Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced Wednesday the appointment of Jerome Smith, former director of the Office of Neighborhood Services, as his cabinet-level chief of civic engagement.
Smith, former chief of staff for former City Councilor Michael Ross and Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth), and former liaison to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, started his position Thursday.
“Any time you have engaged residents, you have stronger neighborhoods, and I think that is very important,” Smith said. “The more that I can get information out and get residents engaged in their quality of life issues and how to affect change and how to enhance neighborhoods, the stronger they’re going to be.”
Boston is defined by its neighborhoods, he said, and for that reason, he feels it necessary to engage and connect with residents in neighborhoods throughout the city.
“We have many neighborhoods with many different issues, challenges and needs,” he said. “My job is to reach out to those residents, to empower them to take ownership of their neighborhoods, and to help them walk through city government and get services so that they can take a little pride and ownership in what’s going on.”
Smith, a resident of Boston for 14 years, said he has considered Boston his home since he first moved here, much like the students at the city’s many educational institutions. For that reason, he said, students must be given just as much attention as any other Boston resident.
“Some people just think that students come in and come out, but the reality is, they don’t. They provide a lot to our economy. They work here. They help our businesses grow,” he said. “I want to make sure I engage students all the way down to seniors and make sure that they all understand the services that are available to them.”
All in all, Smith said, his newly appointed position is one that he does not take lightly.
“As the chief of civic engagement, my ability to sit in the cabinet and talk to the chief of information and talk to the chief of housing and chief of economic development and to bring direct resident concerns to them at the cabinet-level is invaluable to the public,” he said. “Hopefully, we can make some changes and be more effective in how we do that.”
Smith joined Walsh’s team in May as director of neighborhood services, according to a Wednesday press release.
“In his role within Neighborhood Services, he has shown great leadership and creative thought in how we approach serving the public,” Walsh said in the release. “We have a great opportunity here to apply our innovation philosophy to the way we engage residents, and I’m excited to execute our shared vision.”
Senate President Therese Murray, who worked closely with Smith when he was her chief of staff, praised him for his work ethic and his habit of exceeding expectations.
“Jerome is known to always go above and beyond the call of duty, and he is an outstanding addition to the Mayor’s team,” she said in an email statement. “He is an intelligent, fair and selfless leader, an effective strategist and one of my most trusted advisors. I have had the great privilege of working with Jerome for seven years, and the people of Boston are lucky to have him on their side.”
Several residents said they had mixed feelings about Walsh’s most recent appointment.
Josian Figueroa, 33, of Dorchester, said the new installation will be beneficial to the community.
“It seems like a really important job to have,” he said. “As a community, we’re electing whoever we’re electing, and it’s easy not to know what they’re doing. We have to know what’s going on, and right now, I don’t think we really do.”
Paulette Rose, 48, of Boston, said she has low expectations for the new chief.
“I don’t think this is going to do anything. They don’t really want to hear our opinions,” she said. “So much money has been taken away from us already. They’ve taken away from unemployment funds, welfare and schools. This is just another way for them to control our money.”
Nick Mirsky, 27, of Brighton, said the people of Boston should not need an in-between in order to be able to know what the government is doing.
“You’d like to imagine that the government wouldn’t need someone whose job it is to be a bridge,” he said. “By its very nature, it suggests that it is needed. It suggests that there is a shortcoming in the government and its main function as an institution and the constituency that it’s supposed to represent.”