Two weeks before Boston’s municipal election, the eight finalists for the four at-large City Council seats laid out their platforms in a debate Tuesday, an opportunity for newcomers to make their mark against established incumbents on issues including the opioid epidemic, transportation, and housing.
David Halbert, who has worked in city and state government, called for putting greater requirements on developers to build more affordable housing units, while Julia Mejia, a community activist, called for more child-care support for mothers that would allow them to play more of a role in government.
On transportation, “we have to talk about how we’re moving forward, but how we lead through an equity lens,” said Alejandra St. Guillen, like Halbert and Mejia a first-time candidate.
The debate, held before a live audience at WBUR CitySpace and sponsored by The Boston Globe, WBUR, and UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, was largely cordial. Still, the candidates took opportunities to distance themselves from their challengers on technical policy issues, such as whether to change the structure of the School Committee and how to fix the public transportation system.
The most impassioned moments came during discussion of the opioid epidemic, and whether the city needs to do more than rebuild the bridge to a Long Island recovery campus. The candidates gave personal accounts of loved ones battling substance abuse.
“We need solutions at the scale and size of the problem,” said Councilor Michelle Wu, who said it could take years before a bridge is built. She said the city should immediately direct the $90 million that has been allocated for a new bridge to other recovery programs.
St. Guillen said she would support a supervised injection site, where people could use heroin under the supervision of doctors, as proposed by public health advocates. Mejia, who said she lost a cousin to an overdose, also backed the concept.
Erin Murphy, a political newcomer whose son battled opioid addiction, said the city should instead focus on providing recovery resources, noting they helped her son.
Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George said the city should focus on providing access to recovery programs and more long-term recovery beds. “This is really a conversation about access to recovery and long-term services,” she said. “We need a regional approach to recovery, we need it to be more than just Boston.”
Councilor Michael Flaherty, the longest-serving incumbent, agreed with Essaibi-George, saying the city has been overwhelmed by people from the suburbs who can’t find help in their own communities and come to Boston.
“Let’s put something in Wellesley, let’s put something in Westwood, let’s put something in Lexington,” he said, saying public officials from those and surrounding municipalities have refused to provide services in their own towns. “Yet it’s their kids, it’s their constituents that are down at Mass. and Cass,” the intersection where recovery programs are located, he said.
City Councilor Althea Garrison, who opposes supervised injection sites, called for more law enforcement efforts in the city, saying police should be removing the homeless and vagrants from neighborhood streets. But other candidates said the city cannot criminalize a public health crisis.
All of the candidates agreed the city is facing housing and transportation crises, and that Boston needs to look to new policies to boost affordable housing and cut down on congestion.
Halbert, who was raised by a single mom, said he has seen firsthand that government can work.
He called for the city’s minority contractors to have more opportunities in the construction boom in Boston, specifically in East Boston, and for increasing the city’s inclusionary development rate — the percentage of housing that developers must set aside as affordable — to 20 percent from 13 percent.
Mejia said the city should go higher than 30 percent.
“We can no longer afford to push for incremental change. The needs of Boston require we act bolder,” she said. “We have to ask for ourselves, if we’re not building for the citizens of Boston, who are we building for?”
Wu, pointing to her recent plan to reorganize the Boston Planning and Development Agency with an updated planning and zoning vision, said the city has rushed development without proper plans in place, creating inequities across Boston, as some neighborhoods absorb more development than others.
“It leads to what we see today,” she said. “We cannot be just focused on attracting mega corporations . . . without investing in infrastructure to accommodate that growth.”
Flaherty said the city, specifically as it considers the Suffolk Downs housing proposal, should look to the mistakes of the Seaport, saying developers built luxury towers without planning out a neighborhood.
Wu restated her plan to make public transportation free. She called making the MBTA free justifiable relief for fare-payers that the state should cover, just as it would pay for other public service investments.
Flaherty and Essaibi-George noted that the city contributes $85 million to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and should have a greater role in its decision-making.
Murphy, though, said the public transportation system can never be a real solution until it is reliable.
People “are just giving up on it, and not using it,” she said. “It’s [about] making sure the reliability piece is there, so people are using it.”
Wu, who has proposed charging for resident parking stickers, said the city needs to explore ways to cut down on vehicle traffic. Thirty percent of traffic in some neighborhoods can be attributed to people looking for a parking spot, she said. Because residential parking permits are free, the city hands out more than the number of parking spots that exist.
“Boston’s paying for our traffic, one way or another,” she said.
But Flaherty reiterated his opposition to charging residents for the permits, saying the city should first conduct an audit to determine how many parking spots the city has.