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Closed-door meetings with economic development agency violated open meeting laws

John Andrews, MCHC, John Andrews, MCHC

March 30, 2006
Meetings with Development Authority Violated Law, Judge Says
by John Andrews, MCHC

Open meeting laws were violated when the Boston City Council and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) met in closed meetings to discuss urban renewal plans, zoning, and other matters according to a ruling from Superior Court Justice Nancy Staffner Holtz. The Court fined the Council $11,000 for excluding the public from some 11 meetings held over a two-year period.

One of the meetings in question concerned an accidental exposure to biological agents that occurred at a Boston University laboratory – a matter that could be relevant to permit applications for the proposed BU biolab.

The fines were the result of a lawsuit brought by three citizens, Kevin McCrea Shirley Kressel, and Kathleen Devine.

According to plaintiff Kressel, “The City Council gave away oversight powers over the BRA that it needs to protect the public interest. And the BRA sees its job as serving developers, not the public. That leaves the public with no one to go to when we are not treated right. We deserve to be present when those rights are being discussed.”

City Councilor Felix Arroyo had protested the closed meetings in several letters. When Council President Michael Flaherty went ahead anyway, Arroyo refused to participate.

The judge concluded that the City Council was well aware that the Open Meeting Law required them to admit members of the public to their meetings. The Council tried to skirt the law by having only six Councilors present at once, arguing that because seven were required for a quorum, it was not an official meeting. When a seventh councilor entered the room, one of the councilors present was asked to leave. The judge dismissed this tactic, noting that “the Council’s attempt to head count its way around the Open Meeting Law is without merit.”

The judge concluded that the meetings were used to forge agreements with the BRA on the extension of its urban renewal plans. The ruling noted that when the Council finally met to vote on approval of the plans, “the public meeting was little more than a pro forma meeting to confirm an agreement which had by and large been reached in secret.”

The plaintiffs stressed that important concerns can be overlooked when the public is not able to monitor Council meetings such as those with the development agency. Kressel noted that some Councilors were anxious to expedite development because of their connections to developers or to pro-development construction unions. “The pressure groups want to see a lot of construction, but often they don’t care what is being built. The public does care. It affects our neighborhoods and our environment. So the public needs to be present to speak up and influence what gets torn down and what gets built in its place.”

Kressel also finds the BRA’s use of eminent domain to be a troubling development. “Government has always had the right to use eminent domain to take property for legitimate governmental uses. But the BRA is taking property from one private party to give it to another private party for private profit. This turns the constitutional justification for eminent domain on its head.“

Although finding the Council guilty of violating the open meeting law, the court denied a plea to overturn the Council’s vote extending the BRA’s urban renewal plans because the lawsuit was filed after a 21-day time limit. The BRA is moving ahead with the plans approved by the City Council. The citizen activists are still trying to find out the details of the understanding between the Council and the BRA that formed the basis for the approval for the plan’s extension.

Keeping the Public in the Dark

The closed-door tactics employed by the Boston City Council and Boston’s economic development agency comes at a time when real estate interests are pressing hard to increase the power of such agencies on a statewide basis. Three bills are currently making their way through the Legislature:

• An “expedited permitting” bill – written largely by real estate interests – which would reduce opportunities for public scrutiny of development proposals.
• The Jones-Stanley bill for privatization of state land which would place key decision-making authority over land privatization in the hands of gubernatorial appointees, bypassing local reuse committees and marginalizing municipal planners.
• An “economic stimulus” bill that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars, some funneled through MassDevelopment, to build facilities and infrastructure for private industry.

If this suite of bills are enacted, they would give the state’s MassDevelopment agency (Massachusetts Development Finance Agency) unprecedented powers to push through development at its “priority development sites”. This is a popular idea on Beacon Hill, but does not sit well with some community activists and officials. Community activists claim that quasi-public agencies, like Massport and MassDevelopment, often forget their obligations to the public, and become instruments used by corporations to further private agendas.

Towns that have been involved with MassDevelopment during the Fort Devens redevelopment have criticized the agency for keeping the towns in the dark about its dealings with developers. A report released by the Selectmen of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley in 2001 noted that meetings of the Devens Enterprise Council (DEC) were not friendly to public input. It stated that “Town residents who appear before the DEC at public hearings have perceived the DEC as often dismissive of public testimony. There is a sense among many that the decisions are pre-determined by the time of the hearing”.


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