A devastating report on who gets what from Boston City Hall paints a shocking picture of private gain too often trumping the public good.
Herald reporters Scott Van Voorhis and Paul Restuccia described, in a three-part series that concluded yesterday, how City Hall hands out economic goodies to mayoral favorites. On Sunday, they described the abuses of a property tax break, called Chapter 121A, that is supposed to be used to encourage real estate developments that otherwise might not occur. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Boston was an economic backwater and desperate for investment, tax breaks like that sometimes made sense.
But today, Boston is no longer blighted. With rare exceptions, projects should be able to stand on their own merits, able to pay property taxes at the same rate as buildings around them. Yet the city recently granted breaks to a number of significant developments.
Why? As the next two parts of the series detailed, who gets what appears to depend on who knows whom. In meticulous detail the reporters went through the examples of big-shot local developers and lawyers like Anthony Pangaro, John Drew, James Greene (whose wife is a fund-raiser for Mayor Thomas Menino), Joseph Fallon and a host of others. All are friends of Menino and all, seemingly, get what they want from City Hall.
It was strong reporting that made the case for something that has been long rumored: Menino calls the shots in Boston, on virtually every decision of consequence, at virtually any level. Sad to say, both Boston papers have carried major exposes that have described similar abuses. If the mayor likes you - and the politics plays favorably - then you'll get what you want. If not, then forget it.
It's important to note that what's at issue here is not corruption - at least not corruption as it is commonly understood.
When that charge is leveled, one normally thinks of a politician taking a bribe in exchange for some favor. Yet virtually no one believes that such is the case with Menino. Money may drive many, but clearly not Boston's mayor. He lives frugally, occupying a modest Hyde Park home valued at just $218,300, likes to shop in Filene's Basement and works long hours.
How about a different form of corruption: Trading favors for campaign contributions.
To be sure, Menino has never applied a tight screen to his campaign contributors. Friend or foe, doing business with the city or just passing through, it seems every check is welcome.
When accused of favoring those who are campaign contributors, Menino gets riled. As he likes to point out, there are many who give him money that never get anything. Moreover, he says, the amount of any contribution is simply too small to credibly sway a decision. That's particularly the case with Menino, who has no problem raising money. Giving up $500 (the maximum permitted) is no big deal; there's bound to be another check like it close behind.
So if it's not about lining one's pockets or building up an even bigger campaign account, what's really at stake?
The common perception within City Hall is that it is a relationship with the mayor that fundamentally makes or breaks any deal. Menino immerses himself in the details of the city's bureaucracy. He knows the ins and outs of every office where city workers might hang their hats. Even quasi-independent departments like the Boston Redevelopment Authority make sure that every decision of consequence gets his approval.
The purpose of all this, critics say, is the acquisition and preservation of power. Ten years into his mayoralty, Menino has no opponents on the horizon. Only the foolish dare challenge him. You are either with the mayor - and thus potentially profit from his largesse - or you may as well move to some other city. Chapter 121A tax breaks - like lots of other benefits, including jobs, zoning, licenses and permits - are all devices to be used to keep the mayor in power.
The result, critics say, is that City Hall has become a virtual cult of personality.
All of this, if true, is terribly wrong. Boston, like any city, should run itself as a government of laws, where all comers are treated neutrally and fairly, where politics has a purpose beyond simply maintaining someone's position.
Moreover, Menino is undermining himself.
He believes he is a man of the people, an advocate of the ordinary citizen.
Yet for all the good the mayor has accomplished - and Boston today is clearly better off than it was a decade ago - he risks leaving a very different legacy: That of a second-rate, stereotypical pol who is little more than