The three candidates for the District 6 (Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, Mission Hill) City Council seat - incumbent Kendra Lara and challengers William King and Ben Weber - met last night in a Zoom forum sponsored by JP Progressives, Right to the City Vote and MassVOTE.
The top two finishers in the Sept. 12 preliminary will then meet in the Nov. 7 general election for the two-year seat.
Some of the issues:
Why they're running
Weber, who has been a workers' rights attorney for 18 years, and a Jamaica Plain resident for the past 15, said he began thinking about getting involved in local politics as he watched the Mission Hill School, where his son was a student, be completely destroyed by an uncaring BPS bureaucracy in the year before it was shut. He said ensuring BPS provides students "a world class education" would be one of his priorities, along with working on affordable housing. Also, "we need a council that works for the people in the district," he said, adding he would hold regular office hours across the district and dedicate his office to constituent services.
Lara said she first got involved in local politics as a sixth grader at the Curley School, working with City Life on housing displacement and that she remains focused on "centering" the needs of "people who are most vulnerable." She pointed to her work on helping to get funding for the Egleston Square library, more money for a city summer youth jobs program and her fight to increase the number of affordable units in new developments from the current 13% to 20% - and at 60% of the Boston-area median income.
King said he is running because "I love this city; this city raised my wife and I and I want to give back." Also, he wants to bring "new energy" to a council he says has done next to nothing over the past couple of years. "I will lead with integrity and responsibility." He said he is the only candidate who was born in the district and fully grew up in it. "That makes a difference," he said. "I'm one of you. I'm from here. I have the lived experience that everyone else has."
Lara was asked about smashing that unregistered car she was driving without a license into a house on Centre Street and whether she's lost the trust of voters that she's still fit to be a city councilor.
She acknowledged that "so many questions remain unanswered for people about the incident" and that she "did not live up to" people's expectations. But she said she is "engaging fully with the legal process" and "remaining transparent - she said she would discuss the incident with any individual voters who asked her. "Grace is a lot to ask for," she acknowledged, but said she hoped her "worst moment" would not overshadow the two years of work she has put in as a progressive candidate and the work she said she and the district could continue to achive if she is re-elected.
King was asked how voters in traditionally progressive Jamaica Plain can trust him when he's been endorsed by more conservative councilors, such as outgoing Councilor Frank Baker (Dorchester) and Erin Murphy (at large), when he skipped the last JP Progressives forum and he declined to answer a candidate questionnaire from a statewide progressives group.
King noted he has run for the council before - for an at-large seat in 2017 and 2019, denied he's conservative. "I think I have made it clear I share progressive values," he said, adding he finds support across all the district. Also: "As a black man I understand struggles of everyday people growing up in this city. He did not say why he missed the first forum, but said he does not recall getting the Progressive Mass questionnaire, but said he would gladly answer it if he got another copy.
Weber was asked how committed he really is to local issues given that he only recently got involved in them, and whether he would agree to serve as councilor full-time and not continue his law practice.
Weber acknowledged that he became intensely interested in local affairs only after the collapse of the Mission Hill School last year, which he said came after BPS destroyed both a year of education for his son and other students and broke up a tight-knit community. He said if elected, he would wind down his legal practice and serve ful time. He is now an elected member of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council.
Lara and Weber support Mayor Wu's proposal for rent stabilization, King opposes it.
All three said they would support reducing the number of units in a new building that would force the developer to include at least some affordable units from the current 10 to 7 and would support increasing the percentage of new units in such buildings that would have to be rented as affordable from 13% to 20%.
Weber said he would work to increase a city voucher program for helping renters find apartments they can afford - and called for a city-funded legal services for people with housing issues.
Lara also called for expanding the voucher program, in part because rent stabilization would require approval of the state legislature, and in the absence of that, the city needs to take other steps to keep housing affordable. She also called for an "anti-displacement" zoning overlay for certain parts of the city that would require developers to show what they're doing about the displacement their projects could cause.
King was not asked the question.
Weber said he agrees with Wu's plans to change the BPDA, while Lara noted she ran two years ago on a platform that included abolishing the former BRA altogether. King said he would work to give individual neighborhoods more of a say in development projects.
Weber and Lara support an elected school committee, King opposes it.
All three opposed additional expansion of charter schools in Boston.
Lara said she has concerns about moving the O'Bryant School to the former West Roxbury Education Complex. Although she said she feels that both West Roxbury deserves a public high school and that the O'Bryant deserves its own building, she is worried about transportation to and from the school. If the O'Bryant does get moved to West Roxbury, though, "I want them to feel welcome in West Roxbury."
King said he is also concerned about transportation times and said he has a better idea for the currently shuttered West Roxbury site: Turn it into an agricultural school. "I know we have Norfolk Aggie [in Walpole], a school which everyone loves," he said. "It would be awesome to have a Suffolk Aggie."
Weber said he is in full support of moving the O'Bryant to West Roxbury. He said the transportation issues are surmountable, possibly by adding a stop on the nearby Needham Line. He pointed to Boston Arts Academy, which temporarily relocated from the Fenway to Fields Corner when its new building was under construction.
All three supported ending the BPD gang database and tightening up a pro-immigrant regulation to make it harder for law enforcement to garner information about immigrant residents.
Lara and Weber supported turning over road-work flag details to non-police workers, King opposed.
Lara and Weber also supported reallocating some BPD funds to community anti-violence efforts. King opposed, but said it wasn't really a simple yes/no question.
All three agreed they would work to curb violence in Boston, in particular in minority neighborhoods. King called for community initiatives and recovery and mental-health services. Weber said BPD needs to work with residents to increase its trust and accountability, but added that in addition to such steps as greater community policing, the city needs even more gun restrictions to deal with guns coming in from more lenient states. Lara, a one-time city street worker, called for more investments in minority communities and pointed to the $6-million increase in youth jobs she helped get into the city budget. "The safest communities are the most well funded," she said.
Making non-profits pay more for city services
All three said the city needs to do more to get more non-profit land owners to increase their "payments in lieu of taxes." Weber said some even need "the equivalent of a public spanking" to shame them into paying more for the police, fire, roads and other city services they don't really pay for. Lara said she would investigate why the city is making payments from its Community Preservation Act fund to help non-profits that don't make any such payments.
Participatory budgeting and governance
King said he would not support a program to help the public have a more direct say in city budgeting if "slashing money would lead to layoffs as almost happened recently." He called for a "responsible budget that does not hurt residents" and noted he had been endorsed by AFSCME Council 93, which represents some 1,700 municipal employees.
Weber said he supports Wu's budgeting and said people deserve to get paid for their work.
Lara said no Boston employees would have been laid off by recent budget proposals. "I will excuse my opponent's ignorance" because municipal budgeting is complex. She added that the BPD budget "is a blown up budget" and figuring out how to re-allocate some of its resources is ideal for participatory budgeting.
Lara supported letting 16- and 17-year-olds vote in muncipal elections, King and Weber opposed. All three supported "ranked choice" voting, which would let voters rank candidates on their ballots, a system in which people whose main choice lost would see their second choices get their votes instead.
Lara said the city will need to focus on "mode shifting," to get people out of their cars and onto public transit, bicycles and even their feet, to meet its climate goals. She called for more MBTA and bike-infrastructure funding, and said she personally is loving her new bike.
King called for electrification of commuter-rail lines - and buses. He said he supports the general idea of more bike lanes, but only if there's a community process involved in their planning and if they do not make side streets more dangerous.
Weber said that while the T is a state system, he said he would try to get the state to remove the Big Dig debt it was saddled with. He called for more bike lanes - and more charging stations for electric vehicles.
The candidates were asked if they would commit to taking public transit or riding a bike to work at City Hall. Lara smiled, asked if she was being set up, said "the answer is I don't have a choice." She said she lives across the street from Forest Hills.
King, who owns an EV, says he would "definitely love" to bike or take public transportation to City Hall from his home in West Roxbury and called for more public EV chargers.
Weber said one of the reasons he and his wife picked the house they did is because it's near the Stony Brook Orange Line stop. He said he is lucky, that if there's "a horrible problem" on the Orange Line, he can take the 39 bus instead.
Shattuck Hospital and Franklin Park
All three agreed the city needs to help people with addiction issues, but said the state is unfairly trying to make Boston solve the entire region's issues, through a massive expansion of the Shattuck Hospital site with hundreds of new beds and housing units and seven acres of open space.
"I don't want to create another Mass and Cass problem at Franklin Park," King, whose sister had a drug problem that took her life, said. "It's a statewide problem, so we need statewide solutions."
Weber said people need emergency housing, but the state plan "seems to be to make Boston solve this problem by itself." He said the Shattuck's a good site for some programs, but he said the programs already there have led to Franklin Park paths being lined with needles and syringe caps, and "there's obviously people living out in the park." Referring to a part of the Emerald Necklace near Jamaica Pond, he said, "If I saw this in the Sugar Bowl, I'd just be outraged and I'd do anything to stop it."
Lara agreed that "Boston has been overburdened" with solving what is a statewide drug problem. She said she supports something going into the Shattuck site, but added that it's not really the city as a whole that has been overburdened with solving the state's overall problem, but it's Black and Brown neighborhoods in particular. She called for more park rangers.
King and Weber both said the city needs to make sure eight acres long promised for affordable housing at the site are not lost as the MBTA works to build a new facility for battery-operated buses. Lara has called for a formal council hearing on the 1.5 acres of land the city now says it needs for a salt shed.
Watch the entire forum: