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In debate, foes blast Menino’s tight grip

Opponents say it’s time for new ideas

By Michael Levenson and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / September 11, 2009

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s famously firm grip on Boston came under withering and sustained assault during the final mayoral debate before the Sept. 22 primary last night, as his opponents blamed the mayor’s concentration of power for lingering problems in the schools, uneven development, and even their own inability to get things done on the City Council.

In an hourlong debate that was at once hard-hitting but cordial, it became clear that there was only one overriding issue in the race: Menino and his tight control over the city he has governed for 16 years. Even in areas where there was little disagreement, the mayor’s opponents repeatedly assailed him for what they called a sense of inertia, which they said flows from having one man in charge too long.

“There is a problem, Mr. Mayor,’’ said Councilor Sam Yoon. “And I think this comes down to a system that allows a single person to win reelection after reelection and control all the power and information and resources, and that system has to change.’’

Menino deflected the attacks on his power by pointing to successes he said he has achieved during his four-term tenure, including the lowest crime rate in decades and a sterling bond rating from Wall Street he said was proof of his good budget management. If his record weren’t so good, he said, he would not still be mayor.

“I have term limits every four years,’’ Menino said at one point. “I face the voters of Boston. They’re the ones I rely on, the people in the neighborhoods. I ask them every four years: Do I deserve reelection?’’

In the debate, which was sponsored by WFXT (Fox 25) and The Boston Herald, Menino, Yoon, Councilor Michael F. Flaherty Jr., and South End developer Kevin McCrea jousted over issues such as the chronic lack of parking in Boston, the FBI’s recommendation that more Boston police officers be armed with assault rifles to prevent a terrorist attack, and even the mayor’s sometimes tortured speaking style.

But time and again, they returned to the mayor’s strong style of governing, asserting that little will change over the next four years without a new mayor armed with new ideas for the city. “What you’re hearing from us - and I think what we’re hearing as we go out and campaign - is a sense of urgency, not that we can rest on our laurels, but we have work to do,’’ Yoon said.

The candidates clashed again over the quality of Boston schools, with Flaherty saying, “Nothing bothers me more than another young family leaving the city for an education.’’

Menino responded by saying that the drop-out rate had decreased since he took office and that the number of families applying to send their children to city schools this year is up 10 percent from last year.

McCrea did not focus his fire on Menino; he also blamed Yoon and Flaherty for the city’s woes.

When debate moderator Maria Stephanos asked the councilors what they had done to cut costs at City Hall, Flaherty cited his vote against the budget this year.

“Flaherty says he voted against the budget this year - after he voted for it the last nine years in a row as it went up and up and up and up and up,’’ McCrea said. “Now, he votes against it and says it’s because we haven’t squeezed the waste out of it?’’

Flaherty responded that this year’s budget was a “completely different budget’’ because it brought “real pain’’ to the city by closing schools and laying off city workers. Flaherty also said that as mayor, he would shun what he called “overpaid consultants’’ and review City Hall spending “department by department, line item by line item.’’

The issue of Menino’s power flared during this exchange, too, as Yoon said he had been repeatedly stymied in his attempt to cut waste because Menino doles out favors only to councilors who follow his orders.

“And when the mayor says I want you to deliver a budget to me or else I’m going to turn the spigot off on constituent services, it forces the whole budget process to be a dog and pony show,’’ he said.

Later, he repeated the allegation, saying, “It’s all an insiders’ game.’’

Menino rejected the suggestion. “Let me just tell you, the council has power over the budget, they can cut it,’’ he said.

He reached back to his own experience as a councilor standing up to then-mayor Raymond L. Flynn over a proposed cut in library funding.

“I said ‘dead on arrival’ - the mayor had to resubmit it,’’ Menino said. “That hasn’t happened [during my administration].’’

There wasn’t much debate on a few issues, though. All the candidates agreed that Boston firefighters should be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol to ensure public safety.

Flaherty and Yoon, though, blamed the mayor for not obtaining the testing concession from the city’s firefighters union in any of the three contracts negotiated since Menino became mayor.

Menino said he has tried and even filed a bill at the State House that would mandate testing of firefighters statewide, but has so far been unsuccessful. He said firefighters want too much in exchange for agreeing to testing.

All the candidates said they had taken the T recently - even the mayor, who has a city car and driver at his disposal 24 hours a day - and they all considered it part of the mayor’s role to help improve it, even though it is run by a state transportation authority.

McCrea, who said he rode the T two weeks ago to pay his last respects to Edward M. Kennedy, said that if he were elected, he would borrow the best ideas from transit systems in other cities around the world, and perhaps their executives, too.

“I’d hire the head of the Tokyo transit system,’’ he said, adding that he would lure him with the promise that Daisuke Matsuzaka would be pitching for the Red Sox in a World Series.

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