The Politics of Spite
SEVENTY YEARS AGO Boston consisted of several petty fiefdom controlled by ward-level political machines. Martin "Mahatma" Lomasney in the West End, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald in the North End, and James Michael Curley himself, patriarch of the South End, plundered the city despite the efforts of the Good Government reformers, the goo-goos. Frustrated because the dominant Irish voters consistently supported the machines, the goo-goos resorted to state intervention to attack corruption. One of the state-imposed safeguards was the Boston Finance Commission, a watchdog agency consisting of five Boston residents appointed by the governor "to investigate any and all matters relating to appropriations, loans, expenditures, accounts, and methods of administration affecting the city of Boston or the country of Suffolk, or any department thereof."
The plundering pols have outlasted the goo-goos but the finance commission remains, with politicians claiming it is an anachronism and reform-minded observers calling it the city's only autonomous, institutional safeguard. Boston Mayor Kevin H. White abetted by the Boston City Council, is conducting a subtle campaign to vitiate the finance commission by slashing its budget under the guise of an austerity move. The finance commission, consisting of four volunteers and Chairman Andrea Wasserman Garguilo, whose salary is $5000 a year (the same salary the first chairman received in 1909), has a $121,000 budget to oversee a $630 million government.
In 1975 Boston's expenditures soared, forcing White to slash the city's budget. Commenting on this period, Garguilo said last month, "For the first time politically, it became possible for the city to cut us." The budget crisis, which drove city taxes up by 25 per cent, enabled White to cut the finance commission's $130,000 budget by $9000. White now wants to reduce the budget further by approximately $20,000, turning a hamstrung agency into a crippled one. Boston operates under a "strong mayor" form of government which means the city council can only reduce appropriations, not increase them, leaving the city councilors unable to override White's reductions, if they wanted to.
City Councilor Lawrence S. DiCara '71, widely acknowledged to be the most progressive of the councilors (somewhat like being called the most prudish woman in a whorehouse), said last month the city council is "hostile" towards the finance commission. Councilor John J. Kerrigan, a self-proclaimed racist, chairs the city council's Ways and Means Committee and wants to reduce the finance commission's budget to the legally mandated $85,000 minimum. The seven remaining dated $85,000 minimum. The seven remaining councilors have not taken any actions to aid the friendless finance commission. City Council President Michael Connolly told Garguilo last year he would file a bill in the state legislature to raise the minimum to $150,000 and to require the state to pay half of this sum. Garguilo said of Connolly, "He never did it and he never returned my calls. Connolly went back on his word." When informed of her comments, Connolly said, "Gee whiz. We just got so involved we didn't have time."
OFTEN ANTAGONISTS, the mayor and the city councilors easily unite over this issue because it is not a struggle of pol against pol, but of the pols against an independent investigator. With its broad mandate and the power to subpoena witnesses and records, no agency or individual is immune from its inspection. The finance commission exposed Kerrigan several years ago when he chaired the Boston School Committee. Kerrigan and other school committee members, following a tradition in Boston politics that precedes even the infamous Honey Fitz's career, squeezed the city employees they supervised for money through testimonial dinners and kickbacks. Garguilo said Kerrigan told her, "He was going to retaliate for our investigation of him."
Garguilo said it seems counterproductive for the city to destroy a money-saving agency while it tries to economize, but White's vice-mayor Edward T. Sullivan said last month, "Nothing comes to mind where they have saved money." Under the stewardship of Garguilo and her predecessor, Real Paper publisher Ralph Fine, the finance commission regularly reviewed the city's $55 million mrth of no-bid contracts, exposed the Boston Housing Authority and Real Property Department for incompetence, and found city officials pressuring employees for donations to White's reelection campaign.
Even politicians like Connolly and DiCara, who have not been directly harmed by the finance commission, dislike it on intellectual grounds because of what it represents. Appointed by the governor to staggered five year terms, the present members owe few favors to any Boston politician and are liable to investigate anyone. Opponents of the finance commission criticize it as outside interference from the state and a violation of the spirit of home-rule. Also, Boston is the only municipality in Massachusetts that has such a body.
Regardless of these claims, there are some very practical justifications for the finance commission's existence. Boston is the largest city in Massachusetts and receives more state aid than the next six communities combined. According to Elizabeth Cox, chief of the state's administration bureau, Boston will receive $137 million in state funds for fiscal year 1978, while the next largest appropriation is Springfield's $28.4 million. Almost all of Suffolk County is made up of Boston, and the mayor and city council are the county officers. This consolidates two different organizations and thus brings the county district attorney closer to the city officals. DiCara claims a statewide Finance Commission would be more "just" to Boston.
P. T. Barnum once said you can't cheat an honest man, and in the same vein, you can't expose an honest politician. City Corporation Counsel Herbert W. Gleason '50 accused Garguilo of being politically motivated, and said she lacked an understanding of accepted business practices. With a staff of seven, the finance commission should be allowed a few errors because of sloppy work. And it has only erred on details, not substantive issues.
Garguilo readily admitted the political nature of her actions, and said, "It's true a lot of our clout depends upon throwing the spotlight. Our motives are always suspect." Front-page revelations about no-show jobs and embezzlement publicize the commissioners as well as the commission, but Garguilo has little choice. She lacks the staff to conduct long-term investigations and looks for methods that result in maximum publicity. The finance commission cannot order any official to follow its recommendations; it merely exposes questionable practices and lets public pressure follow up. Gleason weakly rationalized, "We're all understaffed."
DiCara said, "It's rampant talk around town that Andrea Garguilo Wasserman, or whatever she calls herself these days, will run for something." Garguilo denied any interest in political office but Sullivan responded, "She couldn't say anything else at this point. And a woman has the right to change her mind even if they have given up a lot of other rights."
Garguilo has alienated more politicians than her predecessor, performing her job as the goo-goos envisioned it 70 years ago. Fine served conscientiously but his sister-in-law works on White's staff and he is much closer to the mayor than Garguilo. Sullivan cited Fine as a fair chairman and it seems more than coincidental that Fine released a report on then-Suffolk County Sheriff Thomas S. Eisenstadt's misuse of county funds (to buy escargot servers among other things) when Eisenstadt was preparing to oppose White's reelection bid.
Garguilo said she plans on returning to private law practice when her term expires, and if she does eventually run for office, she is guilty of exploiting publicity, not payrolls or contracts. But long after Garguilo leaves Boston politics, she sees the finance commission becoming an ineffectual agency, as a result of the budget cuts, one that will attract few talented individuals because "No one is going to want to put their name on an agency that can't fill their mandate." Garguilo would like the finance commission's budget to be based on a percentage of the city's budget--.1 per cent is her recommendation--but it is unlikely that White or the city council would support the measure. As for the legislation to get state funding, Garguilo said, "I don't expect to see that bill again." Like a pendulum, the finance commission regularly swings between effectiveness and impotence. Before Fine became chairman in 1972, three of the five employees were over 65 year old.
Critics claim Garguilo has been extremely political in her job, citing the time she opposed White's self-serving charter reform package, an item which falls under her broad legal mandate but not within the general public's perception of her duties. Nobody accuses Garguilo of specifically favoring or hounding anyone; it is more an "us" against "her" situation. However, the finance commission operates in a city with few ethical norms in its politics, and to expect it to function without being political is like Sen. Edward R. Brooke (R-Mass.) exploited their position to gain higher office, yet the Barnum analogy still holds true.
All Garguilo can do now is to maintain the finance commission on its quixotic road, balancing the almost inevitable budget reductions with the immediate gains of exposing the pols and being publicized herself. Currently, the finance commission is embroiled with Kerrigan--whom Garguilo sees as the finance commission's most determined opponent--in a controversy over an aide of his who allegedly received $300 a week for several months and never reported to work. To complicate the issue, the "no-show", a daughter of a powerful union chief, was paid as a member of White's staff. This arrangement allowed Kerrigan to have the normal office staff of two and a political worker--who is a suburbanite registered at a false Boston address. The finance commission is holding several headline-generating hearings to investigate the matter.