By Dan Murphy
Two weeks ahead of the Nov. 5 Boston municipal election, two hopefuls vying for the District 8 city council seat squared off during a wide-ranging candidates’ forum Tuesday, Oct. 22, at Fisher College.
Kenzie Bok, an affordable housing advocate, community leader and the former chair of the Boston Ward 5 Democratic Committee, will face Jennifer Nassour, an attorney and former chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, in the race for the seat to represent Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Fenway-Kenmore, Mission Hill and the West End currently held by Josh Zakim, who is stepping down after three terms. Peter Nessen, who previously served as secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance of Massachusetts and as a senior cabinet member under former-Gov. William Weld, was the moderator for the event, which was jointly sponsored by the Beacon Hill Civic Association, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the West End Civic Association.
Bok said she first became aware of the “power of the council” while working as a budget director for former Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who assumed office in 2010. Since neither Bok nor Pressley, who now serves as a U.S. representative, had ever scrutinized the city’s budget before, Bok said they took a “deep dive” approach that was soon adopted by other members of a council.
Also, Bok pointed to the “collection action” the council can accomplish together, especially in instances where its members are at odds with the mayor under the city’s existing charter system.
In contrast, Nassour said, “Our charter is what it is, but you need a district councilor who is going to fight for you. You’re not going to change who has the power, but what you can do is to work with the person in power to promote the views of your constituents.”
Bok, who said she would serve as an ombudsman for the District 8 neighborhoods as councilor, said she would attempt to resolve citywide issues that often overlap.
For instance, Bok cited climate change as a pressing citywide concern, but said it’s an especially urgent matter in District 8, which would be more prone to flooding than other parts of the city.
“I would start block by block and scale it up to take on larger challenges,” Bok said. “We need to tackle everyday problems and think about long-term solutions.”
Like Bok, Nassour said as councilor she would employ both micro and macro approaches in tackling problems. “We need to look at holistic solutions on some things, but others are more specific to the neighborhood,” Nassour said.
In regard to City Councilor at-Large Michelle Wu’s call to abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency, Bok said the focus of a city agency created more than 50 years ago to “supercharge the economy” should be shifted to one tasked with finding the “best use of public land for the public good.”
Nassour agreed that the agency needs to be restructured so the planning and development roles are more clearly defined and separated.
Regarding the city’s need for affordable housing, Nassour suggested working with the Chamber of Commerce to solicit monies from universities and big businesses to create a $250-million development fund to meet this need.
Bok maintains Boston would be well advised to look at San Francisco, which she said is five to 10 years further along in terms of unaffordable housing.
“The housing stock just becomes capital accumulation,” Bok said. “I don’t want to see neighborhoods become neighborhood capital depositories. I want to see neighborhoods.”
Also, Bok said affordable housing could be built on public land and coops should be encouraged to help the middle class remain in the city.
Both Nassour and Bok expressed reservations on rent control while applauding a new ordinance that would prohibit AirBnB listings that aren’t registered with the city.
In response to how she would balance the interest of different transportation modes in the city, Bok pointed out that Beacon Hill has the highest percentage of residents from any city neighborhood who walk to work while contending with countless cars coming from outside the city that cut through the neighborhood. “We need to shift the focus back to pedestrians,” she said.
Bok also called for the implementation of bike lanes “practically and systematically” to avoid creating ones that “dump you off at dangerous intersections, which aren’t good for bicyclists or anyone else.”
Likewise, Nassour described the implementation of bike lanes on Beacon Street as dangerous for all modes of transportation while advocating for better enforcement via cameras, a greater police presence and fines to dissuade reckless biking.
As for the citywide School Committee structure, Nassour and Bok also said they would like to see a body whose members aren’t all appointed by the mayor. “A hybrid school committee would be the way to go, with both elected and appointed members,” Nassour said.
Nassour also underscored the importance of upgrading the city’s existing schools while creating safe and comfortable environments inside.
“We need the best teachers and resources in buildings where [students] are comfortable going to school,” Nassour said. “We have a lot of schools that are underutilized…and we need to do something with them.”
In regard to possible locations for a district elementary school, Kenzi suggested siting it at Winchell School, a Massachusetts General Hospital-owned property at 26 Blossom St., or at an underutilized Fenway school building.
Meanwhile, the candidates were torn on the opening a cannabis dispensary – recreation or medical – in District 8 neighborhoods.
Bok described the city’s current policy of requiring one-half mile between dispensaries as problematic and a possible legal quandary for the city, since most applicants won’t ultimately receive permitting even after following through with a costly process.
Instead, the city instead should treat permitting of these establishments in the same manner it currently handles liquor stores, Bok said.
Nassour, on the other hand, said Beacon Hill and Back Bay would be unsuitable locations for dispensaries, given the abundance of schools in both neighborhoods.