Transit, housing, addiction and policing take the front seat at councilor-at-large debate

By Hannah Harn
BU News Service

BOSTON — Boston’s eight candidates for four at-large seats on the city council went head-to-head at a live debate on Tuesday at the WBUR CitySpace venue on Commonwealth Avenue. 

Throughout the 90-minute debate, moderated by WBUR’s Tiziana Dearing and Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker, candidates dug into transportation, addiction and policing, housing and education, all of which have been major conversation points for council and mayoral elections in recent years. 

In spite of the heavy topics addressed, all candidates were optimistic, highlighting the potential for change in Boston rather than things others had done wrong. 

When asked by Dearing and Walker how she planned to pay for a free MBTA system and fill in the revenue gap left by eliminating fares, incumbent Michelle Wu pointed out that a free, reliable MBTA is “the system we deserve,” and would pave the way for more equitable living in the city.

“We’re no longer just letting this be a state issue that the council is helpless to take on,” she replied in response to criticism from incumbent Althea Garrison. “We’ve seen progress, we need much more.”

When it came to housing in the city, Garrison had rent control at the top of her agenda. 

“I’m running because I believe I am one of the most qualified candidates that can address the housing issue,” she said in her opening statement. “What are you going to do about people being forced out of their homes?”

Incumbent Annissa Essaibi-George spoke on the recent scandal within the Zoning Board of Appeals and the role communities need to be given in the development process. 

“I think the most important piece is that our communities across our city, every neighborhood feels that their voice is heard, that there’s a certain level of transparency,” she said. “I think we certainly have room for more representation on the [Zoning Board of Appeals].”

Conversation on housing and development also touched on the Seaport District and upcoming projects in Suffolk Downs.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of workers, particularly black and brown workers, in the construction industry who did not have access to those millions of dollars of investment and opportunities,” said David Halbert, another challenger, about the development of the Seaport District. “We can’t look at what’s happening with rental prices and with housing and not see a link back to the economic opportunities.”

One of the most discussed topics at the debate was opioid addiction and policing. Candidates Julia Mejia and Alejandra St. Guillen both voiced strong support of supervised injection sites for opioid users in the city, and Essaibi-George pushed for more beds and resources for opioid recovery.

“What I believe is that Boston is resource-rich but coordination-poor,” said Mejia on this summer’s Operation Clean Sweep. “I think we have an opportunity to really, really evaluate how we’re pouring resources … and where the areas of need are the greatest. I also believe that it’s really unfortunate that it took this incident to really help people understand what is going on on Melnea Cass [Boulevard] right now.”

St. Guillen focused on leading the response with compassion and empathy.

“When we’re looking at people who are battling addiction, our first and foremost focus should be their health and their wellbeing,” said St. Guillen, a challenger. 

Later on, when policing came into the conversation about Operation Clean Sweep, she was quick to jump back in. “Can I just say, we should never police drug addiction or substance abuse?” 

First-time candidate Erin Murphy pointed out the need for adequate counseling in schools. 

“I think we often forget that maybe we need to go back to the young kids, right? Give them hope,” Murphy said. “Addiction is always, almost always, connected with mental health and trauma, so [we should] make sure we’re training our teachers, our staff at the schools, we’re giving kids hope.” 

Incumbent Michael Flaherty pushed for faster movement in city response to the opioid crisis. 

“The combination of permitting, construction, litigation and appeals [for the Long Island Bridge], we’re talking maybe five or six years. We need to act now,” he said. 

While mayors Marty Walsh of Boston and Marc McGovern of Cambridge have both said they are ready to implement opioid treatment centers in their communities, Flaherty focused on the suburban communities. 

“You get crickets from our suburban counterparts, yet it’s their kids. It’s their constituents that are down at Mass and Cass.”

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