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Menino regains ground

MAYOR MENINO made a respectable effort last night to convince voters that his reelection would be in their best long-term interest during a one-hour joint appearance on WBZ radio with his dogged challenger, Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan. Though frequently under attack, Menino provided a measured account of his administration's accomplishments while Hennigan slashed away, at times indiscriminately.

In the sharpest exchange of the night, Hennigan charged that Menino had failed to establish public safety priorities for the city. She accused the three-term mayor of assigning more police for his own protection during a major speech than were available for crowd control last October when 21-year-old Victoria Snelgrove was accidentally killed by a projectile fired by police during a rowdy celebration after the Red Sox American League championship. Menino not only denied the charge but scolded Hennigan for trying to use the Snelgrove tragedy for political gain.

''I'm horrified by that," said Menino, who succeeded at making Hennigan, who has served on the council since 1981, appear that she would respect no limits in her quest for higher office.

As she did in a televised town hall forum two weeks ago, Hennigan repeatedly portrayed Menino as past his political prime and unable to deal effectively with rising property taxes, declining quality in city services, and an uptick in unsolved homicides.

''He has failed the people of this city," she said. But Hennigan proved more effective at probing Menino's weaknesses than promoting her own innovations.

Menino made capital of Hennigan's controversial call to return to an elected school committee by reminding listeners of the ''political shenanigans" that plagued the board for decades. School Superintendent Thomas Payzant has cited the mayor-appointed school board as a key element in establishing a coherent educational agenda across the city. The candidates clashed over who has done more to advance the cause of innovative pilot schools. Listeners would have benefited more from a discussion of the qualities and experiences needed in a new superintendent when Payzant retires in June.

Menino tried to present himself as a ''tough bargainer" capable of holding down costs of union salaries and benefits. But raises for city employees are easily outstripping those in the private sector, a concern for residents who are seeing a steady rise in property taxes. Hennigan, however, proudly placed herself on the picket line with teachers rather than offering effective ways to reduce city costs. Menino, a reluctant debater, has refused to engage Hennigan further in debate. That's a loss for voters who deserve a deeper exploration of the issues.

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