Two weeks before the Sept. 24 preliminary municipal election, the five District 8 city council hopefuls squared off at a candidates forum to discuss some of the most pressing issues now facing the city and district, including development and affordable housing, changing transportation needs, the future of Boston Public Schools, and the opioid scourge, on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at Suffolk Law School.
Candidates on hand at the forum, which was jointly sponsored by the Beacon Hill Civic Association, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the West End Civic Association, included Kenzie Bok, an affordable housing advocate, community leader and the former chair of the Boston Ward 5 Democratic Committee; Montez Haywood, a longtime prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office; Kristen Mobilia, a community leader and advocate; Jennifer Nassour, an attorney and chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party from 2009 to 2011; and Hélène Vincent, a social and environmental justice activist and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. John Nucci, Suffolk University’s vice president of external affairs, served as the event moderator.
In response to how she could be an effective city councilor when faced with a strong mayoral charter, Nassour replied, “I’ve known the mayor for almost 30 years and during that time we’ve agreed to disagree a lot, but also learned how to negotiate.”
Vincent, meanwhile, cited the City Council’s “perceived lack of power” as her main impetus for running for office.
“I’m running because of the lack of trust between people and the government…and our job as city councilors is to bring that power back to the people,” she said.
While working for City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George during her first term, Bok said she dissected the city’s budget and analyzed it in great detail – an initiative that underscores the importance of the City Council, which was soon adopted by other councilors.
“It’s about how the City Council perceives its role, and I think there’s huge scope for change there,” Bok said while adding that the seeming constraints that the City Council face are often nothing more than a “paper wall.”
Haywood said he would seek to build a coalition with other city councilors to “address and negotiate” with the mayor.
Mobilia described “civic engagement” as the most useful tool at a city councilor’s disposal and said she would also do her part to bolster existing neighborhood organizations while working to create new ones.
When asked how she would tackle transportation-related issues now facing the city, including the installation of bike lanes; scooters and other dock-less vehicles being regularly abandoned on city streets; and navigation apps like Waze directing drivers to take quiet, residential streets, Vincent said she would foremost implement a “holistic system of bike paths, including downtown, to get people off the sidewalks.”
Vincent also pointed to the need for legislation to better regulate dock-less bikes and scooters, as well as to discourage navigation apps from directing drivers down some residential streets during certain hours.
Bok, on the other hand, suggested upgrading MBTA service as the best immediate fix for the transportation problem.
“We can’t keep adding people and cars to the city – it’s impossible,” Bok said. “We need to invest in the T.”
Also, Bok suggested changing the direction on some streets as a way to keep navigation apps from steering drivers down some residential streets.
Haywood encouraged those in attendance who see scooters and other dock-less vehicles left unattended to call 3-1-1 while emphasizing the need for legislation to better regulate them.
With so many different modes of transportation now sharing city streets, Mobilia said it’s imperative that everyone learn the “rules of the road.”
“Whether you’re a driver, a biker or a pedestrian, we need to slow things down in the city,” Mobilia added.
Regarding the current absence of a public elemenary school in the district, Bok suggested that Boston Public Schools could seek out empty classroom space for such educational purposes, rather than pursing a “footprint” that would houses all classes under one roof. This piecemeal approach would help demonstrate the need for a new school prior to building a new school, she said.
Haywood echoed this sentiment, suggesting the Winchell School at 26 Blossom St., the tenement house at 25 North Anderson St. and the West End House at 16-18 Blossom St. – three historic West End buildings owned by Massachusetts General Hospital that are now in danger of being razed to accommodate the expansion of the planned expansion of its main campus – could easily accommodate classroom space for a neighborhood elementary school.
Haywood added that while he believes that BPS exam schools “should stay in place,” children who don’t have the same educational “head start” as others should also be afforded the same opportunities to achieve.
Similarly, Mobilia said, “Exam schools don’t mirror the current [BPS] population….and we want to make sure every child has the opportunity to take [these admittance tests].”
And like their children, Mobilia added that BPS parents also needed to be educated, and that parents need more of a voice in the School Committee.
As the only candidate who is also a parent, Nassour lamented that none of her three children could attend public school in the district.
“I would take the budget apart to make sure the money is all spent on children, not the adults,” Nassour said, adding that she would leave the state of BPS exam schools as is.
Vincent said she would advocate for equity of all BPS students. “I would fight for all neighborhood schools because I care about every child in this city,” she added.
While considering the city’s current opioid epidemic, Haywood said Boston should follow the example of Toronto, Vancouver and other Canadian cities that have adopted safe injection sites where addicts can consume drugs under the watchful eye of a healthcare professional.
“We need to attack this problem in a medical way,” Haywood said. “We need doctors, not police officers.”
Like Haywood previously stated, Nassour advocated for reopening the bridge to the Long Island shelter – the homeless shelter and substance abuse treatment center in Boston Harbor that Mayor Martin Walsh abruptly closed five years ago – as an immediate first step in addressing the city’s opioid problem.
Nassour also emphasized the importance of providing treatment for family members of addicted individuals as well.
Considering the future of development, Mobilia called for an immediate reform of the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
“I’m not against development, but we’re not going in the right direction now – it’s not democratic,” Mobilia said. “We need to make sure affordable housing stays in the neighborhoods where the development is happening.”
As for Vincent, she expressed concern that irresponsible or short-sighted development could lead to Boston becoming “a collection of streets, not a community.”
Said Vincent: “The problem is worse than we think.”
Meanwhile, Haywood said the process needs to change whereby a developer proves the merit of their project in the eyes of the city and neighborhood residents before ground is broken.
“[A would-be developer] would have to prove a compelling need to the city and the people in the neighborhood…and look closely at the nature and character of where the building would be [situated],” Haywood said.