Friday, December 18, 2009

MBTA Tries to Improve Bus Route 23

The No. 23 bus became notorious in March, 2007, when an 18 year-old passenger was fatally shot. But the route between Ashmont Station and Ruggles Station has long been a source of complaints from riders. The complaints are mostly about service being slow or erratic—long gaps between buses alternating with buses in rapid succession.

The route’s one of 15 the MBTA plans for improvements to be funded by federal stimulus money. But changes aimed at speeding up the service--such as consolidating or relocating stops-- can either help or hurt, depending on the location. And, if slowing down can contribute to tensions or provide more opportunities for violence, having one more stop—for example, near Jeremiah Burke High School—can help students avoid walking through hostile gang territory.

In contrast with service on rapid transit, buses involve more improvisations. At one stop, a driver might save time by not pulling all the way over to the curb. There might also be an extra stop for that stooped elderly woman with a cane.

It’s also not unusual for a No. 23 bus to have some of its passengers standing all the way from Ashmont at least as far as Dudley Square. That can be a problem even for riders capable of standing up and keeping their balance: just watch the scramble along the crowded aisle when someone tries to get off. Or watch the slow influx of riders trying to sidestep a stroller parked near the front door.

For more on the process for planning improvements, see the Dorchester Reporter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Housing Rebound Less Dramatic in Boston

Boston shows only a mild case of the pick-up in housing and condo sales reported for Massachusetts by The Warren Group.

Single-family home sales in Massachusetts increased last month over October of 2008 by 17.2%, with the median price falling by 2.8 percent. For condos, the sales were up by 12%, with prices down by 8.1 percent.

In Boston, home sales for October were up by 7.41%, with a slight increase in the average price, at 1.91 percent. Among areas with more than five transactions this year, the largest increases in the number of sales were in Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roslindale and Hyde Park. Percentagewise, sales prices were up by double digits in Hyde Park and Mattapan, though none of these neighborhoods had more than 12 sales. The prices were also up for single-family homes in Dorchester, by 36.90%, though the number of sales was down this year by 44.44%, from 18 to 10.

For condos in Massachusetts, The Warren Group reports sales were up by 12%, while the median price was down by 8.1 percent. In Boston, the fall-off in price was almost as high, at 7.39%, but condo sales increased by less than one percent.

In neighborhoods with at least five transactions, the largest jumps in the number of sales were in Hyde Park, East Boston and West Roxbury, followed by Jamaica Plain and Brighton. The largest decreases in price were in Allston (54.64%), West Roxbury (27.06%) and downtown Boston (26.60%). One of the few areas with a substantial gain in median price was Roxbury and the South End, at 31.29 percent.

Like other observers, The Warren Group’s CEO, Timothy M. Warren Jr., attributes some of the increase in sales to the temporary tax credit for first-time homebuyers. He also calls the increase in condo sales a “significant reversal” after double-digit declines earlier this year. If the October figure for Boston is well short of a reversal, it’s still quite different from earlier this year, when monthly condo sales were down by more than 20 percent.

Friday, November 20, 2009

City Tax Outlook: Values Down, Rate Going Up

Property valuations in Boston are going down, so the tax rate has to increase. That was the message sent out this week to property owners by the Boston Assessing Department.

If the preliminary assessments are approved by the state, they would take effect in January of next year, but they reflect the values of January 1, 2009. Almost a year ago, the new tax bills reflected the values of January 2008, when a housing slump was still offset by a more prolonged increase in values for commercial property. This time around, there's a downturn for both types of property, and it's expected a larger portion of the higher tax levy will fall on homeowners.

The president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, expects “a little shift from business to residential.”

“For the average single-family home,” he said, “the tax bill might increase by $100, $125 or $150 a year.”

Boston Assessing Commissioner Ronald Rakow says it’s “still too early to tell” how the tax levy will be distributed. But the notices from the city say the levy will increase by the maximum allowed, 2½ percent.

As Rakow notes, values are generally down this time for commercial and residential property. Housing sales figures from the Warren Group have shown some parts of Boston with large decreases in value and others with little change. So, as the notices point out, “homeowners may see an increase in their tax bill despite the reduction in their assessments.”

Unlike some other communities, Boston has a tax break for residential property with owner-occupants. The city also has tax relief programs for the elderly and other owners, including some veterans, and people with disabilities.

Commercial assessments are determined more by a property’s income from rents, or the loss of income with vacancies. The CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, Gregory Vasil, says that’s why the best way to relieve the tax burden on homeowners is to create more jobs.

“Vacancies are a function of job creation,” said Vasil. “And, if nobody creates jobs, nobody comes into the buildings.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

After the Gold Rush

After the gold rush in the housing market comes reality. When Hendry street looked the way it did in the the view above left, three-decker units--even outside the most desirable locations--were still selling for more than $300,000 apiece. Not that anyone believed that made sense. In the view at right, from November, 2009, things look much better, thanks to the market, plus the intervention of government programs and non-profit developers. One conclusion is that if housing is more affordable, and market values seem more reasonable, there will be buyers. The tricky part is to make sure as many buyers as possible will fix up and maintain all those three-decker units that turned into condos and--eventually--foreclosures. See article about the market and the intervention in the Dorchester Reporter.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chuck Turner's Last Hurrah? Not So Fast

That last hurrah for Chuck Turner might have to wait.

Three days after the November 3 election, the Jamaica Plain Gazette reported that the District City Councilor from Roxbury as saying he would not run for another term. He also said he had encouraged the fifth-place runner-up for councilor at-large, Tito Jackson, to be his successor.

Gazette publisher Sandra Storey says she stands by the report. But Turner said in a phone interview this morning that he would like to run for one more term.

“I’m continuing to plan to run in 2011,” he said, “and not to run for the District 7 seat in 2013.”

In a statement he issued the day after election, Turner made no mention of retirement, though he did say he would focus on his legal defense against his federal indictment on corruption charges. Until the case is resolved, Turner would still be barred from serving as a committee chair for the City Council.

In his second challenge against Turner in two years, Carlos Henriquez received almost 40% of the vote, more than double his percentage in 2007.

When asked about the Gazette report and Turner’s support of Jackson for councilor in District 7, Henriquez said, “I think I would be a good person to sit in that seat as well. That’s why I’ve run for the seat twice.”

Henriquez said the story prompted a friendly talk between him and Jackson.

“Tito and I have hundreds of mutual friends,” said Henriquez, “and we want to make sure we are not dividing our neighborhoods.”

Henriquez says his immediate plan is to go back to his job as Teen Programming Director for the Castle Square Tenant Organization and continue as the president of the board for the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Jackson says he’s going back to his job in the Mass. Office of Business Development.

When asked about his support from Turner, Jackson said, “It’s a huge compliment coming from Councilor Turner, based on his work in the community.”

Jackson allowed for the possibility of a future campaign, though not necessarily for City Councilor in District 7.

“At this point,” he said, “I’d look toward serving the whole City of Boston in some capacity.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Boston Election 2009: Continuity and Change

MassVOTE confirms one measure of the interest in this year’s election in Boston: the highest turnout in a city election since 1993, when Thomas Menino won his first term as mayor.

With Sam Yoon as his unofficial running mate, Michael Flaherty had 42.4% of the vote, while Menino had 57.3%. Flaherty’s figure was slightly less than the share of the vote in the preliminary election for him and Yoon combined.

As it turned out, Flaherty won several of the precincts that were previously carried by Yoon. In most of these precincts during the preliminary election, Flaherty had even finished behind Menino. In the final election, Flaherty repeated his advantage over Menino in South Boston and Charlestown. Flaherty also carried Ward 5 (most of the Back Bay, along with parts of Beacon Hill and the South End), and he came very close to winning Jamaica Plain (parts of Wards 10, 11 and 19) with 48.9% of the vote, and Ward 22 (parts of Brighton and Allston), with 49.4 percent.

Menino carried the rest of the city, including East Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, Roslindale, West Roxbury, Mattapan and Hyde Park, along with Chinatown and Bay Village.

Despite inroads in some parts of the city, Flaherty ran far behind in predominantly black precincts. In most of those precincts, he received less than one-third of the vote. In 10 of the 14 precincts in Ward 14 (Grove Hall, Franklin Field, Wellington Hill), his share was less than 25 percent.

The predominantly black precincts were also a larger share of the total vote this time around. Compared with 1993—when the total vote was larger—the number of people voting for mayor in Wards 8, 9, 12, 14 and 17 (plus the Ward 18 precincts in Mattapan) was higher, by 29.8 percent. In Flaherty’s strongest base of support, South Boston, the number of votes cast for mayor this year was down from the figure for 1993 by almost 21 percent.

The results for City Council increase the racial diversity among members at large, but the newest members—Felix G. Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley—also had a diversity of supporters. The newcomers finished behind incumbents John Connolly and Steve Murphy, but more than ten thousand votes ahead of the next highest candidate, Tito Jackson.

Along with being the top vote-getter for council at-large in Jamaica Plain, Arroyo finished in the top four positions in Roxbury, Hyde Park, Ward 20 (West Roxbury and part of Roslindale), Ward 5 (Back Bay and parts of Beacon Hill and the South End), East Boston, Allston-Brighton and most of Dorchester.

Ayanna Pressley did even better in Dorchester, also finishing among the top four positions in her home, Ward 16 (Fields Corner, Ashmont, Neponset). She also was among the top four in areas such as Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Ward 5 and Allston-Brighton. Though she ran fifth in Ward 20, that was still good enough to get her 3,856 votes.

In the voting for district seats on the council, Mike Ross was re-elected with 84.1% of the vote and Sal LaMattina with 76.6 percent. In Allston-Brighton’s District 9, Mark Ciommo won his second term with 64.1% of the vote, while Alex Selvig received 35.4 percent.

The closest race for a district seat was in Roxbury’s District 7. Despite the federal corruption indictment from last year, incumbent Chuck Turner received 59.8% of the vote—still significantly lower than his finish two years ago with 81.2 percent. His only opposition this year consisted of two perennial candidates and Carlos Henriquez, who ran against Turner two years ago and received 18% of the vote. As the finalist this year, Henriquez got 39.5 percent.

In a statement after the election, Turner said, “I view this victory not only as a mandate to continue my leadership as Councilor but also to continue my fight to prove that former US Attorney Sullivan tried to publicly humiliate and jail me despite his knowledge that I am innocent.” Turner said, with the election over, he would focus on trying to have the federal charges dismissed. Until the case is resolved, he will still be unable to chair any committee of the City Council.

Also see election analysis in Neighborhood Network News interview with Boston Phoenix reporter David Bernstein and election night story by Joe Rowland.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Menino Vs. Flaherty: Last Salvos, Loose Ends

If there’s one sign of change in Boston since 1993, it’s how candidates for mayor sidestep a question about the residency requirement for city workers.

Once a test of confidence in the city, the issue has been eclipsed by education, youth violence, and—despite the recent slump in real estate—the lack of affordable housing.

Sixteen years ago, Thomas Menino and co-finalist Jim Brett took positions favoring a stronger residency requirement, spurred by outcry from the pro-residency group Save Our City. In the aftermath of an economic downturn, and with residential property values still slipping, there was a resurgence of support for keeping city workers in Boston—and, by extension, the entire middle class. The earlier push for a residency requirement was in the 1970’s, after the start of desegregation in the Boston Public Schools, when there was another downturn coupled with declining property values.

When Menino and co-finalist Michael Flaherty were asked about residency in a forum last week at Faneuil Hall, they each expressed general support then switched the topic.

“But the core issue is why people leave Boston,” said Flaherty.

By the end of his answer time, Menino was fending off criticism that he should have more racial diversity among supervisors and top officials in city agencies.

“It’s not just having minorities in the administration,” he said. “It’s about doing things for the neighborhoods to improve the quality of life.”

On schools, both finalists have straddled the line between fact and overstatement. Flaherty says 38% of the Boston Public Schools are underperforming, and Menino says the figure overstates the number of schools with achievement lags across the board.

The mayor even points out that underperforming schools can also be found in wealthy suburbs—though he doesn’t say the ones in Boston are doing just as well. He says the dropout rate has been lower during his time as mayor than it had been for several years before. When reminded that the rate showed no steady improvement during his tenure, he replied, “Those are just numbers.”

One number that hasn’t been disputed by Flaherty is the mayor’s claim that applications to the Boston Public Schools have recently increased. This follows years of declining enrollment, attributed by officials to competition from charter schools, but also to a decline in school-age population.

One thing Menino has done in recent years, with encouragement from parents and officials such as City Councilor Maureen Feeney, is increase the number of K-8 schools. And, with the application process for next year getting under way, Superintendent Carol Johnson has added seats in Charlestown and the North End, while officials are looking for ways to increase capacity in areas with growing demand, such as West Roxbury, Roslindale, the Back bay and Beacon Hill.

Flaherty has drawn more attention to the waiting list for enrollment in charter schools. He wants to lift the cap that limits new charter schools in Boston—a change that would subtract money from the district schools, barring change in the funding formula. Menino favors “in-district” charter schools that would allow for more autonomy and innovation while still being under Boston control. Either approach would require approval of legislation at the State House.

“The last thing we need to do,” Flaherty said, “is to give the mayor control of more schools.”

Menino says some students, such as English language learners, are under-represented in conventional charter schools, while others who enroll fail to graduate without a detour to the Boston Public Schools.

“We don’t need more schools in Boston,” said Menino. “We need better schools.”

Menino’s push for “in-district charter schools” emerged in June. This followed years of struggles with the Boston Teachers Union to expand innovative “pilot schools.” The change also came after plans for more charter schools had been announced by Flaherty and fellow challenger (and later running mate) Sam Yoon. Adding to the incentive for new charter schools was the promise of federal stimulus money.

Both mayoral finalists say they want to save more money on student transportation. Menino and school officials have called for doing this in past years, only to retreat in the face of opposition. One argument from opponents is that a cutback on busing—and enrollment options—would leave some parts of Boston disproportionately zoned for underperforming schools.

“Until we get every school as a choice school,” said Menino, “we’re not going to get there.”

Flaherty called the spending on busing, with reportedly high numbers of empty seats, “a colossal waste of resources.” He also points out that the decrease in buses in Boston was much smaller than the decrease in student enrollment.

Menino has repeatedly said half the current busing is for students in special programs for learning disabilities, or for students in charter schools and Catholic schools. When officials were considering an end to busing for schools with citywide enrollment, they also met with opposition from champions of citywide enrollment for charter schools. If the supply of charter schools in Boston were allowed to expand, there could also be more demand for busing.

Another sign of change in Boston is that, despite the current housing slump, private owners of subsidized apartment complexes still want to convert them to market rental units. That’s currently the prospect at two “expiring use” developments in Hyde Park, Georgetowne Homes and Blake Estates.

Menino met with Georgetowne tenants last month and promised to support state legislation that would limit rent increases developments with expiring federal subsidy agreements. Supporters of the targeted rent control have been trying to get approval at the State House for several years, without success. While tenants put their hopes in more aggressive lobbying by Menino, owners of developments around the country are said to be more nervous about depending on federal subsidies in the future. Short of adding to units he was able to keep affordable for the long term, Menino said he would try to keep Georgetowne Homes affordable for current residents.

Flaherty has said he would support the legislation favored by the tenants. He wants more of the city’s new affordable housing to people with greater need—which could effectively mean a higher amount of subsidy per unit. He also called for doing more to prevent the eviction of tenants during foreclosures.

“We need to knock on the doors of these banks to help keep people in their homes,” Flaherty said in the forum at Faneuil Hall.

The very next day, Menino announced had done just that. Talks were in progress at four properties in Boston controlled by Bank of America to allow the tenants to stay. Under the plan, the properties would be acquired by the city and be turned over to private or non-profit developers.

Menino took credit for the plan being the first of its kind around the country, with potential for catching on with other lenders, but the idea had been proposed months earlier by the advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana. What neither finalist has proven is whether a similar approach would work with financial stakeholders that have less visibility in Boston than Bank of America.

The forum also took place three days before reports that a graduate student at a Boston University BioSafety Level 2 laboratory had been infected with a bacterium that can cause meningitis. For opponents of the BioSafety Level 4 laboratory that BU is still trying to get approved, the infection was one more reason to say no. But officials say the infection was reported promptly and that the student is recovering.

At Faneuil Hall, the Level 4 lab brought out sharp differences between the candidates, with Flaherty having switched from being a supporter to an opponent. He was against having the lab in a densely populated area, near Boston Medical Center. Menino says there already is a Level 4 lab on a college campus in Georgia.

“We have the most stringent regulations,” Menino said.

“We don’t have a comprehensive evacuation plan,” said Flaherty.

Whoever wins on November 3 will have to reach new contract agreements with several unions representing city workers, at a time when the budget is expected to be even tighter.

Flaherty says by introducing performance reviews he can eliminate “a tremendous amount of wasteful spending.”

“I argue,” he said, “that we can save millions, if not tens of millions of dollars by bringing performance review to Boston.”

Hanging over both finalists are troubles with the Boston Firefighters Union, whose last contract expired in July, 2006. Since indications of possible substance abuse when two firefighters were killed in a fire in 2007, Menino has been trying to have the contract include random drug and alcohol testing. Despite recent management reforms, Menino’s tenure has seen equipment problems (above all, the fatal crash of a ladder truck) and alleged abuses of disability pensions—leading in October to federal indictments. But it’s Flaherty who has the union’s endorsement. Along with the benefit comes the burden, since the union has also been blamed for the pension abuse, rising overtime and resistance to changes in vehicle maintenance.

Flaherty has set a limit on how far he would go with a pay raise for firefighters, and he promises to go even farther than Menino with random testing. At last week’s forum, Menino still took issue with the union’s contract demands in connection with testing. “They want to get paid to take the test,” he said. “Is that fair?”

It can be argued it was fair enough for Boston’s largest police union. Menino introduced random testing on the Boston Police Department ten years ago, after fierce resistance from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. The police contract also introduced new benefits—the education bonuses provided under the Quinn Bill, and paid for by the city and the state. With the state cutting back its share, leaders of the BPPA insist on keeping a benefit that was gained by bargaining. As BPPA Secretary Jay Broderick wrote three months ago in a union publication, any cutback by the state “will just force the individual municipality to provide the funding.”

Also see NNN report on debate by Joe Rowland.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Flaherty Tries to Build on Alliance with Yoon

Michael Flaherty is trying a new way of building support for his showdown in the final election against Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Instead of just reaping endorsements from his fellow challengers in the preliminary election, Flaherty has brought on City Councilor Sam Yoon as a running mate and possible deputy mayor.

The last time Boston had deputy mayors was under Kevin White. When his successor, Ray Flynn, took office in 1984, he did away with the deputies, while at the same time experimenting with a build-up of grassroots political power through neighborhood councils.

In announcing his campaign alliance this morning, Flaherty emphasized Yoon’s qualifications.

“Boston doesn’t just need an urban mechanic,” said Flaherty, “it needs a visionary to tap into the intellectual capital of this city.”

Flaherty also contrasted Yoon with Michael Kineavy, Menino’s Chief of Planning and Policy, whose deletion of emails caused a stir just before last week’s preliminary election.

“The mayor has Michael Kineavy,” said Flaherty. “I’m going to have Sam Yoon.”

But will Flaherty have Yoon’s votes? And, even if he were to have all those votes, would it be enough to unseat Menino? In last week’s results, Menino received 50.5% of the vote, more than double the percentage carried by Flaherty.

Flaherty says the results show half the voters wanted change, and 21% of them voted for Yoon. And, by having Yoon campaign with him as a future deputy mayor, Flaherty would be getting more than just an endorsement.

In last week’s election, Yoon carried 24 precincts, mainly in parts of Allston-Brighton, Jamaica Plain, the Back Bay and the Fenway. The areas are, for the most part, traditionally progressive and, with the exception of Jamaica Plain, relatively low on turnout.

In all but one of the precincts carried by Yoon, Flaherty finished behind Menino. That’s one reason why former City Councilor Lawrence DiCara says transferring support from Yoon voters to Flaherty will be a “tough challenge.”

“Where Sam Yoon received his votes, Michael Flaherty received almost none, and vice-versa,” said DiCara.

The results in November also depend on how many more people will vote than in the preliminary election. This year, Menino is facing his most competitive challenge since winning his first term in 1993. Voters will also be drawn out to fill two of the at large seats on the City Council.

Flaherty estimates the total number of voters in November will increase over last week’s figure by as much as 40 percent. DiCara says he thinks the increase will be smaller, and he predicts the greater share of the increase will occur in precincts where most voters are people of color—precincts, for the most part, carried last week by Menino.

“I don’t think those minority folks who voted for Sam are going to go for Flaherty,” said DiCara.

“It’s a cultural issue,” he said, “not so much ideological as cultural.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Asian American Vote Breaks Young for Yoon

In his third place run for Mayor of Boston in Tuesday’s preliminary election, City Councilor Sam Yoon carried several precincts in traditionally progressive areas of Boston, but it was Mayor Menino who carried every precinct with the largest concentration of Asian American voters.

Though that much can be confirmed by a look at unofficial returns, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund dug a little deeper in its exit polling. The survey found Menino was favored by a clear majority of Asian American voters—71%, followed by Yoon at 22% and Michael Flaherty at 6 percent. But the poll also found the voters’ preference also depended on age. Among younger Asian American voters, the winner was Yoon, at 46%, with Menino at 31 percent.

Short of confirmation by exit poll, it stands to reason that age might also help explain why Yoon was the top voter-getter in parts of Jamaica Plain, Allston and the Back Bay.

Among candidates for City Councilor at Large, the leader was another Asian American from Dorchester, Hiep Quoc Nguyen, with 39%. The next highest levels of support were for Félix G. Arroyo (30%), and for Tomás González and Tito Jackson—each with 25 percent.

Voters were asked to list the main issues affecting their choice of candidates. The largest number listed health care (49%), followed by economy/jobs (37%), housing/development policies (26%), senior care (24%), education (23%) and public safety (19%).

The Fund says there were “few problems” with the voting process, though it notes many Asian Americans needed bilingual ballots.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Boston's Preliminary: Turnout and Patterns

The turnout for yesterday’s preliminary election in Boston was impressive, but only by comparison with the lackluster municipal contests going back to 1997.

By comparison with the presidential election turnout last November—at 61.8%--yesterday’s figure for mayor and city councilors was much lower, at 23.1%. That’s still higher than turnout figures for the last two preliminary elections in years when there were votes for mayor and city councilors. In 2005, when there was no preliminary vote for mayor, the turnout figure was 15.1%. In 2001, it was 17.25%, and in 1997—when Mayor Thomas Menino was unopposed—it was 16.15%

The most impressive number in yesterday’s election was the increase in the number of people who came out to vote, 81,641. That’s more than twice the number of votes cast in the preliminary election four years ago and 86% higher than the figure for 2001. That seems to contradict the modest increase in turnout percentage. But, since 1997, the number of registered voters in Boston has grown by 49.9%.

With three opponents in the preliminary, Menino faced what was by far his most significant challenge since winning his first full term in 1993. Yesterday, he received 50.5% of the vote, followed by his co-finalist Michael Flaherty with 24%, City Councilor Sam Yoon with 21.2% and Kevin McCrea with 4.1%. In the only other preliminary comparison between yesterday and 1993, Menino received 73% of the vote in 2001, when he and co-finalist Peggy Davis-Mullen were joined on the ballot by perennial candidate Althea Garrison.

Despite his federal indictment last year on corruption charges, the District 7 (Roxbury/Dorchester) City Councilor, Chuck Turner, received 52.6% of yesterday’s vote. The next highest vote-getter was Carlos Henriquez, with 23.9%. In the final election two years ago, Henriquez received 18% and Turner received 81%.

Among the candidates for councilor at large, the two incumbents, John Connolly and Stephen Murphy, finished well ahead of the other candidates. Félix G. Arroyo, finishing third, trailed Murphy by more than four thousand votes, but the son of former Councilor Félix Arroyo was almost nine thousand votes ahead of the next candidate, Ayanna Pressley. The only woman on the ballot, Pressley finished more than four thousand votes ahead of the 5th place candidate, Andrew Kenneally. Fewer than three thousand votes separate Kenneally from the other three finalists in November: Tito Jackson, Doug Bennett and Tomás González.

In the only other two preliminary contests for district seats on the council, the incumbents finished well ahead of their competition in November. In Allston-Brighton’s District 9, Mark Ciommo received 59.8% over Alex Selvig’s 23.2%. In District 1 (E. Boston, Charlestown, N. End/Waterfront), Sal LaMattina received 73.4%, while Chris Kulikoski received 15.1%.

With a racially diverse pool of candidates, there were expectations for higher turnout in much of Boston. This year, the results were closer to the old pattern, with the highest turnouts in Ward 20 (W. Roxbury/Roslindale), at 35%; Ward 16 (Neponset, Cedar Grove, Pope’s Hill), 33.2%, Hyde Park (30.4%) and South Boston (29.8%).

Areas with the lowest turnout percentages were Ward 21 (Allston), with 11.6%; Ward 5 (Back Bay/South End), with 13.4%; and Ward 4 (Fenway/South End), with 14.7%. In between were Ward 17 (Codman Square/Lower Mills) at 25.6%, Ward 1 (East Boston) at 24.8%, Mattapan (24.1%), Ward 12 (Roxbury) at 23.6%, Ward 11 (Forest Hills/Egleston Square) at 23.4%, Ward 2 (Charlestown) at 23.3%, Ward 14 (Grove Hall/Franklin Field) at 20.2%, Ward 15 (Fields corner/Bowdoin-Geneva) at 20%.

Though Menino finished well ahead of his competition, there were some pockets of support for Flaherty and Yoon. Flaherty carried three precincts in Charlestown, all but one of the precincts in South Boston, and five precincts in Dorchester—mostly in Ward 16’s Neponset-Pope’s Hill/Neponset area.

Yoon carried one precinct in the West End, two in the Fenway, four in the Back Bay, 14 in solidly progressive Jamaica Plain and 8 in Ward 21—mostly in Allston.

The rest was carried by Menino, including Ward 20 and the precincts with the largest Asian population (in the main Chinatown precinct, the vote for Menino was 58.2%).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Two Views of Boston's Mayoral Race

Over the summer, Neighborhood Network News has been presenting interview segments with and about candidates running in this year's city election. Among the recent segments are two with candidates for mayor: City Councilor Michael Flaherty on July 23, City Councilor Sam Yoon on August 5. The next scheduled interview in the series is with mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea. It will be on Neighborhood Network News Monday, August 10. BNN airs the show at 5:30, 9:30, and 11 p.m., with live streaming at those times.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

City Election 2009: In Praise of Skirmishes

We decided to cover Sam Yoon's "town meeting" last week in Mattapan, expecting little more than the snapshot of a campaign in action. But an exchange between Yoon and Mayor Menino's Chief of Staff, Judith Kurland, made the event more two-sided. It was as if, like Rodney Dangerfield at a boxing match, we ended up with a hockey game.

When someone in the audience brought up literature and handbags with the mayor's name given out by the city's Commission on Affairs of the Elderly, there was an opportunity for Yoon to score. To be sure, there's some advertising going on with the hand-outs, and that's more of a problem if it's paid for by city funds instead of campaign money. Does this apply to everything the Commission does, as Yoon comes close to arguing? Isn't there some overlap between gratuitous advertising and the good impression an elected official makes when the administration performs a service? Anyhow, Yoon reached far enough to leave an opening for a counterthrust by Kurland, who--with a deft touch of dramatization--snatched a passable look of tacit agreement from a woman sitting near her in the audience.

For details on the conext behind the exchange, read the article in the Dorchester Reporter by Gintautas Dumcius. There's also a video report on the meeting by Joe Rowland for Neighborhood Network News.

Judging from accounts of the meeting, Yoon made some good impressions, though the exchange with Kurland suggests a need to wage verbal fights more carefully, and maybe to pick battles over something more urgent (even if this topic wasn't initially picked by Yoon).

Kurland's performance, no matter how much it sprang from a genuine sense of indignation, was worthy of a candidate in a town meeting debate. The more that's noticed, the more it makes Yoon appear to be taken seriously, and the more it suggests the debate should be not with a proxy, but between candidates. And if the debate were about other topics?

This minor showdown goes some way to suggest the potential for debates to get people interested in an election. All too often these skirmishes tell us very little that's new (which may very well apply to what happened in Mattapan), and they might even be compared to fights in hockey game--a distraction at best that, on repetition, quickly becomes tiresome. But, in an election year so deprived of face-to-face confrontations between candidates in three-dimensional reality, even a minor skirmish can be refreshing.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fall-off in Homicides: Just the Rain?

If homicides have decreased in Boston over the past few months because of the weather, that would hardly account for the fatal shooting of Soheil Turner.

The 15 year-old student was shot on a rainy morning, outside a convenience store on Dudley Street. According to investigators, the killer, who was wearing dark sunglasses, was equipped with a .380 semi-automatic handgun and an umbrella.

Since the day Turner was shot, on May 7, Boston has had an abnormally high number of cloudy days and—by comparison with last year--a decrease in rate of homicides. Some observers say the recent drop in homicides and shootings can be partially explained by the weather. But others say the reasons could include everything from efforts by law enforcement and medical personnel to anti-violence programs and the neighborhood walks by community volunteers.

From the beginning of this year through July 19, there have been 27 homicides in Boston, down 25% from the figure from the same date last year. Homicides are also down in some other large cities around the country. The weather has been cited for the decrease in New York City, but the Washington Post reports homicides are also down in cities with different weather patterns, including Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

In Boston, the decrease in homicides has been very noticeable in areas that have usually experienced the most violence. In Area B (Roxbury, Mattapan and part of Dorchester), there have been 5 homicides since Turner was killed, but only one since June 14: the stabbing death of a 49 year-old man on July 27. In Area C (Dorchester and South Boston), over the same period of almost seven weeks, there has been only one homicide—a 74 year-old man allegedly stabbed by a 64 year-old woman.

About a week after Turner was shot, a three-year old boy and a 70 year-old woman were struck by shots fired into a store on Bowdoin Street by a sixteen year-old suspect. The shootings were non-fatal, but the next day, Mayor Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis were on Bowdoin Street to announce they would increase patrols and visibility in “hot spot” areas.

Even by last December, there were plans for a violence prevention strategy with a new way of deploying street workers funded by the Boston Foundation. Instead of only city street workers who finished their shift at 8 p.m., the “Street Safe” program would have some workers be on the clock till midnight, then be available on call. The street workers are jointly administered by the city and the Boston Ten Point Coalition.

At a meeting in June, law enforcement authorities and church leaders warned gang members that violence would meet with tough sentencing. They also offered alternatives to gang activity. The approach had been tried before, but Ten Point Coalition Executive Director Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown said the newest group responded with “less bravado” and more interest in alternatives.

“This time around, the kids were really listening to us,” said Brown.

“You’ve got a younger set of shooters than before,” he explained, “so they seem more apt to listen to people approaching them out on the street, who are out there to help them rather than put them in jail.”

Over the last three weeks, Brown says, street workers have helped make it possible for members of different gangs to spend time at Washington Park in Roxbury without conflicts.

“They’re not looking to do anything,” he said. “They’re just trying to relax in the city.”

Along with the street workers, Brown credits community volunteers who walk through “hot spot” neighborhoods.

Less reassuring this year are the figures on Boston’s non-fatal shootings. As of July 19, the total number of all shootings this year was slightly higher than it was last year.

Given the fall-off in homicides without a decrease in shootings, the founder and director of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Clementina Chéry, says the reason might be neither the weather nor efforts of law enforcement.

“So people get shot but don’t get killed? Who gets credit for that?” she asked. “Hospitals are doing a better job in treating victims.”

Through May 25, the total number of non-fatal shootings for this year was 89, up from the figure for the same period last year by more than 50 percent. But, from May 25 through July 19 this year, the figure was 39, down from the same period last year by 35 percent.

The executive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, Emmett Folgert, notes the recent change in shootings, and the kind of people involved.

“The gang stuff is down,” he says.

But Folgert says one reason could be fewer targets on porches and sidewalks for drive-by shooters—on account of the weather.

“The rain is our best friend,” he said.

But there have also been changing trends in arrests and convictions.

A spokesperson for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, Jake Wark, says the conviction rate for homicide has improved over the past two years, while more people are being prosecuted on gun charges.

“That takes some players off the street longer than they used to after a gun arrest,” he said.

Folgert says the Boston Police have done “a lot of good work getting guns off the street.” So far, the Boston Police report arrests for all gun-related offenses have increased this year by 8 percent.

Chéry says there should be more attention to the reasons for violence. Like other leaders of community-based programs, Chéry and Folgert have described much violence as retaliatory and cyclical. But Folgert says a cycle of violence can be moderated by a cycle of weather.

“We’ve all heard that violence begets more violence,” he said. “Well, peace begets more peace.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Money, New Plans for School Reform

This post appears as an article in the Dorchester Reporter.

When Boston School officials tried to save money this year by cutting costs in student transportation, they met with strong resistance from parents who put more hopes in choice, even with the need for a bus ride.

By estimates of the Boston School Dept., the parents who stand to lose from a cutback in choice and busing are a minority, while almost three-quarters prefer schools close to where they live. But the parents who cling to wider choices are a diverse population, and their support for busing as a vehicle of choice has been reinforced by other Boston parents sending their children to charter schools and parochial schools.

“You’re not going to have people give up their child’s transportation,” said one parent, “if their child is going to go to a lower quality school.”

Under a proposed student assignment plan put out for discussion in May, a disproportionate number of under-performing schools would have been in zones that include Dorchester and Mattapan. When officials decided later to slow down the change in the assignment process, Superintendent Carol Johnson asked for more information about school improvement and ensuring access to quality throughout the city.

Johnson’s comments were in a memo dated June 3, the same day another Boston Public School parent, City Councilor Sam Yoon, called for raising the cap on charter schools in Boston. These public schools operate independently of the Boston School Dept., and Yoon wanted the cap to be lifted only for charter schools that were successful.

Within a few days, there was support for raising the cap from another BPS parent and City Councilor running for mayor, Michael Flaherty. The same day Flaherty came out with his education platform, Mayor Thomas Menino announced plans to file state legislation that would allow more charter schools to open, but under control of the Boston School Committee. The charters would be conversions of schools that consistently under-perform.

The move also comes after a slow-down in the expansion of innovative “pilot schools,” though the Boston Teachers Union has agreed more recently to the opening of additional pilots. In January, a new study showed an advantage for a sample of students in charter schools over students in the BPS district schools and pilot schools. BPS officials argue the study draws mostly on a sample from the best charter schools, but they acknowledge that charters get better results in math for 8th graders.

While some question the state’s definition of under-performing schools, there is still concern in Boston about the racial gap in achievement and the number of dropouts (1,447 students last year, according to the Boston Plan for Excellence). The Plan for Excellence also reports that 56% of the BPS 9th graders were “off-track to graduate” in the 3rd quarter of the last school year, and 26% were “severely off track.”

“Although we’ve made tremendous gains in the Boston Public Schools, I am frustrated with the pace of our progress, especially in our low performing schools,” Mayor Menino said last month. “To get the results we seek – at the speed we want – we must make transformative changes that boost achievement for students, improve quality choices for parents, and increase opportunities for teachers.”

Unlike the pilot schools—innovative schools within the system—the new charters could be set up without approval by the BTU. Each school would have a performance contract, and the plan calls for failing schools to close. The plan has been described as an abrupt shift by Menino, and even as an election-year gesture with little chance of overcoming opposition at the State House from teachers’ unions.

But Menino’s qualified support for alternatives to the Boston Schools is hardly new, given his presence at ground-breakings for parochial schools and charter schools—one as far back as 2001, and another the day before announcing his in-city charter bill. The last appearance was at the future home of the Renaissance Charter School, which is relocating to an old mill and warehouse in Hyde Park with the help of financing from an agency staffed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

When the Boston Municipal Research Bureau took notice of the growing support for charter school expansion, it gave more reasons—the 5,264 students from Boston already enrolled in charter schools, and another 8,577 still on wait lists.

But, last week, when Menino and Governor Deval Patrick shared a podium at the Museum of Science with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, their support for more charter schools was linked with a chance to get more federal money, a nationwide total of $4.35 billion.

Governor Patrick hopes to use some of the money in Massachusetts for additional charter schools that would have to meet conditions for inclusion, especially for English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. The governor also hopes to use the federal money for transforming chronically under-performing schools into “Readiness Acceleration Schools.” These would be under state authority, but they would have more autonomy from local districts, and there would be new services outside the schools for students and their families.

Menino and Patrick have expressed concerns over the effect of charter school expansion on budgets for local school districts, and charter schools have also attracted students who, in past years, might have gone to parochial schools. Menino is still against lifting cap on expansion of the regular “Commonwealth” charter schools, provided the legislature allows the “in-district” charters. Even last Thursday, Patrick said the funding formula for additional charter schools “needs to be looked at.”

According to the vice chair of the Boston School Committee, Marchelle Raynor, there is no redirection of funding needed under the mayor’s proposal for “in-district” charter schools. And Raynor says the schools could be in operation as early as this September.

The mayor’s plan has been greeted with skepticism from the Boston Teachers Union and the Mass. Charter Public School Association, which represents the “Commonwealth” schools.

“We want to make sure that when he creates these ‘in-district’ schools,” said Association spokesperson Dominic Slowey, “there’s the high level of accountability as with the Commonwealth system.”

BTU President Richard Stutman called the mayor’s plan “poorly thought out.” And he described the announcement by Patrick and Menino as “nine-tenths stimulus money.”

By including merit pay for teachers in his plan, Menino has aligned himself with Duncan. When Menino announced his plan last month, he said the incentives would make teachers “jointly accountable” for results in the classroom, and help attract “more excellent educators.”

Stutman says teachers would go along with extra pay that could be shared by a team, but not with incentives for individuals. “It’s so difficult,” he said, “to measure who’s contributing what.”

The governor’s also facing some resistance to his plan from the Mass. Charter Public School Association. Though the governor stops short of setting quotas for enrollment of demographic groups in new charter schools, he wants to require best efforts in recruitment. The Association says this could be an incentive to keep students in the categories of English Language Learner or special needs even after they should be in regular classrooms.

Advocates for choice and local officials still argue some types of students are under-represented in the Commonwealth charter schools. And they blame some charter schools for shedding students who either drop out or end up in the local district schools.

“It’s easier to teach a population that doesn’t require special services,” says Stutman. “It’s cheaper, too.”

But a cutback in busing has also been viewed as a way of inadvertently encouraging more parents to choose Commonwealth charter schools. Earlier this year, Boston officials were trying to end citywide enrollment at elementary and middle schools, which they said would make it easier to apply the same restriction to students at charter and parochial schools. That plan has met with legal barriers, as well as opposition from different groups.

“It would be a hardship for a lot of parents to come up with their own transportation,” said Slowey, “plus, it would be in conflict with state law.”

The assistant director for Boston School Reform at Mass. Advocates for Children, Kim Janey, said it would be unfair to continue citywide transportation for students in charter schools while elementary and middle school students in the Boston Public Schools could only be bused within one of five zones.

“You run the risk of perpetuating a two-tier system in the city,” said Janey.

In an interview on Neighborhood Network News, Raynor said the in-district charter schools proposed by the mayor would not require additional transportation.

In his announcement last month, Menino did not specify whether the in-district charter schools could have citywide enrollment and transportation. But, if they did, Stutman says, that “would increase transportation costs by millions of dollars.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Housing Market Stirs Demand, Hits Snags

Note: this article appears in the Jul2, 2009 issue of the Dorchester Reporter.

Crosscurrents in Dorchester’s real estate market are pulling in different directions—extending the fall-off in prices of the past two years, but also showing signs of new vitality.

“If someone’s telling you there’s no business, they’re not in our neighborhood,” says the Dorchester office manager for Jack Conway & Co., Julie Simmons.

“There is a lot of activity now,” she says. “That $8,000 tax credit is really bringing people in.”

But even agents who vouch for people willing to buy and sell say their customers still meet obstacles.

“Definitely the buyers are there. They’re eager to buy because the prices are low,” says Patrick Dorcena, an agent who does business in Dorchester for Torrez Realty in Brockton. “What’s killing us are the banks.”

Working in favor of a turn-around in the market is the federal tax credit created primarily for first-time home-buyers. But tighter lending standards, especially for condos, have been holding off buyers who fail to qualify for government programs. And Dorcena says some lenders have been challenging sales prices with their own appraisals, or pulling out of deals at the last minute, slowing down sales by as much as six months.

According to figures collected by the Warren Group, the spring market in Dorchester hardly appears robust. Sales of single-family homes through the end of May are down from last year’s total by almost 20%, though the median price is slightly higher.

Condo sales in Dorchester are much more numerous, and they exceed last year’s total through May by more than 6 percent. But, over the same period, the median price for those units is down by almost 60 percent.

The owner of Just In Boston Properties, Justin Green, says the aggregate price for condos is “totally askew” because of the numerous distressed sales, often after foreclosures.

Many condo units in distressed sales have been selling for less than $100,000, and some for less than $50,000. But, in less than 2½ years, prices for one unit in a three-family house on Bellflower Street, just a few blocks from Andrew Square, have swung sharply both ways. In January, 2007, unit 3 sold for $360,000. All three units would later be foreclosed. After unit 3 was sold last November for $121,500, it was sold again in May of this year for $299,000.

According to Green, the streets between Edward Everett Square and Andrew Square are one housing market that could be poised for an upturn. And he says the same potential exists in other parts of Dorchester close to the Red Line.

“It stands to reason,” he said, “that something along a train line, a train line that’s been renovated, is a location that’s going to be in demand.”

And, just a few blocks from JFK/UMass. Station, a loft unit at 950 Dorchester Avenue sold in May for $410,000.

Between the extremes are unit sales with a less dramatic fall-off in price. One is a three-decker unit on Sawyer Avenue, on Jones Hill. It sold last month for $250,000, after having been on the market last summer for $279,000. The seller bought the unit almost five years ago for $309,000.

Though the tax credit for first-time homebuyers is scheduled to expire later this year, Green says the condo market in Dorchester could be in for some relief from new rules being introduced by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Starting October 1, the FHA will insure some mortgages for condos in buildings up to 4 units. That would make financing available with down payments of 3.5 percent. With conventional loans, the current down payment required on many condo units for buyers without serious credit problems can run as high as 20 percent.

Like Simmons, Green says there has been more activity recently, and he describes the spring housing market in Dorchester as “very strong,” with “a lot of sales.”

“We’re very busy here,” he said. “Not only is everybody working, but putting deals together and getting financing.”

But Simmons points to signs that recovery is still a way off.

“People aren’t moving as often as we would like in this business,” she said.

And the backlog on sales has an effect on rentals.

“A lot of rentals are sitting on the market there, and a lot of condos are being rented,” said Simmons.

“So regular condos,” she explained, “have to compete against the granite and stainless steel.”

Simmons says that makes for more of a renter’s market. But other agents say rents in Dorchester are holding steady, with prices mostly in the range of $1,100 to $1,300 a month. And Green says his agency sees more customers looking for apartments.

“The price of renting hasn’t increased too much,” he said, “but the demand has definitely increased.”

The senior organizer for City Life/Vida Urbana, Steve Meacham, says there have been “significant rent increases,” even in neighborhoods that bore the brunt of mortgage foreclosures.

“Banks were holding so much property off the market in low and moderate income neighborhoods in Boston,” he said, “that it was pushing up the rental market.”

Also seeing little relief for renters was the director of media and public relations for the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, Lucy Warsh.

“We still have a major need for affordable units in most of the affordable neighborhoods, such as Dorchester and Roxbury,” she said.

In parts of Dorchester with more multi-family housing and a higher concentration of foreclosures, unit sales are often to investors buying in bulk. The city has turned over some foreclosed units in three-deckers, but with an eye toward having them redeveloped as rental property, preferably with an owner-occupant in one unit.

According to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, more than one-third of Boston’s mortgage foreclosures in 2008 were in Dorchester, and more than half of those were in condominiums--many created in three-deckers.

“We’re seeing that it’s not the best model for the three-deckers, unless you have a more affluent group,” said the director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, Evelyn Friedman.

“One of the big challenges of a small condo association,” she argued, “is that if you have one person stop paying the condo fees, the whole association falls apart.”

The treasurer for the Dorchester Home and Garden Trust, Patrick Cooke, predicts recovery will be significantly slower in areas with the most foreclosures. And he says the foreclosures and the economic downturn are also cooling off the rental market.

“I don’t think it’s going to drop precipitously,” he said, “but it’s into a long, slow decline, and landlords are going to have to adjust their expectations.”

Cooke has been renovating houses in Dorchester for thirty years, and he has seen earlier downturns in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

“The downward pressure on the market is going to continue to be felt for some time,” he predicts.

In Dorchester’s multi-family housing, Cooke likens the latest downturn to a “can of worms,” confronting potential buyers with the expense of aging properties and the hurdles left by collapsing or non-functioning condo associations.

“The market,” he said, “almost has to get worse in order for these things to be salvaged.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Thin Blue Line in Black and White

The immediate chain of events that led to the beating of Michael Cox by fellow officers on the Boston Police Department took place at three locations: a bar in Dorchester’s Four Corners, a hamburger joint in Grove Hall, and a dead-end street in Mattapan. The settings might just as well have been the Wild West, where the hold of law and order is stretched thin, and the distinction between true and false, or good and evil, can be scrambled in a burst of violence and the frenzy of a chase. But the chain of events reaching farther back and farther beyond raises the chaos and calculation of one night to an indictment of a city’s leadership.

Since the incident took place in January, 1995, the case around the beating and the overturned conviction of fellow officer Kenneth Conley have been widely reported in Boston media. In his new book about the case, The Fence, Dick Lehr, a journalism professor at Boston University and former investigative reporter with The Boston Globe, shows the connections with a series of costly blunders by the Boston Police, including missed signals of trouble ahead.

As Lehr announces in the full title of the book, the story is about “a police cover-up along Boston’s racial divide.” On one side is Michael Cox, an African-American who grew up in Roxbury, working at the time as a plainclothes officer in the gang unit. Though at least one officer present at the beating was also an African-American, Lehr’s narrative traces a definite fault line, mainly between Boston’s black community and public authorities—all the way from responders on the street to police command, the mayor’s administration, and prosecutors.

The beating took place after a lengthy police chase through Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. At the end, police arrested four suspects, but it was Cox who was by far the most battered—suggesting the force used on him was excessive even for subduing a criminal.

The chase began with what proved to be a fatal shooting around 2 a.m. in Grove Hall, at Walaikum’s Burger. The victim was also targeted by mistake, incorrectly linked to a long-running feud with a gang member spotted earlier at the bar in Four Corners, Cortee’s Lounge.

The next mistake would be a phone call from the scene of the shooting falsely reporting the victim was a police officer. It's another crossing of lines, with even more to follow. In a world where cops try to blend in with gangsters, and where suspects scrupulously signal turns while trying to zig-zag away from patrol cars, it’s not too much of a stretch to say the distinction between the two sides can sometimes be as porous as, well, a chain-link fence.

The false report from Walaikum’s made the chase larger and more frantic, a whole posse of Boston Police, Municipal Police and even private security guards—likened at one point to a high-speed funeral procession. At the end of the chase, on a dead-end street, Cox tried to pursue one of the suspects by scaling a chain-link fence. Before he could get to the other side, he was knocked down and kicked in the face. The next thing he registered was that a police officer was trying to place him under arrest.

The book leaves no doubt this was quickly recognized as a mistake. Had the mistakes ended there, Lehr argues, there would have been disciplinary action against a few officers—but probably with no one losing a job, no federal prosecution of Kenneth Conley, and no harassment of Cox by anonymous tormenters. It’s also likely the city’s taxpayers would have been spared anything like the figure of $1.3 million dollars for eventually settling the civil rights suit brought by Cox.

But the next mistakes at the scene of the beating were more deliberate. The officers who beat Cox left him on the ground without calling for help. Though other officers did call for medical attention, the first supervisors on the scene made it more difficult to establish what happened and who was responsible. That even applied to the arrests of four suspects who had been chased.

Within a few first months after the beating—having started an internal investigation more than one week after the fact—officials in the Police Dept. showed signs of knowing about the mistakes and conflicting reports from officers on the scene. What police and prosecutors failed to do was to break the silence of witnesses who tried to avoid incriminating themselves and their fellow officers. And two supervisors who made it more difficult to determine what happened on the scene were later promoted.

According to Lehr, police officials failed to use opportunities for at least putting pressure on officers they suspected of taking part in the beating and cover-up. Commissioner Paul Evans did take disciplinary action against four officers, but that was more than 3½ years after the fact—and shortly before Cox’s civil rights suit went to trial. And Lehr notes this was also two years after any new information had been turned up on the case by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. “The truth was,” wrote Lehr, “Evans could have taken the officers off the street a long time ago.”

Another chain of error led to the conviction of Officer Kenneth Conley for perjury—supposedly for failing to admit he saw Cox’s beating. The conviction was later overturned, after evidence came to light showing weakness in the case against Conley—evidence that should have been disclosed to Conley’s attorney. Even that information might have languished in a folder, if not for a challenge to disciplinary action by Conley’s partner, Bobby Dwan.

Even more embarrassing for law enforcement agencies was the identification of officers involved in the beating by one of the suspects being chased, a drug-dealer from Mattapan, Robert “Smut” Brown. He gave testimony placing one officer at the scene, and he helped build the case against Conley by mistakenly assuming he was the white officer near Cox at the fence.

Later, while Conley was on trial, Brown tried to correct that mistake right after he spotted another white officer, Jimmy Burgio, in the lobby of the federal courthouse. When Brown tried to tell an FBI agent the white officer he saw at the fence was actually Burgio, there was no interest. In Lehr’s fallen world of bungling by authorities, it turns out the closest thing to a detective may have been a career criminal.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A look at School Assignment Questions

A series of neighborhood meetings will take place in May on possible changes in the student assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. The meetings will follow presentation of a revised proposal from the Boston School Dept. A final plan, taking effect in 2010-2011, would be considered by the School Committee in June. Tighter budgets will probably make access to quality more difficult. Officials working on the plan have to find a way between or around two entrenched ideas about school assignments: a preference for schools close to home, especially through grade 8; and a belief that more options, requiring more transportation, means more access to quality. Would more walking assignments, for example, for families in Hyde Park and West Roxbury, necessarily mean less access to quality for students in Roxbury and Dorchester? Would more neighborhood assignments necessarily increase access to the full-day benefits in a "community of learning?" And what about needs of English Language Learners and students in Special Education? See article in Dorchester Reporter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Biolab Questions Meet Clarity of Gray Areas

Two City Councilors trying to clarify the possible hazards on the frontiers of research at Boston University’s Level 4 Biocontainment Laboratory in the South End found themselves last Wednesday turning headlights on a fog.

The line of questioning at a hearing by the Council Committee on Health and Environment, almost entirely from Councilor Chuck Turner, was mainly to find out whether some research requiring extra precautions might even be ruled out by the city’s regulations.

The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) restricts research involving recombinant DNA (rDNA), defined as DNA molecules constructed outside of a living organism or synthetic molecules joined with natural molecules. The city prohibits research with rDNA in Level 4, which is the setting with the highest risk and security precautions.

The head of the laboratory, Dr. Mark Klempner, had reportedly said he expected it would include research on vaccines produced with rDNA— “chimeric viruses.” And the city regulations incorporate guidelines from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which do include standards for work with rDNA in a Level 4 setting.

Located on the Boston University Medical School Campus, the lab is already built, but its environmental safety review by the NIH is expected to continue for at least another year.

The Director of the Bureau of Community Initiatives at the BPHC, Roger Swartz, acknowledged the rDNA ban, but said he could only address issues “in terms of applications submitted” for specific research proposals. The BPHC would decide whether to approve a proposal after receiving a recommendation from an advisory committee. Swartz told councilors the question of rDNA would “be discussed in its entirety” once the committee comes together.

“We have had a number of discussions with experts,” said Swartz, “and it’s clear to us that there are some areas of, some gray areas. And we want to make sure that from the start, as we address rDNA and Level 4, that we have the scientific experts that will be providing guidance and recommendations to the executive director (of the BPHC). So, at this point, I would say we’re not prepared to address specific proposed or hypothetical research. We’re not there in the process.”

In his testimony to the councilors, Klempner denied the lab would engage in development of biological weapons.

“Let me state clearly and unequivocally,” said Klempner, “that all the research and every one of our researchers in the NEIDL (National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories) will completely abide by the BPHC regulation, which bans recombinant DNA research in Biosafety Level 4.”

After Klempner was asked about a statement he reportedly made last year indicating that some research at the lab under its associate director, Dr. Thomas W. Geisbert, would include rDNA, he gave neither confirmation nor denial.

“I want to reiterate again to you,” said Klempner, “that we are absolutely committed to transparency and we are in every case going to submit every proposed research proposal to the regulatory bodies that we need to respond to in order to be able to have approvals to do the research in the laboratory. I certainly have made statements about work that we hope to conduct in the laboratory, and we will continue to do that. We are continuing to recruit new scientists to do research, but that is different than making statements about the regulator.”

As Klempner reminded councilors, the decisions about which research would be allowed would be up to the BPHC. In other words, the lab was the regulated and the city was the regulator.

For one opponent of the lab at the hearing, the distinction between the two wasn’t clear enough. The legal counsel for the Roxbury-based non-profit Alternatives for Community and Environment, Eugene Benson, said one reason for this was that the president and CEO of Boston Medical Center, the main affiliate of Boston University Medical School, was the vice chair of the BPHC’s Board of Health. And he noted that a BPHC official who would be part of the committee reviewing proposals for research had previously recommended designation of the Biolab for Boston by the NI H.

“What you have is, in two ways, you have an impossible situation here,” Benson argued, “where the Boston Public Health Commission has refused to actually articulate what are very, very bright lines in their regulations. And then you have this back-and-forth between people who work for the Boston Public Health Commission and Boston University. So you’re setting up a dynamic where the dynamic is going to be to approve proposals that clearly violate the regulation. That is really no way to operate a regulatory agency. And, while it wasn’t my intention to make this recommendation, but I think the only recommendation that I can make coming out of this is that you need to prohibit all BSL-4 regulation in the City of Boston because what this tells you is that you are trying to do your oversight role but it can’t be done, considering the interaction between BU, the Boston Public Health Commission, and their failure to adequately and completely respond to Councilor Turner.”

Another lab opponent, a professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, Daniel Goodenough, went a step further. Though he acknowledged that rDNA was “a fundamental tool” for research, he said using it in work that required a Level 4 setting was “too dangerous.” He argued that it was difficult to oversee research that, once it gets under way, could take new directions, involving new personnel over time.

“All of these regulations, as we all know, just get harder and harder to maintain,” said Goodenough. “More and more people are coming and the turnover rate is huge—in academic that’s the name of the game, it’s up or out: you either succeed and you go somewhere else, or you fail and you leave. So there’s very high turnover, huge, huge amounts of training issues here, and I don’t think that the Boston Public Health Commission can possibly assess that. And it’s my belief that this regulation (banning rDNA research) was put in place initially with the understanding that we can’t regulate this—it’s too hard. And the only solution is to say, ‘No, we just don’t have any of this going on in a BSL-4 facility.’”

In one of his few comments on testimony at the hearing, the chair of the Committee on Health and Environment, Councilor John Connolly, described the remarks by Swartz as “very comprehensive, as far as covering the major points.”

Turner insisted there should be more definite information, and more transparency, about what would happen at the lab should it be approved for operation. He said it was “disheartening” that the BPHC was “unwilling to help the public understand the confusion that is here.”

“I think that really just puts wood on the fire,” he added, “that just makes people more distrustful of what’s going on.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

School Updates: Dropouts, Assignment Plan

The Mass. Department of Education reports an improvement in the annual dropout rate for Boston schools. The latest figures are for the school year 2007-2008, when the annual dropout rate was 7.6 percent. That's the lowest figure in six years. In the two years before the most recent figures, the dropout rate was almost 8.9%, and the year before that it was 9.9 percent.

But the Boston figures for 2007-2008 still had racial gaps. The highest rate was for Hispanic students, at 10.2 percent. The next highest figures were for black students (7.4%) and white students (5.3%), with the lowest figure for Asian students (2.5%). There was also a gender gap, with the rate for male students at 8.2%, and the rate for female students at 6.9 percent.

The annual rate is used less often for measuring the dropout problem than the rate that tracks students throughout high school. The increase in the annual rate for Boston began its last increase in 2003-2003, around the time of cutbacks following an economic slowdown. The high dropout rate for Hispanic students may reflect some of the problems with English Language Learners discussed in a recent report by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development & Public Policy and the Center for Collaborative Education.

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A series of public meetings will take place about possible changes in the student assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. As a way to reduce transportation costs, officials have been considering a possible increase in the number of school assignment zones. Boston currently has three zones. More zones would mean that parents would have to make choices from fewer schools, though officials say there has been a general preference among parents for schools that are close to home. Officials say they hope a new plan will have four kinds of benefits: lower transportation costs, more walkable communities, a range of school choice, and continuity of educational experience.

The series of meetings will begin Wednesday, April 29, with the presentation of a revised assignment plan with five zones. The meeting will take place at 26 Court Street in downtown Boston, in the Winter Chambers. All meetings will begin at 6 p.m. The remaining meetings are as follows:

Thursday, May 7. Umana Middle School Academy. 312 Border Street, East Boston
Tuesday, May 12. Edison Middle School. 60 Glenmount Road, Brighton
Monday, May 18. Lewis Middle School. 131 Walnut Avenue, Roxbury
Wednesday, May 20. McCormack Middle School. 315 Mt. Vernon Street, Dorchester
Tuesday, May 26. Irving Middle School. 105 Cummins Highway, Roslindale
Wednesday, June 3. Boston School Dept. 26 Court Street,Winter Chambers (recommendations by superintendent)
Wednesday, June 24. Boston School Dept. 26 Court Street,Winter Chambers (vote by School Committee)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Budget Plan Takes Aim at Moving Targets

One day after Mayor Thomas Menino presented his budget plan for the next fiscal year, the Boston schools got slightly more relief than expected from the federal government. But, when all the figures affecting the city budget are known—and that could be months after the June 30 deadline for approval—the mayor’s figure of 565 layoffs could still get larger.

As of Wednesday, the mayor’s budget called for eliminating 212 teachers and teachers’ aides. There could also be layoffs of as many as 67 police officers after October 1, unless the city receives funding from the federal government.

Once again, Menino called on more unions to go along with a one-year wage freeze. So far, there have been agreements from 22 unions. Among the hold-outs are some of the largest unions, including the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the Boston Teachers Union.

“If the Boston Teachers Union accepts,” said Menino, “we can save every teacher and classroom aide in good standing.”

In a statement issued Wednesday by President Richard Stutman, the BTU came close to saying the jobs could be saved without a wage freeze.

“The Boston Teachers Union is actively working with our local, state, and federal officials to identify and generate additional federal stimulus money,” said the statement. “Beyond these efforts, we have been working with the school department to place current teachers into suitable alternate subject areas for the upcoming school year. In the end we believe there will be no need to lay off a single person.”

When the mayor announced his budget, he was counting on another $16 million for the schools from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

“We don’t see any additional money coming down from the recovery act,” he said.

A day later, Governor Deval Patrick said Boston’s Title I funding from ARRA would be $20.9 million-- about $4 million more than city officials projected a day earlier. But the chief communications officer for the Boston School Dept., Chris Horan, said there was also less money than expected from the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act. He said the net gain for Boston was only $2.4 million. And, with restrictions on how much of the ARRA money can be used for saving jobs, a spokesperson for the mayor said the difference would protect only about ten more positions.

The three candidates who have announced campaigns for mayor have all called for budget cuts in other areas. In a reaction to the mayor’s budget plan, City Councilor Michael Flaherty calls for more cuts in positions for managers and consultants, but makes no mention of the wage freeze. Councilor Sam Yoon has drawn attention to recommendations by the Boston Finance Commission, such as doing away with fire alarm boxes. And the day of the budget announcement, Kevin McCrea repeated in his campaign blog, “There is enough money in the budget to not layoff a single police officer or teacher.”

This year’s budget figure of $2.4 billion is higher than last year’s by $5 million, but the calculations also include a decrease in local aid by $62.2 million and contractual pay increases adding up to $55 million. While there are cuts in the School Dept. (1.9%), the Police Dept. (2.4%) and Fire Dept. (4.7%), the budget would avoid cutbacks in hours for libraries and community centers. There would even be an expansion of some school options, including early learning centers.

The budget is based on some expectation for new revenue that would have to be approved by the state legislature and the governor. The president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, says the expectation for local aid might even prove too optimistic, should the state budget gap approach the worst expectations of about $1 billion. But Tyler notes there could also be more money to protect jobs if the legislature makes it easier for the city to place city employees, along with retirees and their survivors, under less expensive health insurance.

Even if the mayor’s projections prove to be the most correct, the largest city unions holding off on a wage freeze have large majorities with enough seniority to know their jobs are safe. That could make the approval of a wage freeze a hard sell.

“This is probably the worst budget I’ve seen in all the years as mayor and city councilor,” said Menino.

“You don’t see any relief out there,” he said.

In 1981, two years before Menino won his first term as a city councilor, and right after adoption of a cap on property taxes—Proposition 2½—the budget decisions were more difficult and more divisive. Officials decided to lay off hundreds of police and firefighters and close schools. A few years later, as the economy recovered, Boston would get more revenue from its property tax base and local aid from the state.

A quarter of a century later, the local tax base has declining values for residential and commercial property. And, once federal recovery money is exhausted, the dependence on state funding will be more critical. The executive director of the Mass. Budget and Policy Center, Noah Berger, says the mix and volatility of state tax revenue have to be reconsidered, as well as the tax cuts that took place in more prosperous times.

“There are basic structural budget problems that need to be resolved,” he said. “I’m not sure whether the best time to do that is now, or when the economy recovers.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Public Funding Relieves Scarcity of Teen Jobs

Boston will spend almost $9 million this year on summer jobs for young people ages 14-24. The announcement about jobs funding took place today at the Mission Hill Main public housing development in Roxbury.

Helping to pay for the jobs over the next two years is more than $21million in funding for Massachusetts from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition to the stimulus money, the state’s providing almost $10 million from the YouthWorks program and public safety funds. Boston's level-funding its contribution to summer jobs this year at $4 million.

Mayor Thomas Menino says the funding will provide Boston with 5,000 jobs. To meet a goal of 10,000 jobs, the city hopes once again for additional support from the private sector.

City officials say they still need to find jobs for as many as 4,000 more teens. The city’s job registration period ended March 16.

“Eight thousand young people applied to the HOPE Line this year,” said Menino. “That’s why we need the private sector to step up to the plate.”

Menino says public funding for summer jobs is “favorable” compared to amounts in past years, and Governor Deval Patrick noted increases in summer job spending by the state since he was elected. But his Secretary of Labor & Workforce Development, Suzanne M. Bump, says the overall job market for teens across the country is at a 60-year low. She said teen employment was currently at 38%, and 21% in low-income communities.

Applicants and employers can get more information about the YouthWorks program by calling 1 866 968-8461 . Also: information about jobs for teens from low-income families provided by ABCD.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Retail Districts Try to Survive Recession

On Newbury Street in the Back Bay, even parking tickets are down.

As an enforcement officer puts it, “Everybody’s being smart.”

They might also notice the window signs offering steep discounts, by as much as 60%. Most of the shops and stores along the upscale retail artery are still open, but vacancies are on the rise. Flanked by the glow of survivors, the dark pockets of empty space are hard to miss. So are the rental signs, some of them fronting lit-up interiors with bare shelves.

An agent with the C. Talanian Realty Co., Tom Brennan, says it’s normal for Newbury Street to have more vacancies and turnovers at the end of winter, though he acknowledges, this year, the number is “more than usual.”

“We are in a recession now,” says Brennan. “There are a lot of businesses on Newbury Street that are marginal and not surviving.”

Some of the recent departures include a fashion boutique, Whim, and a home furnishing boutique, Comptoir de Famille, but also the more familiar national clothing chain, Gap.

The president of the Newbury Street League and owner of the G2O Spa & Salon, Joyce Hampers, agrees the vacancies reflect the season and the economy, though she recalls more vacancies during the last downturn, about six years ago.

“It’s probably more the fact that everything is down,” she said, “and the fact that Newbury Street is not able to escape it completely.”

Like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, another high-end retail district slowed by the economic downturn, Newbury Street relies heavily on the buying power of visitors. And, to judge by figures from Boston area hotels, visits are down, especially bookings for the most expensive rooms.

If the downturn on Newbury Street is largely global, the president of the Back Bay Association, Mainzer-Cohen, says it might be made worse by the run-up in the area’s commercial property values, resulting in higher rents for retail tenants.

“My guess is that there are going to be more closings,” she said, “and some landlords will have to rethink what they are charging people. And some already are.”

Mainzer-Cohen says the potential for recovery might also be hampered by the long-running conflict between retailers and preservationists. The Back Bay Architectural Commission is working on new design guidelines for the commercial area. Mainzer-Cohen wants them to allow more large windows and to require fewer embellishments such as planters. In other words: more display and less clutter (whether planters or sandwich signs on the sidewalk).

But Mainzer-Cohen says it might also be wrong to predict the summer on Newbury Street based on how it looks in March. So does the CEO of C. Talanian Realty, David Coughlin. He says some retailers report a pick-up in business in recent weeks, and he says there are “a lot of people looking” at possible rentals.

“We need to react to the tenant market,” he said. “We’re not going to sit on space that’s empty.”

Should there be an upswing anytime soon, and should there be less restriction on retail display, Newbury Street won’t necessarily be more like a suburban mall. That fear has been increased over recent years with the influx of national chain stores. But Coughlin says there will be fewer of those tenants surviving the downturn.

By comparison with Newbury Street and the stretch of Washington Street from Downtown Crossing to School Street, vacancies are more difficult to spot in Boston’s other retail centers, even in neighborhoods with high rates of housing foreclosure.

In Dorchester’s Codman Square, on Washington Street, retail vacancies are scarce. Further along the street, past Four Corners, there’s even some business growth. What began as a women’s clothing boutique, Mod Boston, has expanded with space for men’s clothing.

Mod Boston Manager Shantae Romain says most of the store's customers are from Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, with some from the suburbs. The store also does business online. If business is slow everywhere because of the economic slump, operators of Mod Boston can at least look forward to reasons for buying, whether it’s spring break, parties, or a job interview. They can also look forward to more traffic from a new commuter rail stop close by.

Located near another stop on the same commuter rail line is the clothing store, Final Touch With Class. Owner Danny Hardaway talks about expectations from the high volume of potential shoppers, whether from trains or from the four lanes of traffic along Morton Street.

Hardaway envisions a cluster of shops and other businesses, like in Greenwich Village. And his strategy is to divert more customers from malls by offering more services, even classes in etiquette. His schedule includes a hat show in April, but it will take more time before the adjacent site of a long vacant former police station is redeveloped as housing.

At Dudley Square, vacancies are hardly abundant, but some are noticeable. Like so many stores that mainly sold recorded music, Funky Fresh Records has closed, despite a last minute upsurge in community support.

Another fixture in Dudley Square, A Nubian Notion, has downsized, after vacating space that was used for a gift shop in the renovated Dartmouth Hotel building. While the renovation has been acclaimed for improving the look of Dudley Square, the retail tenants are faced with higher rents.

The director of the Dudley Square Main Streets program, Joyce Stanley, says there have been some other recent closings in retail district, though not necessarily because of the downturn. And she says there has also been some growth, especially in businesses run by Somali immigrants.

Dudley Square’s also scheduled for new development. Last September, the city invited designs for a new municipal office building on the site of the old Ferdinand’s Furniture complex. The project has raised hopes for new customers, and some apprehensions for current businesses. The project hinges on plans to build a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront—which, in turn, would entail redevelopment of the current site of City Hall in government Center.

In the meantime, according to Stanley, some businesses that survived earlier downturns in Dudley Square are adapting, even by reducing their product line. And she says their chances are better if they own their commercial property.

“All of the merchants are saying their business is down,” she said. “It’s really slow.”