Can Ross Push The Council Toward Relevance?

The Boston City Council's general irrelevance and futility -- and the mayor's unilateral power -- was a topic of much discussion during last year's city elections. The solid re-election of Tom Menino was, to some degree at least, a vote to maintain that balance, but the issue clearly resonated.

Council president Mike Ross announced committee assignments today, and there is some glimmer that he may be trying to push the council toward a slightly more equitable balance with the executive branch. Or at least, not quite so entirely inequitable.

Ross seems to be maneuvering to have a more assertive council (which, not incidentally, would create more of a political platform for ambitious councilors like, say, Ross), but not a confrontational one (which would engender the wrath of the Menino, which is not good at all for ambitious councilors).

For one thing, Ross has created the already-announced Special Committee on Charter Reform, which will hold meetings and hearings to consider changes to the city's basic governmental structure, with an eye toward putting those changes on the 2011 ballot. The process might not actually result in much, but it will at least continue the conversation. And, by placing presumed 2013 mayoral candidate John Tobin in charge of it (and, incidentally, newly elected potential gadfly Felix G. Arroyo on the committee), Ross ensured that the effort will get some attention. Again, assertive, but not confrontational. "I don't think it's any slight to the mayor," Tobin tells me. "The mayor's race brought a lot of issues to the table," and this committee will discuss them.

Ross also put Charles Yancey at the head of the Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which is the body that takes the lead in calling the mayor and his departments to account. Sam Yoon had that chair before, and I suspect Menino would have prefered to see someone a little less independent there; Yancey -- if he chooses to actually put some serious effort into it -- won't mind ruffling a few mayoral feathers.

New councilor Ayanna Pressley calls Ross's moves "bold," and sees them as a direct response to the mood of the electorate, as seen in last year's campaigning. "The charter reform committee was formed, I think, in direct response to conversations that were happening in the city," she says.

Pressley, and her fellow council newcomer Felix G. Arroyo, have good reason to be singing Ross's praises -- he gave them committee assignments that provide them quite a bit of latitude and authority, in policy areas that are right up their alleys. 

Arroyo has been given two chairmanships, which is quite a thing for a freshman -- I guess you get that kind of deference when you receive a gazillion votes, freshman or no. Arroyo will chair the renamed Committee on Labor, Youth Affairs, and Human Rights (previously Human Rights and Services), as well as a Special Committee on the 2010 Census. (Arroyo is actually Acting Chair of the Census committee, in place of Chuck Turner, who despite his re-election is still being barred from holding committee chairs until his federal charges are cleared up.) "I feel very grateful to Mike Ross" for the assignments, Arroyo says. "I'm excited to get to work."

Pressley, has been given the newly-created Committee on Women and Healthy Communities; she doesn't seem concerned about appearing pigeonholed as the "women's issues" councilor. "Being well-positioned to be a leader on these things is fine by me," she says. She's also vice-chair of both the public safety committee and a special committee on federal-stimulus oversight. The assignments "allow me to honor the promises that I made on the campaign trail," she says.

Giving the new rising stars room to shine is another way in which Ross may arguably be pushing the council to be more assertive, and more publicly relevant. It will be interesting to watch what they do with the opportunity.

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