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Menino’s foes fire away in debate

Three attack mayor on nearly all fronts

With Jon Keller (center) of WBZ-TV moderating, City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty, businessman Kevin McCrea, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and City Councilor Sam Yoon squared off in their first debate last night. With Jon Keller (center) of WBZ-TV moderating, City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty, businessman Kevin McCrea, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and City Councilor Sam Yoon squared off in their first debate last night. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Donovan Slack and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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The three challengers seeking to unseat Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston took turns attacking his record on education, development, and public safety last night in the first debate of this year’s mayoral contest, saying city schools are failing, tax breaks are unfairly being doled out to developers, and too many young people are dying violently in city streets.

Perhaps the most pointed volleys in the fast-moving, freewheeling debate focused on fairness and accountability at City Hall.

South End businessman Kevin McCrea called City Hall “corrupt,’’ accusing Menino of giving away multimillion-dollar tax breaks to the rich and valuable land to connected insiders. Councilor Michael F. Flaherty asserted that getting permits at City Hall hinged on whom you know. And Councilor Sam Yoon called for an overhaul of Boston’s strong-mayor form of government that has placed so much power in Menino’s hands.

Menino, who is often easily flustered and angered when challenged, maintained his composure throughout, brushing away each barb with pronouncements about sweeping initiatives and awards and statistics that he said show the city is better off today than when he took office. The mayor celebrated neighborhood crime-watch groups, green-job training, and affordable housing programs, and he outright denied allegations of corruption or favoritism.

“That’s nonsense,’’ Menino said at one point. “You know that, and my record shows it.’’

The televised debate, the first of three expected before the general election in November, was moderated by WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller. Much of the broadcast was dominated by rapid-fire answers, responses, and spirited debate among the four candidates, who together logged more than 60 statements during the hourlong broadcast.

One City Hall watchdog, Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, likened the event to a shotgun blast, saying it was “all over the place.’’

The candidates did address some significant issues, if only in short blurbs.

All three challengers lambasted Menino for his approach to development and called for the elimination of the city’s semiautonomous planning and development agency, the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Yoon said the agency, at the mayor’s behest, executes million-dollar deals with favored developers behind closed doors.

McCrea, waving a property deed, recounted a deal in which he said the mayor signed off on the sale of a piece of land in West Roxbury to a BRA employee. The land was assessed at $95,000 but sold to the employee in June for $5,000, he said.

“This is the type of corruption’’ I’m talking about, McCrea snapped. “We need to stop the giveaways.’’

The mayor said the sale was part of a routine program that allows city homeowners to buy lots next to property they already own.

“We have that program in the city of Boston,’’ Menino said. “Land next to a person’s home - we don’t want to maintain that land, so we sell it to the person next door. We went to our legal counsel. We checked it out. So your charges are out of balance.’’

Yoon said problems with the BRA show why new leadership is essential.

“A lot of people out there may be saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ ’’ he said. “That may be the question for you this election. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s broke, and we need to fix it. We don’t just need a new mayor, but a new mayor who’s going to change the system.’’

All said they support lifting the cap on charter schools, except for McCrea, who blasted the idea.

“Charter schools are the latest buzzword for these politicians to pretend they care about what goes on in the Boston public schools,’’ McCrea said, adding that he supports other changes, such as longer school days.

Yoon raised the idea of directly electing the Boston School Committee, suggesting that that would help reinvigorate public involvement in the school system.

“There is no excuse why we don’t have a world-class system of public education in our city, and 16 years of a mayorally controlled School Committee, I think, is one of the first things that has to be reexamined and changed,’’ Yoon said.

Menino, who has long expressed deep reservations about charter schools, defended his shift on the issue. In June, he said he would file state legislation that would allow the city to bypass union approval and transform low-performing schools into “in-district’’ charter schools controlled by the School Committee.

“We don’t need more schools, we need better schools,’’ Menino said. “I was never against charter schools. I was against the issue of financing charter schools, because they get more money for their students than I do for the Boston public schools.’’

Flaherty bluntly criticized the mayor’s plan, saying it would rob charter schools of the autonomy that is key to their success.

“We have too many chronically underperforming schools in our city,’’ Flaherty said, adding that the lack of good schools has caused many families to flee. “The problem with the in-district charter is we’re going to be handing over charters that actually have success rates and turn them over to the Boston public schools, which is a major mistake.’’

The candidates also clashed over Menino’s support for keeping paid police details on busy city streets instead of civilian flaggers. McCrea was the only candidate to come out strongly against police details, saying that the work unnecessarily taxes officers and could provide much-needed jobs for city residents.

“I’m for eliminating police details so that we can have policemen fighting crime in this city,’’ he said.

Menino defended details, saying the officers help solve crimes and manage traffic.

“Just imagine having flaggers on Massachusetts Avenue, as you’re doing construction,’’ Menino said. “Who’s going to get the cars towed? Who’s going to move the traffic? On side streets, yes, we can have flagmen, but on main thoroughfares, it’s about moving traffic and fighting crime and having more officers on the streets.’’

Flaherty agreed.

“If it wasn’t for paid details, some neighborhoods wouldn’t see a police officer at all,’’ Flaherty said.

Yoon did not state his position outright, but said such decisions need to be based on data.

“The justification for police details always turns on anecdotes,’’ Yoon said. “I’m looking for a study. This is the problem with our system of government. We don’t have a performance-based management culture, a performance-based management system that allows decision-makers to make decisions based on real hard data and evidence.’’

Although there was no studio audience, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the television studio along Soldiers Field Road, cheering for candidates and waving at passing cars. Most wore union emblems.

Last night’s debate will be rebroadcast tomorrow at 8 p.m. on TV 38. The candidates are scheduled to face off again Sept. 10 on WFXT (Fox 25). That will be the last debate before the Sept. 22 preliminary election, which will narrow the field to two candidates. The finalists will go head to head in an Oct. 19 debate sponsored by the Globe, New England Cable News, WGBH-TV (Channel 2), and WBUR (90.9 FM). The general election is scheduled for Nov. 3.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com, Michael Levenson at mlevenson.com

Thomas M. Menino

The mayor maintained his composure, brushing away each barb.

Sam Yoon

Said problems with the BRA show why new leadership is essential.

Michael F. Flaherty

Said getting permits at City Hall hinges on whom you know.

Kevin McCrea

Said Menino has given multimillion-dollar tax breaks to the rich.