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Lobbying rules would be a step toward a new Boston

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Boston City Hall.Craig F. Walker

Well, this is delightful news.

Mayor Marty Walsh says he will propose rules that would make it easier to see which paid fixers are pushing their clients' interests at City Hall.

The move comes after a Globe story about how one such operator, Sean O'Donovan, is making a name for himself, through his connections to Walsh and Gene O'Flaherty, the city's corporation counsel.

The story caused some heartburn at Government Center, lending a hackish, retro air to an administration that came to power on promises to do business a new way.

On Thursday, I gave Walsh a bit of a whack on the subject. So, when the mayor's number came up on my phone that afternoon, I braced for his displeasure.

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Instead, he had glad tidings. City lawyers are working on regulations that require those trying to influence municipal decisions to identify themselves, their clients, how much they're paid, and the matters on which they're lobbying. In early February, he'll file a home rule petition, which must be approved by the Legislature, he said.

"It just made sense to do this," Walsh said. "Rather than have the city criticized for not being transparent, even though we are, let's just take it one step further."

Initially, the mayor was hesitant to take the initiative, arguing that City Hall is far more open than state government in some ways, and that anyone can find information on those trying to influence public policy. But that's a complicated and expensive business. The Globe's public records requests on lobbyists have cost hundreds of dollars so far.

In the end, Walsh decided it was "better for us just to avoid all these potential perceived conflicts and just change the law."

Good move. And for this mayor in particular, an essential one.

Though he vows to usher in a new, more inclusive, era for the city, Walsh's career makes it easy to typecast him as a creature of the old. He came up in Dorchester's St Margaret's Parish, rose to leadership in the union movement, and served 17 years in the Legislature. On paper, he is utterly a product of the old traditions, despite his relative youth.

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He is vulnerable to stereotyping, even if he may not deserve it. Even a hint of cronyism sticks to him. And Walsh hasn't done himself any favors by hiring O'Flaherty, his close friend, to such a hugely important job, or by downplaying the probation scandal as simply the way politics works.

Times have changed. Walsh is being held to a different standard from mayors before him. Certainly, his predecessor Tom Menino kept a small posse of fixers fat, but he got away with it, mostly. People just accepted that this was the way business was done. Walsh correctly points out that, when Beacon Hill was doing ethics reform a few years ago, there was no real pressure for a similar overhaul at City Hall.

"It's a different world today," he said. "People expect more transparency and openness and so many different people are covering us that as an administration we've got to [keep up] with the times."

So far, Walsh's City Hall is a more open place. But the longer he's in power — and we have good reason to believe he wants to stay awhile — the more crony barnacles his City Hall will collect; it happens to all mayors. He can't afford to host them. Neither can the city.

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And so he has to go big here, crafting powerful legislation, and putting his ample political capital behind it. Boston should be a leader, not just in the state, which is bereft of such regulations at the municipal level, but also nationally.

That means accompanying the new rules with an efficient, electronic filing system that gives citizens easy, real-time access to data on those trying to influence how government spends their money. And penalties for those who try to remain in the shadows.

That is what a new Boston looks like.


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.