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In contentious meeting, Boston City Council moves to bring citywide planning into city government

The Boston City Council today approved a measure to set up a planning department as the first major step towards abolishing the BPDA and giving the mayor and the council - and residents more of a direct say in how Boston grows.

Councilors voted 8-5 for the measure, an amended version of a proposal by Mayor Wu that now goes back to her for her signature.

The basics of the proposal, both in Wu's original request and in an amended draft by the Committee on Government Operations, which Councilor Gabriela Coletta (East Boston, Charlestown, North End) chairs, would begin the dissolution of the BRA-turned-BPDA, which currently oversees both development projects and long-term city planning, by creating a new city Planning Department. Current employees at the BPDA, a quasi-independent authority with its own budget and revenue streams - would begin to be moved into this department even as city officials begin a separate discussion about the way large developments are overseen and approved in Boston.

Arthur Jemison, current director of the BPDA, would become headof the new planning department.

Four of the five members who voted against the measure or simply voted "present" said they were not necessarily opposed to breaking up the old planning and development gang on the ninth floor of City Hall, but that they still had far too many questions about the proposal. Only Councilor John FitzGerald (Dorchester) said he favors more or less retaining the BPDA - an authority where he worked for 18 years before he ran for the council last year.

Councilor Ed Flynn (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, Downtown), who voted against the measure, accused his colleagues of being gutless sheep too afraid to ask the tough questions - questions he said he is tough enough to ask, except other counselors just won't let him. After the vote, Councilor Julia Mejia (at large), who made her opposition clear, but who voted "present," said she was "literally sacrificing my daughter to be here" and accused the majority of only pretending to be in favor of democracy.

The debate was punctuated by quick timeouts so that Council President Ruthzee Louijuene could confer with a council attorney and City Clerk Alex Geourntas on procedural matters - especially after Mejia introduced a motion on the motion to withdraw Coletta's motion to pass the matter and councilors expressed confusion on what yes and no votes would mean on Mejia's motion motion.

At one point Geourntas had to pull out his copy of Robert's Rules of Order to answer a question from Coletta on why Mejia's motion to make that motion go away took precedence. Geourntas said that according to the rule book, Mejia's motion was a "subsidiary" motion and those take precedence.

Councilors Breadon, Coletta, Durkan, Louijeune, Pepén, Santana, Weber and Worrell voted for the measure. FitzGerald, Flynn and Murphy voted no, while Fernandes Anderson and Mejia voted present. The vote came after the council rejected Mejia's motion motion by an 8-5 vote (Fernandes Anderson and Mejia voted for that motion).

Proponents, including Coletta and Councilor Liz Breadon (Allston/Brighton) said that no matter what it does, the BPDA will always be haunted by the urban renewal nightmares of the past, in which entire neighborhoods were torn down to make way for more lucrative luxury residential apartments.

"It literally was a steamroller, a demolition job," one that "displaced thousands and thousands of working-class families," Breadon said.

Breadon continued that on top of that, the city has no real planning office to consider the impact of adding thousands of new housing units and labs - like in her district - on city services, from public safety to schools and transportation.

Coletta said it was past time to "democratize the BPDA and dismantle the status quo."

Councilor Ben Weber (Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury) agreed, pointing to the city's housing shortage, heat islands, food deserts and "a beautiful new seaport with no affordable housing," all of which he said happened on the BRA/BPDA's watch.

But FitzGerald said that while the BPDA could stand some improvements, in particular in the way it oversees large development projects, on the whole, it's done a wonderful job creating a new Boston, through a 20-year building boom the likes of which the city hasn't seen since colonial days. He said the proposal would gut this wonder of modern municipal governance and remove all the nimbleness it now has to keep Boston moving.

"This agency as it exists is the tool, so let's look at improving what we have, but let's not gut the essence of its effectiveness," he said.

Noting his time as a planner there, he continued he remains impressed at just how good it really is: "I love this agency. I care for this agency. I only want the best for this agency because what's best for this agency is best for the city."

He continued with a question to fellow councilors: If they were driving a car and their side mirror were broken off, "would you throw the economic engine out?" He quickly allowed that he perhaps needs to work on his metaphors.

in an unusual pairing, Flynn and Mejia both said the roughly 17 hours of a hearing and "working sessions" that Coletta oversaw to work on the mayor's Jan. 31 proposal were simply not enough to get answers on tough questions and pleaded for more time and at least one more hearing. Under the terms under which the council operates, though, the council would have to schedule that hearing for sometime on Friday afternoon - both because the council is required to vote on proposals by the mayor within 60 days and because the state Open Meeting Law requires at least 48 hours notice of a public meeting.

Flynn said that, in any case, he doubts his current colleagues have what it takes to give the sort of tough oversight of planning efforts to restore Boston residents' faith in City Hall: "This body does not ask the difficult questions. and when we do ask the difficult questions, people get shut down and their voices are not heard. I don't think we have the stomach or the guts to call people down here to challenge them or ask difficult questions."

He gave as an example a hearing chaired by another councilor at which he wanted to ask some tough questions of a city official, who seemed willing to engage with him on the matter, but then the councilor chairing the committee, whom he did not name, would not let him.

Weber said that he felt he had more than enough time to consider the measure, because, in addition to the 17 hours of meetings at City Hall, he had spent considerable time at home and talking to constituents about the proposal. "I have not taken the issue lightly," he said.

Councilor Erin Murphy (at large), though, felt it needed more time. "Maybe it needs another 17 hours, maybe 34 more hours," she said.

Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson (Roxbury) said she could not vote for the measure because it was just too incomplete.

"Itt does not accomplish the governance transformation most us want" and that was embraced by Wu when she ran for mayor, because it leaves in place the "BRA autocracy, secrecy and ultimate harm to our neighborhoods," including large-scale land takings and rezoning that really needs more community input. "I appreciate the process so far" in coming up with a new system, but "I just feel that we do need more time. "

After the vote, Mejia said the majority on the council keeps talking about democracy, but the vote shows they don't really care. After referencing her sacrificial daughter, she added, "we can't say that we believe in democracy and we continue to kill it."

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Comments

Wu said to Julia "kill me a son"
Jules said '"Mayor, you must be putting me on"

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28

It's always time to dismantle status quo.

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21

That would be a good place to start

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44

to start doing something useful with your life

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17

Hahaha. This council is a circus and shouldn't be given any additional responsibilities. While the BPDA is far from perfect at least it’s managed by adults.

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65

it is the same embarrassing crew every week of Murphy, Flynn, Mejia, and Anderson making all the noise, but the majority of this council seems to be adult enough to handle our basic city business. perhaps the voters will show those four pointless rabble rousers the door next election cycle ala Baker Arroyo and Lara. kudos to the mayor and Cllr GG Coletta for seeing through the passage of one of the mayor’s signature issues on which she was elected. the people of Boston are great full.

Madame President Louijeune with the gavel and the big chair has been a major upgrade over Flynn, who gets whinier by the week. can someone find him a job at the VA already?

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37

If he’s got tough questions about this proposal, why doesn’t he just say what they are instead of complaining about procedures?

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53

See Mayor John Hynes, John Collins, Edward Logue, every Mayors dream eh? The political ego is slave to the big project, big legacy. Clean the streets, fix roads, reduce crime, build a city where life is valued and people feel they do not advance themselves by killing their enemies, have the schools graduate students who can read, add, and think for themselves. Easier to build big developments than take on the many diverse and difficult jobs that truly make a city more livable.......

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42

in an unusual pairing, Flynn and Mejia

Not an unusual pairing considering that Flynn eggs on Mejia to stall for time all the time. He literally nominated her for council president.

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22

"Literally sacrificing my daughter to be here." ?? What does that mean and what am I missing?

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63

Everyone throws the BRA and its successor under the bus for the West End and New York Streets, but all of that was underway when the BRA was set up. It was the Boston Housing Authority that did all the "redevelopment" until 1961.

At the end of the day, the mayor gets what the mayor wants, whoever that mayor is. The only difference with this proposal is that it will now be blatantly obvious that the mayor controls the process.

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36

The organization is the same. All that changed was the name.

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13

Much like now, it was a name change. The mayor will still control things.

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12

I'm no fan of the BPDA and I agree that a revamp is in order. With that said, the idea that the city council, who interact like tired toddlers, would be given more authority over what the city will look like in the future is down right scary.

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53

Goodness, I thought Adam’s summary was hyperbole:

“He said the proposal would gut this wonder of modern municipal governance and remove all the nimbleness it now has to keep Boston moving.”

But no! The direct quotes:

"This agency as it exists is the tool, so let's look at improving what we have, but let's not gut the essence of its effectiveness," he said.

Noting his time as a planner there, he continued he remains impressed at just how good it really is: "I love this agency. I care for this agency. I only want the best for this agency because what's best for this agency is best for the city."

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11

I watched the hearing. It would be so much more effective if Ed would just list the "hard questions" instead of acting like a victim and making vague insinuations. The public might actually learn something if he would say "this could be bad because we don't know the answers to x, y, and z."

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18

I have discovered a truly marvelous problem with this proposal, which this margin council meeting is too narrow to contain.

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10