Five of the six declared mayoral candidates gathered on Zoom on Tuesday evening for a Candidates Forum that drew an estimated 500 participants.
The forum was hosted by the Boston Ward 4 and Ward 5 Democratic Committees. and candidates John Barros, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, Jon Santiago, and Michelle Wu answered questions from moderator Callie Crossley, host of Under the Radar and Basic Black on GBH.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey has announced that she will join the mayoral race, but she did not attend this forum.
The forum covered several topics of concern throughout the city, including the Boston Police Department (BPD), affordable housing, climate change, Boston Public Schools, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), and COVID response.
Police was one of the first topics discussed, given that the Derek Chauvin verdict was read in court on Tuesday evening, where he was found guilty on all charges in the death of George Floyd. Crossley asked the candidates if they would make any cuts to the BPD, and if so, how much, and where the money would be reallocated.
“I have put forward a proposal to ensure that we are making structural changes to the department and the budget,” Wu said. She said that police do not belong in the Boston Public Schools, and investments need to be made in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Barros said that as mayor, he would create a new public agency that would respond to calls related to substance abuse and mental health, rather than having police respond first. He said that money from the police budget should be reallocated to this agency and the “trained professionals” that would work for it, as well as to community organizations.
Santiago said that there needs to be a “reduction in the demand of police services,” and money should be reallocated towards public health issues, as well as to create space for community policing so that the appropriate individuals can respond to 911 calls.
“I voted against the budget because it didn’t allocate enough,” said Campbell, speaking of last year’s city budget. She said that $50 million in cuts to the BPD budget should be reallocated “to the root causes of violence,” including mental health issues and helping people out of poverty.
“I do believe we have to get to the root cause,” Essaibi George said, but “I do not support defunding the police.” She said that investments need to be made in community programs but she also believes that more police officers are needed.
Crossley then asked candidates if they believe the BPDA should be eliminated. Many candidates said they believe that there should be a planning agency and a development agency, but they should not be one entity.
Campbell said that she has heard from her constituents as a city councilor that the BPDA has caused many issues for residents in terms of process. “At different moments, the process is rigged,” she said, and at the “end of the day, the project goes through. We need to reform the system and the culture within it.”
Barros said that he does not want to get rid of the agency, as it “would cause more lack of transparency.” Instead, he said the BPDA needs to “increase planning staff and resources,” and “needs to take planning seriously.”
Essaibi George said she supports creating a “separate office of planning” that would help “prioritize the needs and wants” of Bostonians.
Wu also said she supports a separate planning agency, and called for “big changes” to address the issues within the current agency, including an updated zoning code.
Santiago said that he also seeks to reform the BPDA, and wants all residents to be more engaged in the planning and development processes. He said that things like transit-oriented development and “modernizing” the Article 80 process are important, and he agreed that an update to the zoning code is needed.
Affordable housing is one of the biggest issues in neighborhoods across the city, and all candidates said they believe that more needs to be done in this area. Wu said that more resources should be put into affordable housing, especially climate resilient housing. Santiago said he wants to “leverage our AAA bond rating” to allow for more affordable housing to be built. Essaibi George said that “better paths to home ownership” is something she would strive for, as well as “break down systemic racism that we see in our housing market.” Campbell said that helping people out of public housing and into homes they own is a goal of hers, and Barros said that he believes “affordable housing is critical” and that housing is a human right, so he said that as mayor, he would also work to ensure that Boston residents are not displaced or evicted from their homes.
When it comes to schools, Crossley asked candidates if they believe the school committee should be appointed, elected, or a hybrid of the two.
Essaibi George, a former BPS high school teacher, said she is a “true believer in an appointed school committee,” adding that she doesn’t “want to involve politics.” She said there should be a nomination process, and the appointments should be made in a transparent manner by the mayor’s office and the City Council and include representation from parents.
Santiago said that he is “committed to changing things up and seeing what we can do,” adding that he would support a hybrid model that would work with the City Council and the Mayor’s Office.
Campbell said she believes a hybrid model would work best, though she does not have a specific one in mind. She said that the fully appointed committee is not the answer.
Wu said that a majority elected committee would be her answer, though some seats should remain by appointment only for things like expertise and racial and geographic inclusivity.
Barros believes that appointment is the way to start out. “I agree that we should not bring more politics onto that body,” he said, adding that it “should not be something that is fully elected for sure.”
The candidates also discussed what grade they would give Governor Charlie Baker for his COVID response. Wu gave him a C-, Santiago gave him a C+, Barros gave him a B-, Campbell gave him a C+, and Essaibi George gave him a B-.
“We’ve seen too many of our communities miss out on the testing, vaccine opportunities, economic opportunities,” Essaibi George said.
Barros said that information related to COVID-19 should be “immediately” available to the public in different languages, and he said that state resources should been allocated “disproportionately” to areas where people were disproportionately affected by the virus.
The candidates were then asked a series of yes or no questions on topics ranging from voting to BPD to safe consumption sites.
On removing police from the Boston Public Schools, every candidate except Essaibi George said “yes.”
When asked whether there should be a “hard cap on overtime” for police officers, Barros said “yes, “at 30 percent of an officer’s salary; Campbell said “yes,” but wasn’t sure what percentage; Essaibi George said, “not at this time”; Santiago said “no”; and Wu said “yes,” but didn’t provide a total.
When the candidates were asked if they would implement a rent control ordinance should the state lift the ban, Barros said “no”; Campbell said “yes,” but a conversation would need to be had with small landlords; Essaibi George said “no’: Wu said “yes’: and Santiago said “no.”
On whether or not the city should have safe-consumption sites, Wu said “yes, but the siting decision is important”; Essaibi George said “no’; Santiago said “yes “but it’s important how we think about these…sites”; and Barros said “yes,” but only as a way to continue helping folks recover from substance abuse.
For the complete range of questions asked and the candidates’ answers, the full video of the forum is up on the Ward 4 and 5 Democratic Committee’s Facebook pages.