Columnists :: City Streets
City Council’s meetings violations harm the South End by Shirley Kressel
contributing writerWednesday Nov 9, 2011 They admit guilt, yet claim ignorance
The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) considers much of the South End an Urban Renewal Plan Area. Shocked? Take a look. Property designated as Urban Renewal Area Overlay Districet in the Area Plan (see BRA online map) is subject to the BRA’s urban renewal powers. These powers ability to take property by eminent domain and to exempt projects from zoning by "U-District" designation (i.e. 45 Stuart Street). Some of you must pay the BRA a share of the proceeds when you sell your property because it was once owned by the BRA.
This Urban Renewal Plan was to expire in December 2005, but in 2004, the BRA managed to extend the term of this and 18 other expiring Plans. The BRA got the City Council, which had approval power over "major modifications" of Plans including term extensions, to pass an ordinance extending all the Plans until 2015. More importantly, the BRA included language eliminating the whole concept of Council approval over "major modifications," so that in 2015, the BRA will claim that it can extend the Plans forever. That’s right, the BRA won’t need Council permission and, by extension, your permission.
How did this happen without public process? Perhaps you heard about the lawsuit filed in 2005 against the Boston City Council for a dozen violations of the Open Meeting Law. The BRA scheme eliminating City Council oversight was the topic of many of these meeting, held in secret, which violated the law.
That suit, filed by three registered voters-Kevin McCrea of the South End, Kathleen Devine of the Fenway and me of the Back Bay- just ended.
We plaintiffs won-but we citizens lost. Here’s why.
After five years of drawing out the suit with frivolous litigation, the Council admitted guilt on all the violations. However, the Court did not, as the Open Meeting Law requires, impose an injunction- an order to obey the Law in the future.
The Council fought long and hard to persuade the Court that they will behave lawfully without an injunctive order. For example, the Council’s lawyers wrote up a set of "guidelines" for Open Meeting Law compliance. The Court accepted this as evidence of the Councilors’ reform, even though the "guidelines" provide a road map for continuing violation. They allow small groups of Councilors to meet privately on Council matters and then let members of the groups meet privately to discuss those matters-just as they did in many of the admitted violations.
Further, as they were writing these guidelines, they had passed a City ordinance in secret- creating a new Council staff job to write a report urging exemption of the Council from the Open Meeting Law altogether, claiming it violates their First Amendment rights of free speech.
During the final Court hearing, three Council presidents testified. Maureen Feeney, with a puzzled frown, could not describe anything the Council did wrong. Michael Ross, an attorney, testified that he is not an expert on the Open Meeting Law and could not explain its requirements, although every Councilor gets a copy of the 3-page Law from the City Clerk at election. Steve Murphy told the Court that they never did anything wrong and blamed the city lawyers for flubbing the case. This, remember, is after the Council formally admitted guilt on 12 charges.
Still, the Court was not convinced of the Council’s disdain for transparency.
If the Council was committed to obeying the Open Meeting Law going forward, why did they fight an order to obey it? Because an injunction would make a future lawsuit easier, and more dangerous. Citizens could file charges for contempt of court without starting a new suit, paying hundreds of dollars in filing fees, laying out a whole new case, and fighting years of delay ploys. Contempt starts to get serious, especially for the lawyers on the Council.
After six years of litigation costing the taxpayers over $200,000 in lawyers’ fees, the City Council ended up at square one, as if nothing had happened. The Councilors can start afresh with new violations, knowing they can delay, obfuscate, and thumb their noses at the public and the court with no serious consequences. At worst, they’ll be told to obey the Law.
The Council will continue to violate the Open Meeting Law. They still use recesses to hold private meetings during public meetings. At their weekly public meetings, they can still take votes on any issues on the "green sheets," a list of hundreds of pending matters, without putting them on the agenda; they can just leave controversial matters unresolved for a while, and pop them onto the floor for a vote when no one is paying attention. They will, without a doubt, return to their old practices, because they believe they have a right to do so.
If you want honest public officials, you’ll have to get them at the ballot box, not in the courtroom.
And if you want to end the Urban Renewal Plans, tell your Councilors you’re watching.
Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect and urban designer, and one of the founders of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. She can be reached at Shirley.Kressel@verizon.net.