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Mayor Walsh plods through year one, but with plenty to show

Mayor Marty Walsh speaks with Education Advisor Turahn Dorsey at City Hall in September.
Mayor Marty Walsh speaks with Education Advisor Turahn Dorsey at City Hall in September.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

One year ago, the biggest fear about newly-elected Boston Mayor Martin Walsh focused on fiscal stewardship. Would his close ties to organized labor lead to the padding of public payrolls with campaign contributors and overly generous contracts for municipal unions? A miffed Walsh challenged his detractors to check on his fiscal record at the end of his first year in office. And for now, at least, he has reason to gloat.

Walsh negotiated a reasonable contract with the notoriously tough firefighters' union, wrote a solid operating budget for Fiscal Year 2015, initiated outside efficiency reviews of several city departments, and impressed bond agencies by taking $40 million from the city's healthy reserve fund and applying it to the city's largest unfunded employee liability — health insurance for retired city workers. Walsh simultaneously managed to raise $1.5 million for his campaign war chest from a wide array of donors without raising much in the way of red flags. Pretty astute for a rookie mayor.

The city's business leaders were especially wary of Walsh one year ago. But business minds change with more than $4 billion of new construction. Walsh's pro-development agenda and middle-income housing initiative put Boston in a promising position for the coming year. Both inside and outside the city's business circles, it's safe to say that Walsh exceeded expectations in year one.

Still, there are shortcomings. Walsh is a convener and careful examiner of every facet of a problem. He developed that style as one of 160 state representatives trying to reach consensus on the crafting of laws. But slow-and-steady isn't always the best way to conduct business in Boston City Hall, where issues often come quickly to a head. Walsh is still trying to adjust to the pace and intensity of the mayor's job, and not always with success.

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Walsh's most flat-footed moment came in September during the awarding of the Greater Boston casino license to Wynn resorts in Everett, which borders the congested Charlestown section of Boston. Walsh lost his grip on the process, failing to sign a surrounding-community agreement with Wynn and refusing to engage in arbitration. Instead, the mayor went on the attack against the state gambling commission, accusing it of skirting state gaming laws. But Walsh and his hapless legal department weren't ready to make that case in court. And the same gambling commission had to step in and negotiate an agreement on behalf of Boston taxpayers that would require Wynn to pay $56 million toward traffic and other improvements in Charlestown's Sullivan Square. The entire affair made the mayor look like a novice.

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Walsh's plodding pace was on display again in October when engineers closed a structurally deficient bridge leading to a homeless shelter on an island in Boston Harbor. Walsh quickly evacuated more than 350 homeless men and women. But he deliberated for weeks while trying to find a site for a new shelter, settling first on a vacant plot of city-owned land along the Southeast Expressway, only to switch suddenly to a different site in the Newmarket district. Meanwhile, the city's existing shelters are crammed to the gills.

As his term moves into its second year, Walsh might want to consider a page from the management practices of the US Marine Corps, which operates on the so-called 70 percent solution: It's better to decide quickly on an imperfect plan than to arrive late to the battle with a perfect plan on paper.

But these missteps — or slow steps — hardly define Walsh's first year in office. In key areas — notably the delivery of basic services — Walsh and his team have bested the so-called urban mechanics of the prior Menino administration. Walsh proudly points to his one-year performance record for filling potholes, converting street lights to LED technology, issuing building permits, and resolving resident complaints.

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And sometimes, a good case can be made for the wait-and-see approach. Instead of rushing the process of finding a new school superintendent, Walsh realized that he could widen the search while leaning on the considerable talents of interim superintendent John McDonough. McDonough rewarded that decision by working around a restrictive teachers' union contract, thereby allowing the city's school department to post job openings for teachers early enough to compete with suburban school districts for the best talent.

And just when it seemed that Walsh would close out the year without fulfilling a key campaign promise, he announced on the day after Christmas that he had reached a tentative agreement with the city's teachers union to extend the school day by 40 minutes for 23,000 elementary and middle school students — and at a reasonable price tag for taxpayers. A well-conceived, longer school day is one of the best ways to close the achievement gap between urban students and their suburban counterparts.

But the public will have to wait until February or March for another critical part of his education plan: whether he can attract a permanent school superintendent capable of turning around dozens of low-performing schools throughout the city.

His leadership on public safety issues has been admirable. Almost immediately after taking office, Walsh named William Evans, a 32-year veteran of the force, to the post of police commissioner. Evans is an excellent addition, and has skillfully guided the new mayor — and the city — through some difficult times. Evans not only helped Walsh weather an unusual spike in homicides in January; more importantly, he set the tone for respectful policing and public protests after the recent rioting in other cities that followed the police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City. In March, the city was stunned and saddened by the deaths of Boston Fire Lt. Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy, who perished as the result of a Back Bay blaze. The presence of an empathic mayor at such a time was a comfort to the firefighters' families and the entire city.

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"Nice guy" is the phrase heard most often after any mention of Walsh's name. But it's a fine line between being nice and being a pushover at City Hall. Walsh, at least, knew it was time to jettison the collaborative model in October when the City Council voted itself a questionable $20,000 pay raise. He vetoed it, earning the animosity of some councilors and the respect of residents. Walsh, who received enormous labor support during his election, has also developed the positive habit of dropping by unannounced at municipal work sites, including public works yards. It helps to keep city workers on their toes.

Walsh performed admirably this year, albeit with the wind at his back. But the coming year will almost certainly pose stiffer challenges for Walsh and require a more nimble style than he has shown in 2014.

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