Scot Lehigh

For Menino, no risks; for city, no gains

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / April 23, 2008

WHO SAYS Bostonians are hard to please?

Mayor Tom Menino just received a report card that certainly suggests otherwise: a new Boston Globe poll showing that 72 percent of city dwellers approve of the job he's doing.

Those polling numbers attest to Menino's skill as a politician. But for my money, they also reflect the cautious incrementalism that has characterized his long years in office. Simply put, a bold leader making tough but necessary decisions wouldn't prove so popular after almost 15 years at the helm.

Granted, this mayor does some things well. The trash gets picked up, the parks are reasonably clean and maintained, and the streets are plowed and swept - though towing cars on street-sweeping days strikes me as excessive.

And yet, in other areas, the mayor has seemed content to forgo important reforms, promising action only when the media or events have focused public attention on the need to do more.

Take the problems at the Boston Fire Department.

In January, the Globe reported that between 2005 and 2007, almost 75 percent of Fire Department retirements were due to disabilities from injuries, a status that lets those retirees collect their pensions tax-free; that during the last six years, more than 100 Boston firefighters have claimed career-ending injuries while filling in at higher-paid positions, thereby upping their pensions by over $10,000 a year on average; and that about 200 members of the 1,600-member department were out on injured leave in a typical week in 2007, costing the city millions in overtime to fill the vacant positions.

Federal authorities have now launched an investigation of some of those disability claims.

But let's be clear: Serious concerns about the department have been around for years. For example, a Globe series in February of 1999 reported that despite a marked decrease in fires, "the city is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of firefighters claiming they were hurt on the job" and had an injury rate far higher than did comparable cities.

Responding to that series, the mayor vowed to overhaul the management of the department.

Does anyone think he's succeeded?

Yes, it's true that the Boston Firefighters union is stubbornly resistant to change. It's sad but predictable that even after autopsies following last August's tragic on-duty deaths of two firefighters showed that one was legally intoxicated and the other had traces of cocaine in his system, the union reportedly wants extra pay for agreeing to drug and alcohol testing. But notwithstanding that myopic mindset, the buck ultimately stops with the mayor, whose job it is to make sure the department is well-managed - and Menino simply hasn't done that.

Nor has the mayor done enough to ensure the range of education options this city needs. A mayor who valued results and choice for Boston families over political tranquility would have advocated more charter schools.

At the very least, he'd have pushed regularly and forcefully for more pilot schools, the city's answer to charters.

However, in the face of union resistance, the popular pilot reform has been allowed to stall. Now, more than two years after the Boston Teachers Union's concerns were addressed and the BTU agreed to the altogether modest goal of seven new pilots, none that weren't previously in the pipeline have been opened - or, indeed, even approved.

"Given that there's no disagreement that pilot schools are delivering superior performance, we are extremely disappointed that there aren't more of them," says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which has done its best to keep the pilot experiment alive.

Then there are the cost savings that haven't been pursued. One promising approach would have private vendors and city departments compete for the right to deliver city services. Despite a persuasive November 2004 report by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau on the successes other cities have seen using competitive service delivery, Menino hasn't shown much interest.

A mayor who had tackled these issues head on wouldn't have a job-approval rating of 72 percent, of course.

But he would be far more persuasive as a change agent - and much more deserving of consideration for another term.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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