BRA mum on secret meetings

March 20, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

The citizens advisory committees (CACs) organized by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and ap-pointed by the mayor to review major real estate developments are becoming notorious for secrecy.

The local Jackson Square CAC has kicked a Gazette reporter out of its last two meetings, in one case while a BRA official praised the value of private meetings. A Mission Hill CAC, which has a long history of unpublicized meetings, last month attempted to make an entire meeting “off the record” with the Gazette, in the words of a BRA official. In Brighton, a CAC’s behind-closed-doors deal on a college dorm project is drawing fire. And all of this follows warnings in 2007 from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office that some BRA CACs were violating the state Open Meeting Law.

In some cases, the CAC meetings have become more public following recent press attention.

The BRA insists that the Open Meeting Law does not apply to these advisory groups. The BRA prefers public meetings, it says, but claims it does not control the groups, which are free to discuss issues without pub-lic scrutiny.

But if the BRA prefers public meetings, why would it create the process in such a way that it can be pri-vate in the first place? And why do BRA officials so frequently praise privacy at the meetings?

Those were among several questions about CACs the Gazette recently gave to the BRA in written form, in-cluding a request for documentation on how CACs are selected and trained.

In response, the Gazette got a brief written statement that answered virtually none of the questions.

The following are the Gazette questions and the BRA response, in their entirety.

Questions

Why does the BRA prefer that CAC meetings be public?

If the BRA believes CAC meetings are best open to the public, why not simply form the CACs as official government bodies clearly subject to the Open Meeting Law?

Why are the CACs formed in such a way that CACs can vote themselves into private meetings?

Why do BRA officials not simply refuse to attend or participate in CAC meetings that are not public?

Why are CAC meetings sometimes not announced or publicized, making them effectively private?

If the BRA’s preference is for public meetings, why do project managers and BRA officials at the meetings often say differently? For example, [Deputy Director of Community Planning] Randi Lathrop declaring an en-tire Mission Hill CAC meeting “off the record,” or Blessed Sacrament [Jamaica Plain] CAC project manager Lance Campbell saying CAC meetings are always unpublicized because that allows “work to be done.” If that is not BRA policy, why do these officials think such things? Were they officially reprimanded for making such statements? What did the BRA do to correct such perceptions?

If the BRA has no power over the way CACs run meetings, how could Lathrop declare a meeting “off the record”? Or, conversely, how can project managers promise that all CAC meetings will be public? Is there anything that prevents BRA officials from encouraging or discouraging votes about private meetings?

If CACs are purely advisory, why do they often do more than advise in practice? For example, the Mission Hill CAC is directly negotiating project details with the developer, and the Jackson Square Coordinating Group [in JP] wrote project recommendations that were attached as an appendix to the RFP.

What exactly are CAC members told in their orientation at City Hall? Are they specifically told that they have the power to make the meetings private?

Are CAC members provided by the city with any information or advice about communicating with the media and with other members of the public? If so, what is the information/advice?

Are BRA officials provided with any training about the Open Meeting Law and/or general principles of pro-viding information to citizens and the media? If so, what is the training?

Do all CACs form under the same process and operate under the same rules? Are the process and rules actu-ally written down or documented somewhere? If so, can we get a copy of them?

BRA response

We encourage everyone to attend the various CAC, IAG and Task Force meetings, including members of the media. To ensure that all citizens can attend these meetings, our staff posts CAC, IAG and Task Force meet-ings on the BRA’s web site calendar and notifies community members via e-mail.

Even though these groups are advisory to the BRA and they have no official voting power, we believe in an open and transparent process where everyone can observe the work that these volunteer groups are assisting us with.

These meetings are only one part of the public process that we conduct. In addition to the working ses-sions that these groups hold, the BRA also hosts community-wide meetings to get input from all interested citizens. Further, we also provide a written public comment period so people can submit their opinions via e-mail, fax or mail.

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