Many Boston councilors attend few hearings
Attendance poor among some who seek pay increase
The Boston city councilors pushing hardest for significant raises, arguing that their service has been “undervalued,” have had the poorest attendance at City Council hearings since January 2014, a Globe analysis shows.
Council President Bill Linehan, who has been the public face of the battle for six-figure salaries, attended 15 percent of hearings, the fewest of anyone on the 13-member body.
Councilor Stephen J. Murphy — who for at least four years has fought for a larger paycheck — made it to fewer than one-quarter of hearings. Murphy ranked second to last in all attendance measures analyzed by the Globe, including his presence at hearings of the Ways and Means Committee, an important panel on which he serves.
The protracted fight for a pay raise has intensified scrutiny on the workload of councilors, who have little overt power and who, at $87,500 a year, already make more than most state senators. Councilors do not punch time clocks, and no one tracks their hours.
In an interview, Linehan said presidents of the Boston City Council have historically shunned hearings to give autonomy to committee leaders. He has followed the tradition, Linehan said, and focused on “the responsibilities of the president,” which include overseeing a central staff of 11 that serves all councilors.
“I listened to and participated in the hearings that I thought I should,” Linehan said.
In a statement, Murphy said that even when absent, he is “always attuned to the happenings of the council through various channels, including monitoring hearings from our in-house televised and Web broadcasts.”
City councilors face voters every two years but often run for reelection unopposed, and incumbents almost never lose. In this year’s race, only five councilors face opponents.
Councilors have not had a raise since 2006, and Linehan initially proposed a 29 percent increase that would have boosted salaries to $112,500. After a public backlash, the council voted 9 to 4 to approve a smaller raise of 23 percent, to $107,500.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh vetoed the increase and convened an independent board, which proposed an 11 percent raise, to $97,000. Linehan rejected the recommendation, calling it “totally inadequate.” He said he plans in September to put forward a proposal for $105,000 , which would be a 20 percent hike.
Committee hearing attendance offers one measure of a job that includes attending weekly council meetings, appearing at civic groups, crafting policy, and helping constituents navigate the bureaucracy of City Hall.
The Globe reviewed minutes from 299 hearings held from January 2014 through July 1, 2015. The records did not track how much time councilors spent at each proceeding but indicated who made an appearance at a hearing, no matter how brief.
The committee chair and the sponsor of an initiative typically stay for the duration. Other councilors can do the same, but some routinely pop into hearings long enough to be marked present, ask a few questions, and then leave.
According to the minutes, Councilor Ayanna Pressley attended the most hearings, followed by Councilors Salvatore LaMattina and Timothy McCarthy. Pressley opposed the proposed pay hike, but LaMattina and McCarthy voted to increase salaries to $107,500, the measure vetoed by Walsh.
As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Councilor Mark Ciommo has probably spent the most time in the council chamber. Over 18 months, that committee met for more than 130 hours, and Ciommo held the gavel 95 percent of the time.
“I’m proud that I worked really diligently on behalf of the taxpayers,” said Ciommo, who is advocating for a raise.
Hearings can vary dramatically in importance and length. One-fourth lasted more than two hours, with the longest stretching 6½ hours until 10:45 p.m. on April 16, 2014. The subject of that hearing, presided over by Councilor Michael F. Flaherty Jr., was Councilor Charles C. Yancey’s unsuccessful proposal to ban an infectious diseases laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine.
But 50 hearings ended in 20 minutes or less. The record for the shortest belonged to Murphy, who as chairman of the Public Safety Committee held a hearing on a grant that lasted four minutes. Under Murphy, the Public Safety Committee has convened 18 times since January 2014. None of the hearings addressed urban violence or the city’s spike in shootings.
Participating in hearings represents one important function of a city councilor’s job, said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by business and nonprofits.
“But over 18 months, the number of hearings held and the time involved would not by itself justify a 20 percent salary increase,” Tyler said.
The Globe’s analysis found that some committees rarely, if ever, convened hearings — and some held very few.
The City Council created a committee to study the plight of black and Latino men and boys, an issue that City Councilor Tito Jackson previously argued, unsuccessfully, deserved its own department. But under Jackson’s leadership as its chairman, the committee has yet to hold a hearing.
In an interview, Jackson said the committee had been dormant because he was focusing on his role as chairman of the Education Committee, which held four hearings this year, records show. Jackson also attended 11 Ways and Means hearings that focused on schools.
Jackson voted for the raise to $107,500, but he has since had a change of heart, saying he plans to vote against the $105,000 proposal because it is “not in line with the folks I serve.”
As chairman of the Charter Reform Committee, Councilor Frank Baker has held just one 45-minute hearing. Baker, who did not respond for comment, has been a vocal advocate for higher pay.
The Human Rights and Civil Rights Committee, chaired by Councilor Josh Zakim, has held three hearings, one of which lasted 16 minutes. In a statement, Zakim said the number of hearings was “completely out of my control” because the council president assigns matters to committees. Still, councilors often initiate hearings on issues related to their committees.
Zakim, who voted against the raise, said his “constituent service and legislative records speak for themselves.” He said five of his proposals have been adopted as law, more than any other councilor.
Under the leadership of Councilor Michelle Wu, the Arts and Culture Committee also held three hearings. Wu, who also voted against the pay raise, was chairwoman of another committee, served as vice chairwoman of Ways and Means, and, she noted, balanced the demands of her first term with the birth of her first child.
Linehan said council hearings promote transparency and elucidate thorny issues.
“We were quite effective with hearings on the Olympics,” said Linehan, who served as committee chair. “Every time we had a hearing, something would come out of it.”