on a sixth term, the mayoral field is about to resemble a crowd scene from the old science fiction movie “Metropolis.’’ These hopefuls would have to be asleep to miss Menino’s well-known formula for success: Stay alert to the needs of the city, large and small. Yet other strategies behind Menino’s amazing 20-year run aren’t so obvious. Adopting them won’t guarantee five successful terms in office. But ignoring them practically guarantees failure in the first or second term.

Protect yourself against old acquaintances. Nearly everyone over the age of 40 who grew up in Boston’s blue-collar neighborhoods knows a collection of ne’er-do-wells, heavies, or people who make their livings on the margins of society. A lot of these characters are quite amiable, and some might even be friends or relatives. Get rid of them. Shortly after his election in 1993, Menino broke relations with some colorful old acquaintances in his Hyde Park neighborhood. He knew how quickly they could drag down his administration if he allowed them even the slightest access to City Hall. It isn’t a matter of luck that Menino has managed to avoid a major corruption scandal after 20 years as mayor. He walled off the corruption carriers before he took office.

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A heavy purse is light to carry. Menino had freedom to govern because the city was never short on money. And that’s because he had talented chief financial officers who weren’t afraid to rein him in. Edward Collins, the city’s CFO from 1996 to 2002, was one of the country’s leading experts on municipal finance. He mentored CFO Lisa Signori, who was dubbed “Dr. No’’ for opposing overly generous labor contracts. She, in turn, mentored Meredith Weenick, who continues the tradition of accurate multi-year forecasting and insistence on reasonable debt.

The natural tendency of a mayor is to hire lots of people to provide popular services and serve as political foot soldiers during election season. Along comes an economic downturn and a drop in state aid, leaving the city crushed under the weight of its own bloated personnel budget.

Boston can’t succeed without a strong CFO who is willing to throttle the boss before allowing the city’s bond rating to collapse or reserves to fall to dangerous levels. People think that race is the third rail of city politics. They’re wrong. It’s municipal finance.

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Not everybody loves a parade. During his first term, Menino decided that he wouldn’t march in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade because organizers excluded a gay group. The US Supreme Court made clear that the parade organizers were well within their First Amendment rights to define the message of the parade however they pleased. But Menino has boycotted the parade until this day as a way to send a message of his own: No mayor of Boston can abide the marginalization of fellow Bostonians. Menino’s quality of character always came to light in deeds, not speeches.

The 70-percent solution. Menino made a lot of plans and promises, which might be expected of a mayor who worked 18 hours a day. But how good was his follow-through? Menino had a 70- to 80-percent hit rate, according to staffers who compared his promise list with actual accomplishments.

The US Marine Corps strives for a similar outcome when entering the field of battle. There is rarely time to gather all the facts, and surprises are inevitable. So Marine officers are taught to go forward when a plan has about a 70 percent chance of working. Waiting for perfect conditions means nothing gets done.

Avoid false choices. John Collins, a so-called downtown mayor, looked after the interests of the city’s business community in the 1960s. His successor, Kevin White, started out as a so-called neighborhood mayor, establishing 18 “Little City Halls’’ across the city; later, he closed them and finished his career as a downtown mayor. Ray Flynn was a neighborhood mayor, through and through.

But why pick one or the other? Menino placed as much importance on restoring Blue Hill Avenue (once dubbed Plywood Avenue) in Roxbury as he did on bringing a new convention center and innovation district to the downtown waterfront.

Boston is a small city. And any candidate who can’t tend to both downtown development and neighborhood stability shouldn’t be in this race in the first place.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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