by Corporation Counsel Bill Sinnott
A reflection on the legal legacy of Boston’s retiring chief executive
As the City of Boston witnesses the final weeks of the Menino Administration, much has been and will be written about Mayor Menino’s legacy. Many of these homages and critiques focus on the city’s economic revitalization. Others describe the Mayor’s ability to bring together diverse residents and neighborhoods in a city once defined by its fissures. Still others reference his commitment to public education or his outspoken support of LGBT rights. Perhaps even more noteworthy in a city that once prided itself on the rogue character of its leaders, many praise the Menino administration for steering free of scandals and corruption.
Having served as a member of Mayor Menino’s administration for almost eight years as Corporation Counsel, I have observed a number of occasions in which Mayor Menino’s seldom-recognized appreciation for the law and its ability to improve the lives of ordinary Bostonians has guided the formulation of City policies.
This article will highlight some of the ways in which the Menino administration employed law and legal process in its pursuit of a better Boston.
Legislation. The thousands of orders, ordinances and statutes the Mayor filed or championed during his twenty-year tenure reflect his awareness of the power of the law to elevate the condition of city residents, workers and visitors. The Mayor:
• Sponsored environmental statutes that require large construction projects to comply with LEED standards and to monitor the consumption of energy.
• Enacted, by Executive Order in April, 2000, a Diversity Values Statement committing the City and its employees to diversity and inclusion and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, employment status, income, disability, educational background, gender, race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status.
• Led the movement for CORI reform at both the municipal and state level, thereby addressing issues faced by ex-offenders as they transition into the community upon release. For Mayor Menino, CORI reform was not about allowing those who commit serious crimes to escape the consequences of their actions, it was about ensuring that the law was not a permanent barrier to employment, housing, and other opportunities for people deserving of a second chance.
• Championed state education reform. In 2010, Mayor Menino filed legislation to create a new form of charter school. These in-district charters operate within the school district, reflect the diversity of students in the community, and have flexibility in staffing, budgeting, the ways teachers collaborate and the hours kids are in school.
Nor has Mayor Menino’s legislative focus been limited to Boston and state laws, as his early and enthusiastic participation in the Amicus briefs in the Massachusetts and Windsor challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) attests. Among the first mayors to embrace gay marriage post-Goodridge, Mayor Menino maintained that DOMA prevented Boston from treating its employees equally and that federal law should be changed.
Similarly, in 2006, the Mayor co-founded a national organization called Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) to address the destructive impact of interstate gun trafficking on Boston. The group’s goal is “making the public safer by getting the guns off the streets.” MAIG has played a significant role in addressing the problem of illegal gun violence in American cities and has become a bi-partisan rallying point for cities seeking common-sense solutions to the firearms-fueled tragedies on their streets.
Legal Crisis Management. On many other occasions, the Mayor’s reliance on the law moved from legislation to crisis management. The Mayor values the First Amendment because he empathizes with the disenfranchised. Consequently, he allowed Occupy Boston adherents to maintain an encampment long after most cities had shut down similar protests, often accompanied by great violence. He allowed Occupiers a forum for their beliefs so long as it did not threaten the public safety and welfare of themselves or other Bostonians. The Mayor was patient, respectful of the legal process and ultimately, when that process concluded, decisive. As a result, many Occupiers commended Boston’s approach, especially in comparison to that employed by other municipal governments across the country.
Mayor Menino’s deference to the First Amendment probably stems from his personal willingness to avail himself of its protections. Time and again, when confronted by what he views as disagreeable—but legal—behavior, he has chosen to state his feelings in an unvarnished and no-nonsense fashion. Notwithstanding his unhappiness with its founder’s anti-gay bias, the Mayor recognized that he could not legally block Chick Fil A from opening a store in Boston. Similarly, he acknowledged that Rolling Stone magazine had the right to place a rock star-style photograph of an accused terrorist on its cover. That awareness, however, did not prevent the Mayor from contacting Chick Fil A and Rolling Stone and bluntly expressing the dissatisfaction and anger he and many in his city shared.
Effecting Change. Mayor Menino loves to say that government is about helping people. This outlook permeates every department in his administration. His legal offices are no exception. Typically, when advised that a specific initiative or program faced legal obstacles, the Mayor would redirect the conversation: “Then how are we going to do the right thing? Let’s find a legal way to do the right thing.”
Cognizant that Boston’s troubled desegregation history and resultant federal court orders lingered in the background of any effort to alter the student assignment system, Mayor Menino sought to bring the city together on this issue by appointing a diverse External Advisory Committee (EAC) that included parents, students, advocates and academic professionals. A transparent and collaborative process resulted in a pioneering school assignment system that will commence in 2014.
Similarly, undeterred by daunting procurement and cost limitations, in 2011, the City of Boston launched New Balance Hubway, the innovative bicycle sharing system that has helped transform Boston into a world-class bicycling city. At the Mayor’s insistence, Hubway uses no appropriated funds; instead, it is fully sustained by user fees, grants, donations, and sponsorships.
One of the ways that the Mayor helped people was by partnering his administration with the Boston Bar Association and the many community service programs that its staff and member attorneys make possible. He was especially appreciative of the Summer Jobs Program, which he launched each summer by meeting the students, telling them that they are Boston’s future and charging them with taking advantage of the opportunity they’ve been given.
An enduring image of Mayor Menino will be that of April 18, 2013, when he rose from his wheelchair at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to address his city and the world in the wake of the Marathon bombings: “We are One Boston. No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience and heart of its people.” Mayor Menino leaves a unified and resilient city and he can rightly claim much of the credit. He also leaves a legal legacy combining both respect for the rule of law and an appreciation for the great good effective use of the law can bring to a city and its residents.
Bill Sinnott serves as the Corporation Counsel for the City of Boston. In representing the City, Bill’s clients include the Mayor, all City Departments, including the Police and Fire Departments, and the Boston City Council. He oversees the Law Department and a staff of approximately sixty attorneys, paralegals, and administrators.