Aaron Michlewitz is the Massachusetts State Representative for the Third Suffolk District, the Boston area that includes the North End / Waterfront, South End, Chinatown, Bay Village and parts of Beacon Hill/Downtown. In 2009, he won a competitive Democratic primary and special election to fill the seat left vacant by former House Speaker, Sal DiMasi. After serving for the past 18 months and running unopposed in the November 2010 general election, Michlewitz was inaugurated on January 5, 2011 for his first full term as State Representative. He is also a lifelong resident of the North End.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Representative Michlewitz at the State House. This is the first in a series of posts encompassing our conversation. In this part, we talk about the Green Ticket Bill, street cleaning, the impact of a Suffolk Downs casino and the Representative’s introduction of new legislation impacting the Greenway parks.
NorthEndWaterfront.com: Congratulations on your inauguration this week for your first full term as State Representative for the Third Suffolk District. Having established a record in the House over the past 18 months, let’s start with some legislative questions and then get into some neighborhood issues.
Your maiden speech in the House of Representatives was in support of the Green Ticket Bill which became law and went into effect in the Spring of 2010. The Green Ticket Bill was aimed at improving trash collection and snow removal in neighborhoods such as the North End. Tell us, how is it working?
Representative Aaron Michlewitz: The Green Ticket Bill is going to take time because it was going after the culture of absentee landlords and trying to make them recognize the situations in their buildings. It became clear that change was only going to take place through their pocketbooks. Because there was no way to collect on the fines before the Green Ticket Bill, they could rent to anyone without any repercussions for the way those tenants were treating the neighborhood streets.
With more green tickets being issued, my office and that of Councilor LaMattina have received some calls about unfair tickets. Just like with parking, we understand that not every ticket is fair. By at least having Inspectional Services Division (ISD) give out the new tickets, you are catching the culprits of this trash issue. But it will take time before we see a real effect on the streets. Over time, these landlords that don’t live in the neighborhood will see a real hit to their pocketbook and that is the primary aim of the bill.
On snow removal, I saw more people go after the snow on their sidewalks more quickly then they have in the past. It wasn’t perfect in the neighborhood, but I saw many properties that previously did not shovel make an effort to clear their sidewalks. That is also a direct consequence of the Green Ticket Bill.
Did your office receive complaints about snow removal?
We received a couple of calls, but not as many as in the past. I give the agencies credit for getting the word out that property owners needed to clear their sidewalks. I did not receive many complaints about the city removing snow from the streets either.
What else can be done to improve the cleanliness of the neighborhood?
It is a challenge. Councilor LaMattina has really taken on this issue. There needs to be a cultural change, both by businesses and residential owners. For a long time, people were allowing their neighbors to get away with too much. Through the Clean Streets Committee and diligence by residents, we are slowly changing that. New initiatives will have to come from the city and I continue to work with the Councilor on the issue.
What is your position on the recently expanded mechanical street sweeping into the winter months of December and March?
I was not against the proposal because it was only a pilot program. But, I think we should keep it open to change for the best possible outcome. For example, my street is posted for sweeping from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Most people find it is not a big deal to move their cars before noon. However, other streets are posted to be cleaned from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. which is more difficult for some, especially on cold winter mornings. One suggestion I made is to have street cleaning from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. for everyone to make it easier. It does not take much time for these trucks to go down the street. There also are more spots available throughout the neighborhood in the afternoon.
Any early feedback or results?
Not yet. I know they had to cancel some days in December because of the snow. So, the program not been to the full capacity that was planned.
Let’s move back to the legislative agenda. You supported the bill for expanded gambling and casinos that ultimately failed last year. What are the prospects for a revised Casino Bill and where do you draw the line in your support?
The racetrack element of the bill that was passed by the House and Senate did not get the Governor’s support. I don’t know if that is something he is willing to work on or what type of final bill could get through.
As far as expanded gaming as a whole, it is hard to comment on where exactly I would draw the line. I think you have to take each proposal as it comes and judge it on its merits. For example, in the previous bill that I supported, one element that I liked was funding for gambling addiction. I think that is crucial going forward as well.
How do you think a casino at Suffolk Downs will impact your district?
I initially had concerns before I ran for office, but my concerns have subsided. I just don’t feel that a casino at Suffolk Downs would impact the neighborhood where it would even be tangible. There are two sides of the issue. On one side, you have some businesses saying someone might not go to the North End to eat because the casino is on the other side of the tunnel. On the other hand, you have some residents saying that a Suffolk Downs casino will drive more people to Hanover Street and make it even more chaotic.
The North End is 3.5 miles from Suffolk Downs which is about the same distance as Fenway Park. I don’t think what happens at Fenway Park impacts the North End very much. We have a lot going on in the City of Boston without a casino. People are going to come to the North End because of what it is and what it stands for. That is a great thing and why we are proud of the neighborhood.
Regarding the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway parks, you were instrumental in writing the initial legislation where the State leased the parks to Greenway Conservancy. The State currently funds at least half of the Conservancy’s annual budget which is set at $5.2 million for Fiscal Year 2011. There have been questions raised, including by NorthEndWaterfront.com, as to how that money is being spent and how the Conservancy is interacting with the community. Last year, MassDOT, the regulator, established more specific rules regarding the use of State money by the Conservancy. What can the legislature do to ensure that the Greenway benefits the neighborhoods, such as the North End / Waterfront, that suffered through decades of Big Dig construction?
Having written part of the initial Greenway bill and through my previous and current positions, I have a unique perspective on how it is affecting the surrounding neighborhoods. Besides the Mayor, I am the only elected official in the city that has the entire Greenway in his district from the North End to Chinatown. I feel like I know where the bill works and where it is not working.
I think you bring up a good point with respect to the neighborhoods and how the Conservancy is supposed to interact with the community. To be honest, they can do better.
For this upcoming session, I am filing new legislation to give the Greenway Leadership Council (GLC) veto power on the Conservancy’s budget similar to the way the City Council handles the budget presented by the Mayor. (The GLC is an unpaid group of appointed citizens from the residential and commercial community tasked with advising on the activities of the Greenway Conservancy.) They won’t be able to amend or change the budget but I think it will give the Leadership Council more teeth and power to protect the neighborhoods.
In these tough fiscal times, an improved system of checks and balances for any money given from the State would be an enhancement to help the Conservancy’s ability to integrate within the neighborhoods.
How will the legislature tackle the budget gap this year?
I am not exactly sure how we will move forward, but cuts will have to be part of it as in the past two years. One challenge this year is that the federal stimulus money is no longer there to provide a cushion. I think we are going to have to make some hard decisions which will start in April in the House. The Governor will make his suggestions by the end of the month. We have to get it done by the end of June as we enter Fiscal Year 2012.
As the Governor said during the election season, the budget has to be balanced and on-time. I think that needs to be stressed. Not every state has been able to do that despite cutting and stimulus funds. We have been able to do that and I expect us to do that again this year because the House and Senate leadership have made it a priority.
I continue to work with Charlie Murphy, Chairman of Ways and Means, making sure that whatever budget cuts are necessary will cause the least amount of pressure on my district as possible.
Speaking of cuts, the Governor has announced this week that your annual base salary and those of your House colleagues will be cut by $300 to $61,440, matching the estimated drop in pay by Massachusetts households. Any comment?
This law was voted in by a ballot initiative in the mid-1990s by the people of the Commonwealth. We haven’t had to take a cut since 1998. So, I don’t have a problem with it. I think it is actually better than having us vote on it ourselves. Two years ago, it gave us a raise and now it is giving a cut. Last year, we had to take furloughs to fix the budget gap in the House. This is no different.
What else are you working on the legislative side?
I am working on a lot of local and quality of life issues that were part of what I ran on. We have a bill filing deadline of January 21st. There will be “re-files” from previous years, but some new bills as well. The new Greenway bill will be biggest one that I will file.
Coming up in future parts of this interview series with Rep. Michlewitz will be the probation department investigation, hazardous material trucking routes in the North End, education (including the Eliot and N. Bennet Street Schools), late night noise/party problems, alcohol license closing hours and his view on potential new development in the neighborhood. We also ask about the working relationship between the “young gun” trio of elected officials representing the North End / Waterfront including State Senator Anthony Petruccelli and District 1 City Councilor Sal LaMattina. (Hint: Rep. Michlewitz makes sure we know he is the youngest.)
Continue by reading Part II of this interview.