A new thirteen-member Boston City Council with an historic six women of color among its members wants to have more impact – on everything from how schools are governed to affordable housing to police body cameras and – maybe most radical – bringing more direct democracy to city government.
In a city with a “strong mayor” form of local governance, Boston’s City Council has often, (whether fairly or not) been considered second-fiddle to the oversized role the mayor plays.
But, Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley points out, the Council’s role is significant.
“The bulk of the power in this city lies in the mayor. Anyone who denies that isn't being straight with you,” O’Malley told WGBH News. “But the fact of the matter is the council is as strong as its members want to make it.”
O’Malley, whose district includes Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, put that theory to the test recently: he was the primary sponsor of the recent plastic bag ban that passed the City Council with a unanimous vote – despite the fact that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was not exactly on board.
Walsh balked for weeks before finally signing the measure.
And if that was one example of the Council flexing its muscles – it sure looks like there will be more to come
The new City Council President, Andrea Campbell has been steadily pushing for the city to adopt a long-term plan for police body cameras.
And the Council will be holding hearings this year on whether the Boston School Committee should remain appointed by the mayor – or be elected, as it used to be.
City Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George, who ordered the hearing, says she just wants to start a conversation – but it’s a controversial issue, and comes after several Council members, including Essabi-George, were highly critical of how the Boston Public Schools rolled out a plan for earlier start times last year.
BPS officials eventually withdrew the plan, for now, after a series of contentious meetings with parents. But that controversy, Essaibi-George says, helped fuel desires for a larger conversation.
“I would say that that frustration brought this conversation or this issue that we're facing now as a city to the top,” Essaibi-George told WGBH News, “or back to back to the top.”
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, meanwhile, newly elected to represent East Boston and Charlestown, used the first regular City Council meeting of the year to critique the city’s focus under Walsh on increasing affordable housing largely (though not exclusively) through new, private development.
“I do not believe we can build our way out of these problems,” Edwards said, “And I’m a skeptic of trickle-down housing policy.”
Edwards is also calling for a new tax on property flipping that's sure to ruffle some feathers.
There are moves afoot for change within the Council, too.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who just finished her second term as Council president, has been pushing a measure that would require the Council to hold hearings on any matter brought by public petition -- it might sound innocuous enough, but it would mean Council members voluntarily giving up of some of their own control over the agenda – to the public
“There is a cost, right?” Wu said in an interview. “We will have less control over what appears on the agenda, we will have to spend our time holding hearings on things that are dictated by other people.”
“But how does that stack up to the benefits of being in much closer partnership with residents,” Wu said, noting that she’s seen increasing interest in local government since Donald Trump became president.
“I think that’s the ultimate goal,” Wu said, “to foster that civic engagement.”