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Crime, cannabis, schools on Council agenda

Councilors set to tackle broad range of issues as hearing orders filed during body’s first meeting

Isaiah Thompson

In their first meeting of 2023, Boston City Council members offered up what amounts to at least a partial agenda for the new year.

Councilors put forward several dozen matters, most of them “re-files,” or hearings orders, proposed ordinances and other business first brought before the Council last year, but which expired from the body’s yearly docket without action or requiring further action.

School Committee future

District 6 Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and at-large Councilor Julia Mejia reintroduced a home rule petition – a measure requiring approval by the state Legislature — to overturn the 1991 law establishing the Boston School Committee as fully appointed by Boston’s mayor, making it the only non-elected school committee in the Commonwealth.

The petition is essentially identical to that filed by Arroyo and Mejia last year, but Arroyo emphasized that the authors expect the petition’s language and details to change with input from the public, Council colleagues, and the Wu administration.

“We will have some working sessions this year, hopefully this month … to refine this language and to iron out what is hopefully a compromise between all members of this Council, that every member here can be proud of in one way or another,” said Arroyo.  “I expect that we will likely do that vote sometime in the early part of this year, so I’m asking that colleagues be engaged.”

Mayor Michelle Wu, whose signature is required to pass any home rule petition on to the state Legislature for approval, has not said whether she will support a fully- or partially-elected school committee.

Gun violence, youth safety 

Councilors ordered multiple hearings on issues related to gun violence in Boston and youth safety, particularly as 2022 saw a rise in youth-involved crime. 

Calling violence an “ongoing issue” in the city, at-large Councilor Erin Murphy ordered a hearing to “proactively combat summer violence,” especially by and toward Boston youth. 

District 4 and District 7 Councilors Brian Worrell and Tania Fernandes Anderson, meanwhile, re-filed an order for a hearing on gun violence in Boston, particularly in Worrell’s district, which saw an uptick in gun-related violent incidents last year.

“This is a continued conversation from last year,” said Worrell, “… to see what investments can be made [and] to make sure we’re tackling the root causes of gun violence in our neighborhoods.”

“We know that violence in general in disenfranchised communities stems from racism,” added Fernandes Anderson, noting the importance of addressing “oppressive systems” in hearings on violence, including that proposed by Councilor Murphy.

Boston Public Schools

Mejia, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Education, filed a number of hearing orders related to various hot-button issues within Boston Public Schools. 

Those orders included hearings on sexual harassment in Boston Schools, highlighted in a recent audit of BPS that described a lack of reporting and tracking such incidents; the availability and quality of services for English Language Learners in BPS; and hearings on the district’s safety measures around COVID-19 and other airborne viral diseases — measures which have drawn criticism from some parents as being too weak.

“BPS needs to listen to parents and to continue to implement the appropriate safety measures to keep our communities healthy,” Mejia said, adding she looks forward to achieving “appropriate” COVID-19 safety measures in BPS schools.

Mejia has also ordered a hearing on the initiative by Mayor Wu and BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper, touted as a “Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools,” which would spend some $2 billion on overhauling the district’s aging infrastructure, including renovating and constructing new school buildings, in part to meet modern environmental standards. Mejia’s hearing will focus particularly on one potentially controversial aspect of that plan, the mergers and then splitting-up of six Boston schools.

Education Committee Vice Chair Erin Murphy, meanwhile, offered a hearing order of her own, focused on school safety. This is a theme on which Murphy has been vocal of late, recently penning a controversial letter to city officials calling for, among other things, a return of Boston police officers to BPS schools. That call, echoed by three of Murphy’s colleagues, has been roundly criticized by other more liberal Council members.

Business, cannabis and liquor

Worrell, Arroyo and at-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune re-filed a home rule petition that would create additional liquor licenses available to Boston businesses, especially in neighborhoods of color — namely, Hyde Park, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan — which have been historically shortchanged.

“As we know, there is a disparity when it comes to liquor licenses across the city of Boston,” said Worrell.

“Mattapan only has 10 out of the 1,432 licenses, Dorchester Ave has 24 and Blue Hill Ave has only six.”

Worrell and Mejia will also hold hearings on how the city can generally promote small and minority-owned business entrepreneurship in Boston.

“There’s a lot of redundant processes and high costs when it comes to entrepreneurs [bringing] their idea to market or to a storefront,” said Worrell. “We want to see, what processes can we cut out and what costs can we lower?”

Councilor Mejia re-filed an order for hearings on “diversifying cannabis business models” within the city’s burgeoning cannabis industry.

“We need to start thinking outside the box in terms of how we diversify the cannabis industry here in the City of Boston,” she said. “If we’re really serious about meeting this moment, we need to be serious about how we’re going to change the way we do business.”

Trees, bees and rodents

Council members offered up several measures aimed at preserving Boston green space (and trees in particular) and promoting efforts to re-naturalize the urban landscape.

Arroyo, District 9 Councilor Liz Breadon and District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara offered an ordinance “establishing protections for the City of Boston tree canopy,” that would build on the city’s recently-approved “Urban Forest Plan” by providing explicit restrictions on tree removal.

“There’s essentially protections in this document for both trees on public land and trees on private land,” noted Arroyo.

District 1 Councilor Gabriela Coletta, District 8 Councilor Bok and Breadon, meanwhile, ordered hearings on a potential “tree mitigation fund” within the city that would act similarly to the city’s “linkage” policies for affordable housing development, requiring developers who tear down trees to pay into a fund to preserve city tree canopy.

Coletta noted that in her district, “A lot of our tree canopy loss came directly due to the fact that private development was tearing down trees in back yards and in side yards.”

Louijeune and Arroyo offered an ordinance and possible text amendment to the city’s zoning code that, they say, would make it easier for residents to keep bees in city neighborhoods.

“Boston already has a vibrant bee-keeping population, so we are trying to make it easier for them to keep bees, especially when we think of the environmental benefits that bees bring to our city.”

Breadon and at-large Councilor Michael Flaherty, meanwhile, re-filed an order for continued hearings on a less-welcome set of beasts: rodents and other pests.