New mayor may lead to new role for City Council

One of the eight candidates running for City Council said that if elected he would add 300 new police officers to hit the streets.

Another hopeful pledged to ensure the city’s reserve funds are deposited in banks headquarted in Boston.

And a third said her mission is to break cycles of poverty.


The candidates running for City Council have big ideas on how they would tackle Boston’s ills. But under the city’s strong-mayor form of government, there are few policy fixes the council can make.

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Unlike the mayor, the council has no authority in making administrative appointments, setting budget priorities, or enacting city policies. Other than its role as a bully pulpit, the council’s only major power is to vote up or down on a budget the mayor submits.

The council’s role has surfaced as a campaign issue as Boston prepares for a dramatic political leadership change in City Hall. On Tuesday, the city will elect a new mayor and at least four new councilors. And as Mayor Thomas M. Menino exits after a 20-year reign in which he effectively controlled the council, questions loom over whether Bostonians will soon see a new balance of power.

“There is an opportunity here. I believe the City Council candidates can claim a stronger role and assert that role’’ in the new administration, said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts Boston. “The question is, can they deliver?”

Council candidates say there is plenty they can do to work on behalf of residents.


“When I hear people say a weak council, I say, ‘You are out of your minds,’ ’’ said Martin Keogh, a lawyer from West Roxbury who is seeking a citywide council seat. “The council is David and the mayor is Goliath.”

Watanabe said council candidates have been grilled about how they would make that power shift, but the two men running for mayor, Councilor John R. Connolly and state Representative Martin J. Walsh, have been mostly silent on how they perceive the council and how they might strengthen it.

“The fact that it is being ignored is telling in my mind,” he said.

The council job is a lucrative post, and for many years was a pathway for candidates on their way to higher political office. It comes with an $87,500 salary, free parking space, and a staff budget of $206,250, according the council office. The council president, whose duties include serving as mayor if the job becomes vacant or if the mayor is unable, gets a budget of $247,500 for staffing.

Menino served on the council before becoming mayor, but critics say he sought to keep a weak-council form of government during his tenure. Some councilors have said in the past that Menino also exerted control by restricting constituent services to council critics.


Council president Stephen J. Murphy, seeking his ninth term, said despite its limited scope of power, the council does more than address residents’ complaints about potholes, snow removal, or downed traffic lights. The 13 members work in concert with the mayor to improve the city, he said.

‘There is inequality. But the council is the great equalizer.’

“The city charter does hamstring the City Council,’’ he said. “There is inequality. But the council is the great equalizer.”

Murphy and others say the council has used its authority to draft ordinances, call hearings, and galvanize residents. Councilors were critical in blocking efforts to shut neighborhood libraries, helping launch CORI reform, and advocating for a better sex education policy in city schools, they said.

“We have a bully pulpit, which is powerful,’’ Ayanna Pressley, a councilor seeking her third term, said during a recent debate. “I certainly use that bully pulpit to advocate for comprehensive sex education curriculum in the schools. But we have other things in our tool kit, such as ordinances that we can strengthen and we can file.”

Michael Flaherty, a former council president seeking election again, said the council plays a critical role in measuring executive authority in city government. But he and others agree that the time is ripe for the council to reinvent itself and to be an equal partner.

“The strength of the council really comes down to the skill and the will of individual members to stand up, clearly to work together collegially, to support the administration when it is appropriate, and also to put the brakes on when appropriate,” said Flaherty.

The council’s role also surfaced amid a recent arbitrator’s decision to award city police officers a 25.4 percent pay raise over the next six years, and as pressure mounts for the council to vote on the contract before Election Day.

Council candidates are split over whether the council should approve the contract. And the current councilors have lashed out at critics who say they are dragging their feet .

Council candidates including Keogh, Jack Kelly, a former neighborhood coordinator, and Annissa Essaibi-George, a teacher and businesswoman, said they would support the contract. All agree that the council should remain a staunch advocate for residents and neighborhoods.

Michelle Wu and Jeffrey Michael Ross, both attorneys, have said they would oppose the police pay package. But Ross has toughened his stance, saying the council’s inaction is a testament to its weakened power.

“There are a lot of opportunities to lead on issues when you are on the Boston City Council,’’ Ross said during a recent debate. “Look at the [police] contract, for example. You talk about not having power as a City Council. We can send that arbitration award back to the negotiating table.’’

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.