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Menino sings a tired old tune

YOU NEVER quite know what you're going to find when you head to City Hall.

Yesterday it was a not-so-wily mayor who got tangled in his own political ruse.

I'd come to talk to Menino about a challenge from Maura Hennigan, the veteran city councilor running against him this year: How about six campaign debates?

Hennigan wants one on education, a second on housing, another on public safety, a fourth on jobs and economic development, a fifth on basic city services, and a final encounter to recap all issues.

''I think after 12 years in office, if he wants to serve more, he owes that to his constituents," Hennigan told me.

Yes, he does. And certainly it would be refreshing to see a mayor confident enough to subject himself to some competitive cross-examination. But that wouldn't be the Thomas Michael Menino we've all come to know.

Indeed, there's something both insipid and insulting about the way Menino & Co. reacts to a political challenge. Mayoral aides take refuge in robotic statements that evade the issue in favor of silly assertions about how incredibly busy the mayor is.

Which is why I went to City Hall to put the question to Menino himself.

To his credit, the mayor was willing to talk for a few minutes after a morning dog-and-pony show.

To his detriment, all he had to offer was the same tired trumpery.

When the field is finalized, he will deign to discuss the possibility of debates, His Mayoral Highness allowed.

But right now, ''I'm dealing with substantive issues," Menino claimed.

So why was it that, just moments before, people had been wishing Menino a nice trip?

Turns out the mayor was headed out of town yesterday. To Istanbul. To address the International Council of Shopping Centers.

His tireless cultivation of that body helped bring Target to Boston, claims spokesman Seth Gitell.

Ah, the sweet sound of substance. Or is it substance abuse? Rhetorically speaking, that is.

Did I mention that that trade group will be paying for Menino's airfare and three nights' hotel? And that the mayor will slip in a few days of vacation before returning on Sunday?

Menino hardly ever takes any time off, Gitell insisted when pressed about the trip.

Which is odd, because it sticks in my mind that when I went to Venice and Padua in the fall of 2003, the mayor had either just been to, or was just returning from, both places. And Rome, too, according to the clips. That trip, like this one, was mostly on someone else's dime.

Now, the mayor deserves some R&R, just like everybody else. (Of course, it would also behoove him to pay for his own travel, just like everybody else.)

The point is, it's silly to pretend he's too consumed with city business to discuss the campaign. Granted, Hennigan is a long shot starting a steep uphill slog as she tries to upset an entrenched incumbent. Still, she's a dedicated public servant, one who deserves the opportunity to debate Menino head to head.

Instead, it looks like the mayor plans to subject us to another dreary episode of political hide-and-seek, a la 2001, when he did everything he could, save join the witness protection program, to avoid debating Peggy Davis-Mullen before finally conceding to one scant half-hour encounter.

Isn't that disrespectful to voters?

Caution: This mayor is nothing if not a black belt at rhetorical jujitsu. Saying he regularly discusses city issues with taxpayers at neighborhood meetings, Menino retorted: ''You don't respect the taxpayers of Boston. You don't consider that discussion of the issues a debate."

No, as a Boston resident, I must confess, I don't.

After all, Tom Menino is a man who once told us he wanted only two terms. Now he's seeking his fourth four-year stint in City Hall while trying to avoid the sort of scrutiny any incumbent of almost 12 years' duration should undergo.

So let's see if we can change that tinny no-time tune. If you want a lively mayoral campaign rather than a repeat of 2001, call the mayor's office (617-635-4500) and deliver this message: If Tom Menino wants to be considered for your vote this fall, he'll have to show voters the respect they're due by participating in a series of debates about the city's future.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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