Why is the Boston City Council so mad at Acting Mayor Kim Janey?
With no advance warning, the council voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to revise its rules so that it can vote to remove the council president by a two-thirds vote.
That president happens, at the moment, to be Janey, who would be removed as acting mayor were the City Council to take such dramatic action. It would be a step without precedent, and not one anyone is eager to take. But it is also, apparently, within the council’s power.
The measure, sponsored by Councilor Lydia Edwards, was justified in the usual almost-meaningless jargon of “accountability” and “transparency.”
“We are the body that made the City Council president, and make the City Council president. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” Edwards said on the council floor. “We therefore are the only body that can hold the City Council president accountable.”
Accountable for what though?
To hear councilors explain it, Janey has been almost completely inaccessible, refusing to return phone calls, meet with them, or share information.
This anger began simmering the moment Janey was sworn in as “mayor” — in a purely ceremonial event not mandated by the city charter. It picked up steam when she ended predecessor Marty Walsh’s practice of briefing councilors on the city’s progress on COVID — inspired, councilors firmly believe, by an unwillingness to share detailed information with the three city councilors running against her for mayor.
The latent resentment of Janey gained more momentum last week, when Janey only hesitantly signed Edwards’s signature piece of legislation, calling for a ballot question that would give city councilors greater authority over the budget.
Though Janey has been all for the measure as a councilor, as acting mayor she seemed poised to resist curbing one of the greatest sources of mayoral power — the mayor’s nearly complete control over the city purse. She relented after days of lobbying.
To be fair, there’s no disputing the awkwardness of Janey’s position. Elected by a lone council district, she is now running for mayor as a quasi-incumbent against, among others, three other city councilors. Tension is inevitable, but the city can’t run if the mayor and the council can’t work together, election or no election. Treating the entire council as adversaries will not work.
The council has chosen to flex some muscle at perhaps the worst possible time for Janey. The city has to pass a budget by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. This is one time the mayor actually needs the City Council, which makes it the worst time to be at war — a fact not lost on Janey’s former colleagues on the other side of the fifth floor of City Hall. Failing to get a budget approved by the end of the month would be disastrous for Janey’s campaign — not to mention, terrible for the city itself.
As a practical matter, is the council going to remove the acting mayor? Probably not. But they are going to force her to return their calls and talk to them, and negotiate with them. As she should.
There’s one other issue lurking in the background here. Last week, US District Judge Denise Casper cleared the way for the lawsuit of Felix Arroyo to proceed against the City of Boston. Arroyo is the former chief of health and human services who was fired by Walsh after being accused of sexually harassing a subordinate. Though Casper tossed out a number of Arroyo’s claims, she ruled that he can sue for wrongful termination.
Arroyo is a major supporter of Janey — a fact underscored by the fact that his brother, Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, was the lone “no” vote Wednesday against the rule change.
Councilors — most of whom believe Walsh had every right to fire Arroyo — are anxiously watching to see if the Janey administration now settles this case.
If Felix Arroyo gets paid, this could become a full-blown revolt.
For now, the most striking aspect of this clash is that it isn’t really a battle over big policy differences. It’s both more personal, and more subtle.
“We would have expected Marty to ignore us because he came from the State House,” one councilor told me. “But we’re the ones who elected Kim [president].”
For now, the vote Wednesday is mostly symbolic. But to mistake that for meaningless would be a mistake.