Commentary: Candidates' direct answers to queries can carry the day

Bill Forry, the editor and publisher of our Dorchester Reporter, posed the following question to readers regarding the mayoral campaign: “What do you want to know from this current crop of candidates?”

I have a few things I’d like to know.

One of the lessons I learned as a 2013 candidate for mayor was that written policy statements didn’t matter that much to voters, but questions asked at forums, requiring answers from the candidates, really mattered. It was responses to questions at forums that resulted in the 2013 winner, Marty Walsh, being pushed to achieve his promise to provide a K-1 seat for every Boston four-year-old.

Though many K-1 seats were created, Walsh took a lot of heat from the Globe this past February in a prominent article titled, “Eight years after Walsh’s promises, Boston prekindergarten is still not universal.”

Boston has what is called a “strong mayor” form of government, meaning that nearly every major decision is made by the mayor or his/her designee. Our last four mayors averaged 13 years per administration, so what a mayoral candidate commits to can be of great importance should s/he win. As we’re about to get a new full-term mayor, we should be asking lots of questions that will commit the winning candidate to his or her campaign promises. And those asking the questions need to firmly pin down the candidates on what they are promising to do.

Unfortunately, our mayors are chosen by a limited number of voters. In our last two mayoral elections, we have averaged only 22.5 percent turnout of registered voters in preliminary elections, and 33.5 percent in general (final) elections. This extremely low turnout means that the voters who decide who is mayor are more likely those with vested interests, such as city employees and homeowners.

It’s past time to reverse this drought of voter interest. Why?

The City of Boston has never been richer. Our budget has soared from $2.6 billion to $3.6 billion over the past eight years, and we now have more than $400 million in reserves. New construction has been the source of this dramatic increase in tax revenue, though it appears that new building projects are lessening. On the other hand, dollars from the federal government to help us weather the pandemic will result in nearly a billion dollars being sent to the mayor’s office over the next 2-to-3 years.

Boston faces many challenges. We’re a seacoast city that will suffer tremendously from global warming, so our coastline needs to be protected. Many of our schools are in terrible disrepair, and, if we’re serious about having a first-class educational system, we need to invest heavily to ensure that all children have access to K-0 and K-1 seats, in addition to affirming support systems for those in upper grades.

Though some city parks have been upgraded, many are badly designed and in poor shape. Additionally, we have lost tree canopy over the past 12 years. We also know that our fire department is overstaffed, and that our police department is inappropriately staffed and dealing with overtime corruption.

Add to this outlay public transit, fixing our roads for both cars and bikes, public health preparation for the next pandemic, and basic management of city services, and you can see that more of us should be choosing our next mayor based on something other than likeability.

Although I have been monitoring the various candidate forums, I have not heard many questions on the following topics, so here are ten of my questions for our six mayoral candidates:

1) Will you support an audit of the city budget, with an analysis of best practices by American cities to determine how Boston does regarding managing our resources, and how successfully our departments perform their work?

2) How will the budgets of major departments change, if at all, if you’re elected?

3) Will you support changes in hiring of police officers (i.e., civil service rules) that will allow for hiring of non-veterans ahead of veterans as police officers if that is what is needed? Do you envision a police department that has different positions for different problem areas, such as human service workers rather than former soldiers for incidents that are more about behavioral health? What is your plan to crack down on police overtime corruption?

4) Will you support a change in the city charter to move all municipal elections to even-numbered years, which will have the effect of doubling the turnout in municipal elections and reducing the budget for elections by $1 million per year? Will you support another change in the charter to reduce the power of the mayor by increasing the power of city councillors? Do you support term limits for the mayor and city council? If not, why not?

5) Fire department studies indicate that the department is overstaffed, which results in fire personnel racing EMTs to get to accidents to demonstrate that they have utility. What, if anything, will you do to ensure that the fire department is appropriately staffed?

6) What, if anything, is your plan for the more than $400 million the city has in reserves?

7) The School Department added 864 new staff over the past 7 years while the BPS school population dropped by 5,000 students. Considering that we have many new employees and fewer students, do you support adding enough seats in the public school system to ensure that all children who need a K-1 seat get one? Will you support the development of K-0 for all three year olds who need a seat? What is your plan for Madison Park, our vocational technical school?

8) Do you support efforts to remake roadways like Morrissey Boulevard and the Allston interchange into bike and pedestrian friendly parkways, as they were initially intended to be?

9) Our efforts to increase the tree canopy over the past 12 years have failed, and we now have less of a canopy than we did in 2008. Trees are essential as we deal with the impact of global warming on our city. What is your plan to preserve the existing canopy, which is under threat from development, and add to it?

10) Our plan for dealing with global warming includes an expectation that nearly all our automobiles will be electric by 2050. Considering that most of our neighborhoods are dense and lack driveways, what is your plan for charging stations in our neighborhoods? What is your plan for conversion of our municipal fleet of buses and cars to non-fossil fuel vehicles?

That’s a start. Next time we’ll move to questions on where the candidates stand on neighborhood planning and development.

Bill Walczak is a resident of Dorchester. He has endorsed City Councillor Andrea Campbell in this year’s election cycle.

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