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Honeymoon over for Walsh, council

Strains begin to show over mayor’s veto of pay hikes, residency rule for city workers

Mayor Marty Walsh at a city council meeting in January. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

At the start of the year, Mayor Martin J. Walsh and City Council president Bill Linehan showered praise on each other, vowing a new era of respect, communication, and cooperation with the council.

“I’m not afraid of having them as a partner in government,’’ Walsh said of the 13 councilors, in an interview the day after his Jan. 6 inauguration.

Walsh’s remarks resounded on the fifth floor of City Hall, where councilors had labored under the firm rule of Thomas M. Menino when he was mayor.

“This is a new City Council, he’s the new mayor, and we need each other,’’ Linehan told a Masslive.com reporter in a separate interview in January.

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But the honeymoon appears to be on the rocks, rattled in recent months by a series of clashes and standoffs over council salaries, school transportation, and the mayor’s tweaks to the residency rule for city employees.

“The relationship between the mayor and the City Council has traditionally been like a roller-coaster,’’ said Lawrence DiCara, a former councilor and historian of the legislative body. “History will tell us whether this was just a hiccup, or whether it could be the beginning
. . . of a roller-coaster.”

As proof, DiCara noted that Menino and former mayor Raymond L. Flynn enjoyed sunny relationships with the council early in their administrations before relations turned stormy at the end.

The most recent showdown between Walsh and the council came late last month, when the mayor used the power of his pen to veto a salary increase that councilors had approved for themselves by a 9-to-4 vote. Under that measure, councilors’ salaries would have risen by $20,000, to $107,500.

Tensions also flared in the council near the start of summer, when Walsh sought the authority to waive a residency requirement for up to 100 department heads, Cabinet chiefs, and members of the mayoral staff.

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And the mayor and councilors tangled in June over Walsh’s first budget, which narrowly passed 7 to 6 after councilors objected to a cost-cutting measure that would have eliminated sending seventh- and eighth-graders to class on yellow school buses.

Now, there are rumblings of a possible council override on the mayor’s veto of the pay raise, even as disagreements simmer between some councilors and the mayor’s team over who has final authority on the matter.

Political scientist Maurice Cunningham said disputes between the mayor and council over residency and salaries seem much too personal. He said councilors were hit hard by critics for voting to give themselves a pay hike — even as other city workers have received raises, he said. Yet councilors feel stymied.

“They have taken a lot of heat’’ over this, said Cunningham, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “You take the heat and still don’t get a raise. They have to be feeling a little distant from [the mayor].’’

The council president downplayed any tension between councilors and the mayor, saying their working relationship has been “extremely thoughtful” and remains the same as at the start of Walsh’s administration.

The salary measure has returned to the council’s government operations committee for further consideration, including a possible override.

“I’m finding the relationship [is good] and the communications very deliberative. We have a difference of opinion on things,’’ Linehan said.

Other councilors, including Josh Zakim of Mission Hill and Salvatore LaMattina of East Boston, said their working relationship with the mayor remains firm.

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“I have a good relationship with the mayor,’’ LaMattina said. “We might have a few disagreements here or there, but I don’t feel there is a tension.”

Walsh and Linehan said disagreements are inevitable. After a public outcry, the mayor modified the school transportation plan, deciding that only eighth-graders would be given the option of taking the T, while keeping seventh-graders on school buses. And he acknowledged that he could have done a better job in rolling out his changes to the residency rule.

The mayor said that while the council believed approving a pay raise was the right thing to do, he thinks a more productive method exists.

“Clearly, we are going to have disagreements, and I think we should have disagreements,’’ Walsh said. Later, he added: “That’s their right [to disagree], and I don’t take it personal.”

As a former legislator on Beacon Hill, Walsh said he has his own style and “comes at it differently’’ when dealing with the council. If there are disagreements, Walsh said, he wants to make his case and explain his rationale.

That also holds true for councilors, he said. “They have to convince me why [their decision] is the best thing for Boston.”

Under the previous administration, the council rarely tried to overrule Menino, because of his grip on power and control of city services. Indeed, Menino did not have to use his veto pen often during two decades in office. But he did so when pressed.

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In September 2012, for instance, he rejected a controversial plan for redrawing council districts, arguing that the map diluted the influence of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian voters.

He vetoed the redistricting plan a second time that same month, citing similar concerns. The mayor eventually signed off on a revised measure, saying it was “reflective of the city.”

The tables turned in at least one instance, when councilors flexed their muscles and overrode a Menino veto of a measure pushed by Felix G. Arroyo when he was a councilor. It required that the city work only with banks that demonstrate they are doing business in Boston’s neighborhoods.

Michael Ross, a former Mission Hill councilor and 2013 mayoral contender, said disagreements between the council and the mayor are part of a healthy democracy.

“What we in Boston call the council and the mayor clashing, most around the country refer to as democracy,’’ Ross said. “It’s healthy for them to disagree on issues, especially when the other side is wrong.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.