Mayor Be Damned, Feeney Says All Systems Go

City Council President Maureen Feeney’s plan to host a citywide summit on civic engagement is getting very interesting. In January, she proposed the summit as a way to battle civic apathy, discuss best practices, and brainstorm some ideas about how to make the city work better.

Naturally the mayor didn’t like it. For one, in this town, any idea that isn’t Tom Menino’s idea (or one he can take credit for) is a bad idea. And two, the plan seemed tailor made to exploit the mayor’s key weakness right now: the idea that he lacks vision, and disdains open discussion about the future of the city.

When Feeney proposed the summit, people wondered whether she was for real, whether she’d be able to wrangle such an unwieldy thing, and whether anyone would risk angering the mayor by offering their help. People are still skeptical, as evidenced by today’s Globe, but you can’t deny that this thing has potential.

Feeney has assembled a planning committee featuring such local heavies as Jarrett Barrios, Vivien Li, and Cheryl Cronin. It will be chaired by Feeney and Jim Rooney, head of the convention center and a longtime Menino ally, who surprised a lot of people by signing on to this thing and offering his venue for it. (In fact, when Menino’s spokesperson lamely said today that Hizzoner remains skeptical because he’s not sure “whether or not new people would feel comfortable in such a large crowd,” you wonder whether that was intended as a coded out for Rooney.)

Feeney, who I just got off the phone with, swears this thing isn’t about politics, even though it it’s clearly infuriating the mayor, which tangentially means it is about politics. “Well,” she laughs, “the mayor is who he is and thinks what he thinks.” The event “is about the city’s civic leaders, it’s for the people… It is about bringing all the players to the table and making it clear that this is about solutions, about directing people and inspiring people and recognizing what they’ve already accomplished.”

Feeney says she expected to catch the flack from community groups and the mayor’s people, but she went forward anyway, because she thought the idea was a good one. “There’s a lot of positive energy, but there’s also a lot of very strong constructive criticism to make sure we’re on target,” she says. “If we were not engaging that kind of criticism, we wouldn’t have created this advisory committee.”

The committee meets for the first time next month to discuss phase one. After that the grass roots orgs will be brought in. The whole thing, she insists, will be very structured, not the moonbat convention many worry it will devolve into.

So, she’s apparently for real. The event could hit or it could tank, but it’s good to see someone taking the initiative to actually inspire some real dialogue in this town. In, fact, it’s kind of amazing that something like this never happened before.

“The one thing I think is important is that every participant is forthright and honest and not afraid of expressing their opinions,” she says, indirectly explaining why the mayor’s office has never, and likely will never fully back something like this. “One thing I’ve made clear is I don’t want their rubber stamp. I want their ingenuity and honesty.”