Mayor-elect Martin Walsh says he’d like to see the Boston City Council become a “partner in government.” Councilors! Quick! Take him up on the offer before he changes his mind. You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance.
City councilors are accustomed to seeing themselves dismissed and derided. It is not that they individually lack merit. Many are smart, full of good ideas, and committed to Boston’s betterment. (How could I write otherwise? I was once a member of that august body.) But the council itself is structurally weak, at best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective) a minor nuisance for the mayor. The weakness is intentional, the product of a series of state laws that collectively make up what is sometimes called the city’s “charter.” As a result, mayors rule with near dictatorial power. They answer to the people in quadrennial elections, true, but once in office they essentially have the run of the place for the next four years.
There’s an easy way to change that: Amend the charter and grant the council a meaningful say over the city’s budget.
The key to political influence is the power of the purse. Each year, usually in early spring, the mayor proposes a city budget — right now, $2.6 billion. The council then busies itself with hearings, hauling in department heads and making them explain themselves. It makes for good theater, but at the end of a long process, the body has only three choices — accept the budget as is, disapprove it, or approve a lower total budget. What the council can’t do, however, is increase or decrease individual line items. Think that playgrounds need more funds for maintenance? You can ask for it but you can’t require it. Upset about some particularly outrageous spending by the administration? You can complain, but you can’t cut it. (The council could exercise the third option — reduce the entire budget — but the mayor, not councilors, would control what actually was cut.)
Granted, good information can be gleaned from hearings. And councilors can use the prominence of their position — the bully pulpit — to on occasion shame the mayor into changing a few items. But because the council’s authority is so limited, the mayor can easily pick off votes, cutting side deals with individual members to gain their approval without having to change the basic budget itself. Since where and how much one spends is fundamentally a reflection of priorities and vision, the budget ultimately reflects the mayor’s priorities and the mayor’s vision. Councilors just nibble around the edges.
The weakness of Boston’s City Council is an exception to a general rule. Most legislative bodies operate on a far more equal plane to their executive branches. On the federal and state levels, Congress and the Legislature have clout when it comes to determining annual budgets. Other cities — New York and Washington, D.C., for instance — also give their councils far more authority.
Doing so in Boston would be a straightforward proposition. The council would pass what’s known as a home-rule petition, proposing a state law to give itself line-item authority. The mayor would sign it and then the city would send it to the state. If the Legislature and governor approved, the city charter would be amended. Suddenly, Mayor Walsh would have the partnership he said he wanted.
Dream on. I suspect Walsh’s notion of a partnership with the council is the same as when parents tell their children they should make their own decisions — that’s fine as long as they do what we want them to do. A home-rule petition along the lines I describe would enhance the council’s influence but, of course, it also would diminish the authority of the mayor. It would mean a real partnership, where power is truly shared. It would mean sometimes — indeed, often — the mayor wouldn’t get his way. To be frank, it’s hard to see why Walsh would agree to give up the power of the position he just won.
But perhaps he is sincere. The opening is there and the council should consider taking Walsh at his word. It’s either that or remain the equivalent of a backup quarterback: well paid, eager to help, and watching from the sidelines.
Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane @tomkeane.com.