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Sam Yoon: The ill health of democracy in Boston is why I gave up my safe seat on the City Council to campaign for mayor. In 2010, formal rivals Yoon and Michael Flaherty joined forces to take on four-time incumbent Thomas Menino. Ultimately, they fell short. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

As long-serving Boston Mayor Tom Menino bows out and turns his attention to his own health, the city of Boston has an historic opportunity to inject a measure of health into its democracy.

In 2009, I ran for mayor because after serving four years as a city councilor at-large, I saw how unhealthy our democracy was, as practiced inside Boston City Hall. As one Boston historian told me, the form of government practiced in Boston was not so much a “strong mayor system” as it was a “municipal monarchy.”

In a strong mayor system, the mayor is vested with virtually all executive and administrative powers to run the city, while the powers of the 13-member city council are strictly limited. This form of municipal government is not uncommon. Many small to medium-sized cities practice it. However, Boston is the only city in America where the power of the mayor’s office has, throughout history, become such a political juggernaut.

Having a favorable impression of the mayor is tantamount to having a favorable impression of the city itself. The mayor and the city are one.

When I took office in 2006, I saw that the only real constitutional power of the City Council was to approve the Mayor’s budget. However, I learned that city councilors were expected by the mayor’s office to vote for his budget without really questioning it. I also learned that the best way to implement a good idea was to have the mayor’s office “steal” it. My idea to lower the interest rate on loans to low-income seniors who owed back taxes was implemented by the mayor my first year without any attribution to me. This may seem like a small example, but the total accumulation of these types of things over four years took its toll.

Tom Menino did not create this system. He inherited it. It has been passed through generations of Boston mayors, beginning in the 1940s and 50s. City jobs, city-employed campaign workers, building permits, and kickbacks — legal and illegal — were all tools that mayors regularly used to accumulate power. It was a power that both citizens and councilors feared and respected. So much so that for decades it enabled these mayors to decide on their own terms when to end their mayoralties. The last Boston mayor to lose a bid for re-election was James Michael Curley in 1949. After Curley served a five month prison sentence in 1947, he famously returned to City Hall and promptly insulted the city clerk John Hynes, who had been running the city in his absence. In a fit of pique, Hynes ran against Curley and won.

The question for some is: If things are so bad, then why does Menino, in the sunset of his career, enjoy such high favorability ratings?

During my campaign in 2009, I answered that question with another: As compared to whom? There is no political leader other than Menino. Therefore, having a favorable impression of the mayor is tantamount to having a favorable impression of the city itself. The mayor and the city are one.

As Boston city-dwellers know, Menino’s name is on everything. His stamp, his brand permeates all official signage and public language. The “Mayor’s Hotline” solves all constituent problems. During his storied career, Menino himself was everywhere. In the 2009 election his very ubiquity was the campaign message: “Have you met Tom Menino? Over half of the city has.”

So do Bostonians like the mayor? They do. They like where the city is going, and they attribute its progress, naturally, to him.

People generally make the right choice when they hear opposing points of view, but in Boston, for the last 60 years, there has only been one choice.

But would Boston be better if things were different? Yes, if the people were given an alternative. But because the mayor undermines competition for good ideas, there is only one viewpoint, only one party, and only one leader. People generally make the right choice when they hear opposing points of view, but in Boston, for the last 60 years, there has only been one choice.

The ill health of democracy in Boston is why I gave up my safe seat on the City Council in 2009 to campaign for mayor and talk about this problem. I argued that a free flow and exchange of ideas is essential in a democracy, and that in our current strong-mayor system, we didn’t have it.

During my four years in City Hall, debate and deliberation were too often viewed with suspicion or tinged with fear of retribution. As a city councilor I learned why not to ask how taxpayers would be reimbursed if the mayor went ahead with plans to build a skyscraper on a city-funded garage. Why not to ask how much it costs to maintain obsolete fire safety equipment. Why not to ask for more funding for youth programs. There were severe political consequences just for asking. This was bad for the City Council as well as for the voters and taxpayers of Boston.

Tom Menino is a good man whose decades of public service should be celebrated and honored. As he bows out gracefully and on his own terms, my hope is that the upcoming mayoral campaign focuses on the systemic change that Boston needs to realize its full potential.

Legend has it that George Washington declined the title “king” and chose the more prosaic title of “president,” given his interest in sharing power. In that spirit my hope is that Menino’s successor realizes his or her power not through the history, culture, and habits of the mayor’s office, but in the building of a healthy democracy in Boston.

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  • rtw

    I have to agree with Mr. Yoon; The city belongs to all its residents not to the one called Mayor, The definition to which appears to have been, Self made Monarch, Ruling of one individual decree. What happened ! I thought a Mayor was meant manage and act upon what a board of Directors ( residents ) decree by a majority vote. The acting CEOs elected ( aldermen, town or city councils ) are meant to oversee that a mayor manages and acts to what the majority has chosen.

    A mayor is not supposed to do it His way, Which he happened to mention . with the song. ” I DID IT MY WAY” Like it or lump it . what we got is what we got. . weather you were in the majority or the minority of benefits handed out by a King.
    I’m not sure! Being that , I was not privileged to be of the class to class attain membership to the Kings court, It’s good to be in the kings good grace, Never question a Kings decree or you may find yourself holding a bucket..

    ” IT’S GOOD TO BE KING”
    Mel got that right! , Referring back to a Mr.Brooks movie not to Mel King of the 1983 election year.
    The Mayor has announced his abdication, Relinquishing his power, It’s now left open to those seeking it. Will power belong to the residents, A managed Mayor, Or left to an individual with the privilege to rule and choose his court. order of business. If it’s the later, Then Long live the King, and grab a bucket..and kneel to the throne.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sharon.soong.37 Sharon Soong

    Too bad Mr. Yoon’s comments sound like ‘sour grapes.’ I understand what he is saying about politics as he observed it in our city, but his comments truly show that he is not a “political animal” and thus unable to change it. Taking his family to D.C. following his defeat is also paramount to abandoning ship and his former supporters. Being Asian combined with intellect and educational privilege should make Mr. Yoon a humbler man, more sensitive to his timing and his own cultural disposition to seek consensus that he translates as ‘democratic’. I am disappointed in his remarks. I am Asian American, a Bostonian of humble origins and make my home here. I honor Tom Menino’s career that has transformed my city and its neighborhoods during his tenure. He did what it took to get us here without the benefit of privelege, looks or eloquence. He stuck to it, with us. Who cares if he took credit for the low interest rates on back taxes for low income seniors? Mr. Yoon’s problem is that he doesn’t understand how to get a job done and should stay in D.C. where he has a bigger pool of constituents to build his own empire.

    • somebody

      Sam Yoon had a hard time getting a job in Boston after the election. That was part of the problem he is talking about – retribution for disagreeing. The guy has to feed his family.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adam.friedman.81 Adam Friedman

    I think Sam Yoon makes some good points on the need for systemic reform. We should start by banning the practice of a mayor’s emblazoning his name on thousands of public structures (signs, buildings, fences, and the like). This is tantamount to a campaign advertising monopoly. Now, which councilors have the good sense to overthrow the practice?

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