Newly elected Boston City Council President Michelle Wu spoke with Jamaica Plain News about her new role as city council president, the Boston Public Schools, charter schools, working with her colleagues and more.
Q: How is your role different on the Boston City Council now that you’re city council president?
A: My responsibility to constituents across the city is the same as last term: providing services and advancing policy. Additionally, I aim to support the work of my colleagues as council president and increase transparency for the City Council as a whole.
Q: You said you want committee chairs to hold meetings in neighborhoods? Please explain why.
A: I think city government is the level of government for tackling issues in a real way. In Boston, we have examples of successes and solutions all around us, but we need to do a better job of identifying them in neighborhoods by partnering with residents to expand them, and asking people to participate civically. We hold our City Council meetings at noon on Wednesdays. It’s not a convenient time for people to attend. Many committee hearings on specific topics happen during the day. So I really wanted my colleagues and the council to engage the public in setting the agenda for this term. I’m asking each committee chair to host a town hall in a neighborhood focused on the policy areas that their committee oversees. So we’re taking city government directly to residents and asking for feedback on issues.
Q: Several years ago, you stated that the role of the City Council president was a procedural position? Do you still believe that to be true? Why would you want a procedural position? Is it a position of leadership?
A: I’ve certainly learned a lot from the last two years. I feel the additional responsibility of being city council president is administrative, and I intend to use this role for procedural improvements like revamping the City Council website. My goal is for all of our legislative dockets to be accessible to residents online, to see what items are in committees and how long they’ve been there. And through these improved processes, we will have engaged people in the processes we’re working on.
In terms of the new leadership role, I have always thought the best leaders are the best listeners. My goal is to continue having conversations with my colleagues, helping to identify common ground and support to work on what each of them hopes to accomplish.
Q: As City Council president, you select committee assignments for your fellow city councilors. How are you determining who will lead each committee? Have they lobbied you for that they want?
A: I had many conversations with my colleagues in the weeks before this term started to understand what they wanted to accomplish and their policy priorities for the next term. Certain ones expressed interest in certain commitees. I was making it clear that they are not getting committee assignments based on supporting me with their vote and the order they signed on to support me. I asked each councilor to rank all committees from one to 16 in the order they wanted to serve on them. And from there it was a numbers game, and maximizing everyone’s preferences. Not everyone can get what they wanted, but I’m very confident my colleagues’ assignments were made on stated preferences and interests. It was a lot of moving pieces.
Q: How do you communicate with your fellow city councilors? Text, email, meeting one-on-one, phone calls?
A: All the above. I try to stay in regular contact with everyone. You just learn their preferred communication preferences. They’ve all been very collegial.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with US Sen. Elizabeth Warren? How often do you talk? What do you talk about?
A: She’s very busy. I get to see her from time to time. I’m really grateful she joined us on Monday [for the Boston City Council swearing in]. It was a very powerful reminder of why we do this, and life before politics. When I was a student in her class, I had a lot of family challenges going on, and balancing that with law school took a lot of energy, but it was inspiring to go to her class every day and hear her talk about how what we’re doing in the classroom really does impact real families. The law sets the balance of power for or against working families, usually tilting in favor of people with wealth and influence over the little guy.
She’s always said to be true to myself and my values, and as long as those values include everyone and not just the privileged few — that’s the best guiding light.
Q: The City Council president’s office has a larger budget than an at-large candidate’s, yes? On what will you be using that larger budget? More staff? Will you be looking to cover more neighborhood meetings?
A: It’s all staff budget. We’ll continue to be present at neighborhood associations and civic associations. That face-to-face representation has always been extremely important to me.
I think we’re aiming to keep up our coverage across the city, but we have had to allocate more staff time to administrative duties like preparing the week’s agenda and other responsibilities.
Q: You are against raising the charter cap. What are some ways to improve our Boston Public Schools system?
A: It sounds simple, but a good school comes from having a strong principal leading and setting the tone, having great teachers in classrooms and having an engaged parents community. We need to remove all the barriers and offer support to get at those three outcomes. Much of that relates to the budget, and my opposition to raising the charter cap comes from the budget concerns. The Boston Public Schools sees fewer dollars every year returning to the school district because of charter school reimbursements. And our Boston Public Schools are the schools that have to serve everyone regardless of language ability, special education needs and behavioral issues. We need to solve the funding problem before I’d be comfortable lifting the charter cap.
In terms of improving schools we need to continue to push funding down to the school level, rather than have a top-heavy administrative structure. Often what the council can do is support that engaged parent piece, serving as a voice for parents and advocating for issues that families bring us.