Mayor's 'man in neighborhoods' came out of streets into City Hall

Neil Sullivan has always described himself as a ''neighborhood organizer,'' someone who encouraged people in neighborhoods ''to step forward to do something about the things that frustrate them.''

Now he has a new sort of ''neighborhood'' to organize - the City Hall bureaucracy.

Mr. Sullivan, director of neighborhood services for the Mayor Raymond J. Flynn, has moved from city streets to the polished corridors of Boston City Hall - but he did not leave his management ideas behind.

''I firmly believe that, just as it is important to engage the community and to empower the community in development and planning, it is important to empower the people who are responsible for implementing (policy) on behalf of the mayor, '' he says.

Policies are more likely to fail when they are crafted by a special group ''off to the side, figuring everything out and then telling people who have the real responsibility for implementation what to do,'' Sullivan explains. The policy initiatives, he says, should come from the directors of Boston's 40 city departments.

Within the past year this style of management - heralded variously as ''the rise of the line manager'' or ''participatory management'' - has gained credence in the American corporate world. It is a concept that is finally catching on in government, particularly in cities, experts say.

The credo ''those who do, must plan'' is the same concept used in neighborhood organizing, Sullivan says. ''I know that. I've always done that.''

He first learned about community involvement, of necessity. As a teen-ager growing up in Detroit, he helped to organize baseball games between black students at the public school and white students at his parochial school after the city's violent race riots of 1967.

Before becoming a campaign aide to Mr. Flynn in January 1983, Sullivan had worked with a number of citizen-advocacy groups - as staff director of Worcester Fair Share, as state policy director of Mass Fair Share, and as a neighborhood organizer in East Boston. Now, sitting in an office within shouting distance of Mayor Flynn, he explains how he plans to implement his management ideas.

Each of the 40 department chiefs has proposed between 5 and 12 policy objectives and has set a timetable for achieving them. For instance, says Sullivan as he thumbs through a folder full of written policy pledges, the Office of Labor Relations says it will reduce the backlog of grievances and arbitration of employee complaints.

Sullivan also hopes to ensure that the department chiefs' proposals are compatible with Mayor Flynn's campaign promises, made ''at 120 house parties and 78 campaign forums'' during the mayoral race. The Flynn administration has drafted a 100-item list of these goals for department leaders, he says.

Two months into the program, the department chiefs are having to ''tail back'' their goals to adjust for the latest round of budget cuts, Sullivan admits. Flynn ordered most departments to cut spending by 5 percent after the administration failed last summer to win state legislative approval for a parking excise tax.

Sullivan says the mayor will try this fall to push another revenue-raising package through the legislature to offset a budget deficit that some financial analysts say may reach $55 million. The package is likely to include a hotel-motel tax, a parking excise tax, and state takeover of Boston's share of MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) costs.

He argues that Boston needs ''to break out of the stranglehold of a property tax, and only a property tax.'' Noting that no other city in the United States depends so exclusively on property taxes to raise revenue, Sullivan adds that under Proposition 21/2, which restricts the city's property-tax levy, ''the city is choking.''

This dependence on the property tax is also ''at the core of the city's housing problem.'' Because 51 percent of the property in Boston is tax-exempt (colleges, federal buildings, hospitals, and others), homeowners and tenants bear an ''unfair burden'' of the cost of city services, Sullivan explains. ''Boston's whole city-service system is a tax on housing.''

He points out that people who commute to Boston to work in the tax-exempt institutions benefit from services provided by city taxpayers - police and fire protection, park maintenance, recreation programs, and so on. (Some exempt institutions make substantial annual payments in lieu of taxes.) The mayor's revenue package, with its emphasis on a parking tax and a hotel-motel tax, will have a bigger impact on the pocketbooks of suburbanites than on those of city residents.

Sullivan, as one of the mayor's top policymakers, is involved in all of the administration's major initiatives this fall: the revenue package, the formation of neighborhood councils, and a housing and rent-control package. These legislative issues are the ones that grab the headlines, but changes within the City Hall bureaucracy can have just as much impact on city neighborhoods, he says.

For instance, the administration has formed a Property Disposition Committee, a coalition of leaders from departments that play a role in managing city property. The committee meets weekly to decide how and when to sell city properties that range from ''foreclosed three-decker homes to schools to Long Wharf. How we deal with the disposition of those properties affects the character of the neighborhoods,'' Sullivan says. ''They're making bottom-line decisions about housing and development.''

Although Sullivan was wearing a white shirt and gray pin-striped suit for his job at the office, about twice a week he rolls up his sleeves and travels into Boston's neighborhoods for evening meetings with city residents.

Now that he and his wife are expecting their first child, he adds, ''neighborhood issues are becoming all the more real to me.''

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