Openness a major issue for both
City Councilor Michael Flaherty and real estate developer Kevin McCrea have announced runs for the Mayor’s Office in a campaign whose main buzzword is government “transparency.”
Flaherty and McCrea agree on a couple of things. Both complain that longtime incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino—who is widely presumed to be running yet again—operates the city with private deals and lack of public input. And both cite a 2005 lawsuit about Boston City Council violations of the state Open Meeting Law as an inspira-tion for their open-government stances.
Then there’s the big difference: Flaherty was the lead defendant in that lawsuit. McCrea was one of the plaintiffs.
The case, like the race, is called McCrea v. Flaherty.
Flaherty told the Gazette he has learned his lesson from the case and become an open-government activist. McCrea’s co-plaintiff, Shirley Kressel, said Flaherty has continued complaining about the Open Meeting Law’s existence, while McCrea has been the open-government activist all along.
The lawsuit will be back in court on Feb. 24, where both sides are seeking to settle with a full admission of guilt by the city, Kressel said. Previous court decisions have already blasted the City Council’s actions.
“Looking back on it, it’s regrettable,” Flaherty said of the Open Meeting Law violations in a Gazette phone interview last week. “I’m young and I’m human. I’ve made mistakes as a member of Boston City Council, and I’ll make mistakes as mayor.” The important thing is learning from mistakes, he said.
“Flaherty has been there for nine years,” said Kressel. “He’s been part of the problem, and now he wants to be a bigger part. [McCrea is] our only hope for all the things that Flaherty is promising.”
The campaigns of McCrea and Menino did not respond to Gazette interview requests. City Councilor Sam Yoon is also considering a mayoral run, but has made no official announcements yet.
No one is officially a candidate yet because nomination papers are not available until April. The city pre-liminary election will be held Sept. 22, followed by the final election Nov. 3.
Flaherty, a South Boston attorney and former prosecutor, had some scathing words of his own for Menino. He blasted the current administration’s “culture of pay-to-play politics and petty payback politics.”
“All too often, you’re not embraced by the merit of your idea or the strength of your proposal or your pas-sion and commitment to the city,” Flaherty said. “All too often, it’s who you hire, who represents you, who brings you into the building.”
Asked for specific examples, Flaherty spoke largely off-the-record. But he did point to the city’s system of securing payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, from major nonprofit institutions such as colleges that use city services.
Current PILOTs vary widely, and it remains unclear exactly how they were calculated, with no descriptions in the contracts on file at City Hall. After years of City Council efforts to reform the PILOT system, Menino this month announced a task force that will take a shot at devising a standard PILOT formula. However, it appears there will still be no information about how current PILOTs were calculated.
“It’s loose and it’s inconsistent,” Flaherty said of the PILOT system. “It lends itself to a pay-for-play culture…[It’s] more about who [the institutions] hire, who their consultants are,” he said.
He also faulted Menino for only now addressing PILOTs—whose cash amounts are widely considered shockingly low—in a time of fiscal crisis and political opportunity.
“That’s management by crisis,” Flaherty said.
“I would like to mandate a fair and balanced tax for those colleges and universities,” Flaherty said. “I want to make that formula open and transparent.”
Flaherty quietly began a mayoral campaign more than a year ago with kitchen-table meetings in the homes of regular residents in an attempt to get grassroots input into his campaign. He announced his run with a video on YouTube. Those grassroots connections and Internet accessibility will be hallmarks of his mayoral administra-tion, he said.
“The thing I’ll be a stickler for is transparency and accountability,” Flaherty said. “I want everything on-line. I want all of the contracts that the city issues online. I want City Hall to be an open book.”
This week, Flaherty proposed a system that would allow city employees to anonymously criticize and suggest improvements in city services.
Asked about neighborhood-specific issues, Flaherty said he will have a series of proposals to address local-ized concerns. “Obviously, Jamaica Plain is going to be a critical neighborhood” in winning the Mayor’s Office, he said.
When the Gazette mentioned the ongoing wave of youth violence in parts of JP, Flaherty said he will press for hiring more city Streetworkers—counselors who conduct youth outreach—and getting them inside Boston Public Schools.
He also called for more police officers, but also a more diverse police force with officers who “look like the face of the city.”
“Transparent” and “accountable” are words that show up in McCrea’s campaign announcement, too. They are the same key terms McCrea, a South End resident and active Democrat, used when he ran unsuccessfully for a citywide Boston City Council seat in 2005.
“We need to end the cycle of career politicians,” McCrea said in a written statement. “I’m not locked into a political system that dictates I must ‘go along to get along.’”
He has called for cutting taxes, a focus on neighborhood schools and cutting administrative staff in the school system in favor of classroom resources.
McCrea also raised a number of questions he has posed to the Menino administration: “Why has Mayor Thomas Menino given away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of City-owned property to the BRA [Boston Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-government agency]? Why doesn’t Boston have transparent government? Why have the ranks of City Hall employees increased, while the population stays level and student enrollment falls?”
“I am going to end waste and abuse in Boston city government,” McCrea wrote. “I will ensure that all of our public officials, boards and agencies are held accountable for their decisions.”
Open Meeting lawsuit
McCrea, along with Kressel and co-plaintiff Kathleen Devine, certainly held the City Council accountable with the lawsuit, which revealed 11 private council meetings in 2003-05, when Flaherty was council president.
Courts have fined the city $11,000 and issued withering criticism of the meetings, known as “councilor’s-only meetings.” Ten of the meetings were with Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) officials to discuss renewing the agency’s wide-ranging urban renewal powers. The other meeting was about a disease outbreak at a lab at Boston University, which has controversial plans to open a biolab studying extremely dangerous diseases.
The Open Meeting Law requires all government bodies to hold advertised, public meetings with only a few ex-ceptions, such as discussion of personnel issues or real estate negotiations. The law’s purposes are to prevent secret decision-making and to ensure public, democratic input.
Courts have found that the City Council meetings deliberately violated the law in various ways, including by attempting to get around it by rotating councilors in and out of the meetings so there was technically never a quorum present. Four councilors refused to join the meetings, calling them improper.
The BU meeting was the target of a warning letter from Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. But the BRA meetings remained unknown to the public until McCrea and the other plaintiffs learned of them while closely following BRA activity.
The city lost the lawsuit in 2006, but appealed. According to Kressel, city attorneys are now willing to set-tle the suit with a full admission of guilt, but also an attempt to prevent any court order that would punish the council more for future violations.
The council was already under a previous order for highly similar Open Meeting Law violations in 1987.
Flaherty is not directly involved in the current lawsuit, which is in the hands of city attorneys. He con-firmed to the Gazette that his personal inclination would have been not to appeal it.
“At the time, I felt I acted appropriately,” Flaherty said. “The courts suggested that another course of ac-tion was more prudent. I accept the court’s decision, and lesson learned.” That lesson, he added, is to operate on total transparency.
Asked if he was aware while council president of the 1987 Open Meeting Law court ruling, Flaherty said, “No. I was in high school at the time,” adding that he was likely focused on the prom and a summer job. “I can assure you I was not paying attention.”
His proclaimed conversion on the lessons of the lawsuit is certainly strong. When the lawsuit was first filed, Flaherty believed it to be “frivolous, politically motivated and just not based on fact,” his spokesper-son told the Gazette at the time. That spokesperson was Andrew Kenneally, who this year has a campaign of his own for a City Council seat.
Kressel said she doubts the sincerity of Flaherty’s conversion. She noted that the council last year agreed to pay an aide to former council president Councilor Maureen Feeney to produce an eccentric report calling for the City Council to be exempt from the Open Meeting Law. While it was full of legal opinion, the aide who wrote it had no legal background. The report originated in the council’s Committee on Rules and Administration, where Flaherty is a member.
“They’re still violating the law,” Kressel added, noting that councilors often hold “private meetings in pub-lic” by huddling together and discussing things quietly in the midst of council meetings.
Flaherty specifically has said that “we need our privacy to thrash out deals,” she said. “He actually used the term ‘sausage factory’” in positive terms to defend council secrecy, she said, without realizing the term is supposed to be a criticism. It comes from the joke that “laws and sausages” are two products whose creation is too disgusting to watch.
Local City Councilor John Tobin, who attended the BU meeting but avoided the BRA meetings, has made similar defenses of the council’s ability to hold private discussions. However, the Open Meeting Law does not ban pri-vate discussions, only private deliberation or decision-making.
“What do we have to expect in the future from these councilors…who see the law as an impediment?” Kressel said. “They have no respect for the law and no respect for the citizens.”
Kressel said she is not a personal friend of McCrea and will not work actively on his campaign, but is sup-porting his candidacy.
“Hey, I’m supporting a developer! He must be good!” Kressel said with a laugh.
McCrea has reported that one lawsuit settlement idea rejected by city attorneys was the creation of a “Sun-shine Task Force” similar to one in San Francisco. An official government panel, it advocates open-meeting meth-ods and reviews public complaints about secrecy. Asked whether he would support creating such a task force in Boston, Flaherty declined to comment, noting that it could still be a part of the settlement talks, which he would not want to influence.