Two BUGs seek a single future

September 7, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

The highly public attempt by activists to take control of the mostly defunct Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG) last year failed. Now, there are two versions of BUG negotiating with each other about the non-profit’s fate.

The original BUG board, which still controls the group’s cash and assets, is known as “Group A,” and the upstart activists are “Group B,” according to Group B member Greg Murphy.

Group A is now in talks with the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) to take control of its real estate, Murphy said. But nothing has happened yet, he added, causing more of the frustrations that led to the coup attempt in the first place.

“When the dust settles, not much has happened,” said Murphy. “I think there’s even more of a growing dissatisfaction on my group’s end about [the lack of action].”

The situation at least gives people plenty to talk about at Group B’s annual meeting next week. [See JP Agenda.] Murphy said that Group A, while apparently not considering Group B to be BUG, has not objected to it holding the annual meeting in BUG’s name.

“I think there’s a certain level of trust and respect [that] has been built up,” Murphy said.

Group A members Helen Strieder and Claire Lupton, who have been involved in the negotiations with Group B, did not return Gazette phone calls for this article. BNAN also did not return a Gazette phone call.

BUG was once a pioneer of urban community gardens, operating from a Chestnut Avenue headquarters next to its Southwest Corridor Community Farm. But it went dormant in 2000.

Since then, the original BUG board has been sitting on more than $400,000 and eight pieces of real estate, including six community gardens in Jamaica Plain and Dorchester.

Activists have regularly pleaded for BUG to liquidate its assets or at least maintain its gardens. Various board members have repeatedly promised that some such liquidation was right around the corner, but it has never happened.

Group B’s coup came about a year ago when Southwest Corridor Community Farm members found BUG’s bylaws and realized that the original board appeared to be violating them in various ways, including not responding to membership requests and not holding an annual meeting.

It remains unclear whether Group A even still officially exists as a non-profit, with rumors circulating that it may have begun an official dissolution process at some point.

Group B members held a public annual meeting in September, 2006. After that, they expected Group A to turn over BUG’s assets to them. But that didn’t happen.

“Whoever’s in control of the assets has the power. They still have the assets,” Murphy said.

However, Group A didn’t totally reject Group B. Instead, the two BUGs held two or three negotiation meetings between last September and April. Another meeting may be held later this month.

“From my perspective, in some ways, little progress has been made,” Murphy said of those meetings. “In some ways, a working relationship has been established.”

The main theme of the meetings has been both groups revealing their proposals for BUG’s liquidation, Murphy said.

He said Group A’s first proposal involved transferring the gardens and other land to the Dorchester Gardenlands Preserve. They also proposed donating about $300,000 of the cash to the Trust for Public Land to create a small grant program for community gardens.

“That proposal was met with dismay” by Group B, Murphy said.

Group B members weren’t thrilled with the idea of Dorchester Gardenlands Preserve, which is reportedly undergoing its own gradual reorganization. And while donation of money sounded nice, Murphy said, Group B members preferred to see some cash go to long-deferred maintenance of the gardens.

“Before you start giving away money, take care of your own,” he said.

Group B had a proposal of its own built on a “business plan” model, Murphy said.

In the short term, it involved raising cash by selling one then-unused community garden and one never-used parcel, both in Dorchester, as well as transferring a small Dorchester park to city control.

Murphy said Group B estimated this could boost BUG’s cash reserves to $600,000 or $700,000—enough to start maintaining the remaining gardens until the real estate transfer question could be resolved.

More immediately, Group B proposed spending some of the existing $400,000 on environmental testing of the gardens to check for any lead or arsenic contamination, because cleanup costs could affect the sale or transfer of the plots.

On the issue of ultimate ownership of the gardens, Murphy said, Group B proposed BNAN and helped Group A get back in touch with that organization, which operates various gardens and parks around the city.

Group A had negotiated with BNAN years before and thought that door was closed, Murphy said. “They were heartened to hear maybe BNAN was a potential alternative,” he said.

While Group A has declined the environmental testing idea, it has reportedly begun talks with BNAN again, Murphy said, adding that Group B has not been directly involved in those talks.

BNAN would make sure that “gardeners have a home in the future,” Murphy said. But, he added, Group B members remain wary of how Group A has been in talks with other organizations before—including BNAN—with no results.

“People are really frustrated and want this deal done, and in some ways, BNAN is the only game in town,” Murphy said. Even if an ownership decision was made today, executing it could take at least a year, he noted.

How long that frustration can last, and how long two BUGs can work together, remain to be seen. Calling in the state Attorney General’s Office, which oversees non-profit registrations, to clarify the unusual situation is not off the table, Murphy said.

“We’re avoiding the final step of going to the attorney general with this,” he said. “We don’t want to play the legal card, but we might, and certainly [some] people in my group are advocating for that.”

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