(Sara Brown for Boston.com)
The candidates for Boston City Council at-large—the “magnificent seven,” as moderator Peter Nessen called them—addressed neighborhood issues like violence and schools and told voters their stances on casino gambling and development issues at a neighborhood forum.
Incumbents Felix Arroyo, John Connolly, Stephen Murphy and Ayanna Pressley and challengers William Dorcena, Mike Flaherty, and Sean Ryan, who will compete for four at-large City Council seats on November 8, seemed to agree that violence and school quality and availability are key issues facing Bostonians, though some councilors disagreed on hot-button issues like casino gambling and “neighborhood” schools.
The forum on neighborhood issues, a biannual event sponsored by 10 neighborhood organizations, including those representing Back Bay, West End, Beacon Hill, Fenway, North End and the South End, drew more than 100 people Monday to the Park Street school.
Nessen, a Beacon Hill resident who has served several roles in state government, lobbed questions at the councilors while wearing a green tie with polka dots. He asked the candidates for a “yes or no” answer about whether they support casino gambling in Massachusetts.
Arroyo, Flaherty, Murphy, and Ryan said they would support casinos, while Dorcena and Pressley said they would not. Connolly said the issue should be decided by a city referendum.
While the incumbents focused on their achievements while in office, the three challengers discussed on how they would change the city council. Dorcena, a Dorchester small business owner, said he wants to advocate for greater transparency in the city, including putting the city’s checkbook online, while Ryan, a Jamaica Plain teacher , said he wants to “elevate the discussion about what’s taking place in the schools,” and provide a neighborhood school option for everyone who wants one.
Flaherty, a former city councilor who left to run for mayor, said he would remove the “pay to play” culture in the city when it comes to development.
For most of the debate, candidates were limited to one-minute responses. In one round of questions, Nessen addressed an issue that specially impacts residents of Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and West End: creating public elementary schools in these neighborhoods, and re-establishing "neighborhood schools," where neighborhood children have first priority in attending nearby schools.
Nessen asked if the candidates would support allocating 75 percent of available student spots for students within the school's walking zone, an increase from the current level of 50 percent.
Pressley said that the first priority should be creating a “legitimate culture of opportunity and equity across our school system, in order that every family would believe there would be a good faith effort made for their child to receive a quality education."
While neighborhood schools may be the ultimate goal, she added, the achievement gap and other inequalities should be addressed.
Arroyo said he agreed with Pressley that neighborhood schools should be a goal, but it may not be easily or soon attained.
“It would be fairly difficult to go to a neighborhood school when you don’t have a school in your neighborhood,” he said, "And I don't think we're the moment now where we can move to a 75 percent, because what happens in those neighborhood without schools? Where do they fall on this list?"
Dorcena echoed Pressley’s concerns. “As of today, no, I would not support that," he said. "The reason a father or mother wakes up at 5 in the morning and puts their kid on a bus with no seat belts is because they do not want their child to go to that school down the street in Roxbury or in Dorchester."
He also called for a new superintendent, an elected school committee, and a new mayor that "invest in Boston Public Schools."
Flaherty said that when he was on the council, the city "squandered" an opportunity to put a school in Beacon Hill. He said the city should start moving toward increasing the number of neighborhood schools, while "recognizing that we don't have enough quality schools, we are losing families....I think 75/25 would be a fair and appropriate start."
"I think 75/25 would be much more adequate and reasonable than what we have today," Murphy said. "Because we're busing kids all over the city, we have a lack of parental involvement....we have community policing, we have community center, we have community libraries. We don't have school and community tied as well."
Ryan, who said he wants to be “the neighborhood schools candidate,” and he would support the proposal because it would provide stability to the school system and prevent residents from sending their children outside the district.
Connolly said achieving the 75 percent goal, which he supports, could come soon but would require a consensus among neighborhoods, regarding how to manage student numbers.
Candidates also addressed what they think are the biggest issues facing Boston today, namely schools, safety, crime, bullying and youth violence. Murphy said the city needs to work on shifting services to the downtown neighborhoods, which have seen a recent population increase.
Several rounds of question focused on issues surrounding development, like a bill that would prevent new development from placing new shadows on public parks like Copley Square and the Back Bay Fens and the payment in lieu of taxes program in place for non-profits.
Five of the seven candidates--Arroyo, Dorcena, Flaherty, Murphy and Pressley, said they would support the bill preventing new shadows, despite some concerns about giving control to the state and remaining flexible when it comes to development, and joked about being lobbied by one of the bill's sponsors, State Rep. Marty Walz, who was at the debate.
"I'm open to it but I am concerned," said Connolly, adding that he's not a "blanket yes" on the issue. "My concern would be that it would hamper appropriate development in some cases, and I don't want to do that, especially not in this economy."
Ryan said he would prefer that the city "completely scrap some of the archaic zoning rules we have, and have a community process so that e can get rules that everyone agrees on."
While the candidates said they support the presence of non-profits in the city, several criticized the payment in lieu of taxes program and said some organizations, like local schools need to be better neighbors.
Ryan, who said he is more conservative than the other candidates, said academic institutions are likely to be hampered by rising student debt, and they are not likely to be expanding over the next few years.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority was also subject to criticism, with most of the candidates arguing that the authority should be reformed or replaced by a stand-alone planning department.
After the forum, Back Bay resident Mary Clayton-Crozier praised the candidate field. "it's nice to see people who are well-informed," she said.
While Clayton-Crozier declined to say who she would vote for, she said Dorcena made a good impression on her, and the candidates were all qualified."
"It's going to be very difficult to make a decision," she said.