The seven candidates vying for four at-large city council seats took the center stage last week during a lively forum at the Park Street School that highlighted their positions on major issues now facing the city, as well as their priorities if elected.
The incumbents – current City Council President Stephen Murphy and Councilors Felix Arroyo, John Connolly and Ayanna Pressley – joined former City Councilor Michael Flaherty and newcomers Will Dorcena and Sean Ryan to answer a series of questions. Peter Nessen, a longtime Beacon Hill resident and former secretary of the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance, returned as moderator of the fourth biennial event – this time sponsored by the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA), the West End Civic Association (WECA), the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) and the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association, among other neighborhood non-profits. The forum, which drew more than 115 attendees, was organized by BHCA board member Rob Whitney.
Citing recent efforts to open a new public grammar school downtown to serve residents of Beacon Hill, the West End and the Back Bay, Nessen asked candidates their thoughts on a proposal that would give children living within walking distance a 75-percent priority for assignment to nearby schools as opposed to the current rate of 50 percent.
Murphy supported the plan, pointing to the roughly $80 million that Boston Public Schools will spend on busing in fiscal 2012.
“Students are disengaged geographically from their homes by busing,” Murphy said.
Ryan, a Jamaica Plain-bred musician and teacher who said he intends to be the “voice of the parents” if elected, also championed the cause.
“If we don’t start catering to people who want public schools, there are going to be fewer kids in the school system,” Ryan said.
Connolly, a former teacher, said he would recommend the proposal, but cautioned that it likely wouldn’t work.
“We need a much more intricate solution, Connolly said. “The only way is to build a consensus across all the neighborhoods.
Pressley echoed this sentiment, saying, “We need to create a legitimate culture of opportunity and equality across the school system.”
Dorcena, a Hyde Park resident and owner of a small marketing firm, spoke against the plan, which he believes would favor some neighborhoods over others.
Candidates largely supported anti-shadow legislation spearheaded by State Rep. Marty Walz that would give added protection to city parks from new construction, although Pressley and Connolly expressed concern that it could impede responsible development in the city.
“I don’t think we would should rubber-stamp projects…but my concern is that [the legislation] would shift the balance too far one way,” Connolly said.
Ryan, on the other hand, expressed concern that elevating the decision to the state level could prove difficult to reverse.
All of the candidates said they were unsatisfied with the current role of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) as the lead in large-scale development projects throughout the city.
“The time has come for a stand-alone development agency in the City of Boston. We need a planning department that actually listens to the people,” said Flaherty, who served as city councilor at-large from 2000 until his unsuccessful bid for mayor in November of 2009.
While Murphy said he disapproved of the BRA in its present incarnation, he added that altering the role of the city agency wouldn’t be an easy task.
“The problem with trying to change the BRA…is that it needs the signature of the mayor to move forward,” Murphy said.
Regarding new ways to generate income for the city, Arroyo pointed to his proposed “Invest in Boston” ordinance, which mandates that the city only invest in Boston banks.
Pressley suggested an overhaul of snow removal service as one way for Boston to cut costs and the designation of cultural districts as a potential moneymaker for the city.
Murphy said the city was faring well fiscally and suggested using city funds to “reignite” stalled development projects.
Ryan was the sole dissenter when it comes to raising taxes for universities in the city, speculating that colleges will suffer financially in the coming years as more graduates find themselves unable to gain employment and pay off their student loans.
On the topic of allowing a gambling venue in the Greater Boston area, Arroyo, Flaherty and Murphy approved, while Pressley and Dorcena didn’t. Connolly and Ryan both said they would call for a referendum.
As for the biggest challenges now facing the city, Murphy pointed to new population growth downtown indicated by 2010 U.S. Census data and the subsequent need to shift city resources to that area.
Flaherty emphasized the need for neighborhood and citywide strategies to address crime, violence and substance abuse.
“We do a great job of reacting to crime, but we don’t do a great job of preventing crime from happening,” Flaherty said. “We need to take an all-encompassing approach that includes job opportunities, substance abuse prevention and getting the guns off the streets.”
Arroyo spoke of the continued need to engage Boston youth through the city’s summer-job program and other initiatives.
“My focus is and continues to be the youth of this city,” Arroyo said.
Meanwhile, Dorcena said if elected, he would advocate for more government transparency, including making the city’s “checkbook” available to the public online.
“I’m running to shine a light in the darkness,” Dorcena said. ”I’m fed up with the shenanigans. Too many decisions are being made behind closed doors as far as where the money is going.”
The general election for city councilors at-large is scheduled for next Tuesday, Nov. 8.