Mayor wants ‘monitoring’ of CACs

April 17, 2009
By

John Ruch

Yoon: Meetings should be open

Secret meetings by Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) community advisory committees (CACs) in Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods have drawn the attention of Mayor Thomas Menino and become an issue in the mayor’s race.

The Jackson Square CAC kicked a Gazette reporter out of two recent meetings—in one case with the support of a BRA official—and continues to debate the attendance and role of the press at its meetings. Similar actions by CACs—sometimes also called “task forces”—have been controversial for years across the city.

Menino has asked the BRA for “constant monitoring” of the openness of CAC meetings, Mayor’s Office spokesperson Dot Joyce told the Gazette. She said Menino understands CACs might want to hold closed-door meetings on “sensitive community issues,” but is against total secrecy.

“[Menino] doesn’t want those advisory groups or task forces to be having solely closed-door meetings,” Joyce said. “He’s absolutely against that.”

But both Menino and the BRA, who appoint the CAC members to review major real estate projects, continue to emphasize that they have no control over CAC actions. BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker said Menino’s request for CAC meeting monitoring was a “very casual” comment made in a standard cabinet meeting, and that the BRA has not made any major change in the process.

“I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything more [with CAC processes],” she said.

Mayoral candidates Kevin McCrea and Sam Yoon told the Gazette that all CAC meetings should be open to the public. McCrea previously told the Gazette that the current CAC process is “Orwellian, almost.”

Yoon, who recently held a council hearing about a Boston College project involving closed-door CAC deal-making, told the Gazette that he believes the state Open Meeting Law applies to such groups. Yoon also said the BRA should be assisting CACs in running a good planning process rather than claiming to have no control.

“What’s happening in Jackson Square is not an isolated case, and there’s need for reform,” Yoon said. “In order to get [planning] right, it requires some investment. In reading the [recent Gazette] story about the Jackson Square CAC, what’s clear to me is the city is not providing the infrastructure or support for that body to live up to its potential.”

Two years ago, after a Back Bay CAC kicked a reporter out of a meeting, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office issued warnings to the BRA that the group was violating the Open Meeting Law. The BRA claims that CACs are merely advisory groups that run themselves, and that the Open Meeting Law therefore does not apply to them. While various CACs operate differently from that description, no court has issued the final word on CAC openness.

“We want them to operate with the public there,” Shumaker said of CACs, but added, “We can’t tell them what to do.”

Menino believes the same thing, according to Joyce. “He believes [CACs] should be open,” she said. “At the same time, he understands…[members] are doing this on their own time and doing it on a volunteer basis and may want to have closed-door meetings” on certain issues.

Asked if “understanding” the urge for closed-door meetings means Menino agrees with closed-door meetings, Joyce said, “I think he understands it. I’m not sure he agrees one way or another. I think he needs more information.”

Joyce emphasized that the CAC process is “intended to be for the benefit of the community, not for the benefit of a few.”

“[Menino] has heard the concerns,” Joyce said about the CAC controversies. “He has spoken to the BRA about it.”

What exactly is Menino asking the BRA to do? “To look at [the CAC process] very closely,” Joyce said. “He’s reluctant to make an edict that would be set in stone forever,” she added, saying Menino believes that “flexibility” should be allowed in the CAC process.

“A contant monitoring, [is what] he’s looking for,” she said.

But, Shumaker said, Menino has made no formal request for monitoring to the BRA. She said that Menino merely discussed the CAC controversy, and the city’s opinion that the Open Meeting Law does not apply to CACs, in a standard city meeting that included BRA Director John Palmieri.

“We’re making sure more than ever” to publicize CAC meetings, Shumaker said. But otherwise, she said, the BRA is not handling the CAC process any differently.

CACs remain free to set their own meeting times, which are sometimes scheduled at odd hours or at the last minute, effectively preventing public participation. For example, a Mission Hill CAC held a recent meeting at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.

BRA Deputy Director Muhammad Ali-Salaam attended a recent Jackson Square CAC meeting—his first in years—to urge the CAC to hold open meetings, as the Gazette previously reported. Shumaker said Ali-Salaam did that on his own, not under BRA orders or as part of any new monitoring.

Yoon tied the CAC secrecy controversies into larger criticism of the BRA, saying it is focused on encouraging development rather than on community planning. He said that well-intentioned CAC members are caught in a deliberately ambiguous process ultimately intended to do whatever the mayor wishes—“the mayor and the BRA being synonymous.”

Noting that the Gazette previously was unable to get a formal response from the BRA about why CACs are set up in a way that allows closed-door meetings, Yoon said: “You’re not getting a straight answer because their purpose is political. They’re being seen as a kind of cover to justify a project’s legitimacy.”

At the recent Jackson Square CAC meeting, Ali-Salaam suggested a legal reason for allowing CAC secrecy. He emphasized that the Open Meeting Law does not apply to CACs because they are—at least on paper—purely advisory groups that the BRA does not control. Because of that status, they are protected from legal liability, he noted.

In any case, various CACs have behaved differently from that description. It remains unclear why various BRA officials have openly encouraged CAC secrecy or why some BRA officials participate in closed-door CAC meetings.

“God bless the individual members [of CACs] who are doing the hours and hours of volunteer work,” Yoon said. But, he added, they are often stuck in a system where there is “lack of clarity about what a CAC is.”

“A lot of them are set up to fail,” he said, referring to the lack of BRA support. “The BRA absolutely has the money and the talent and, I think, the staff willingness to make those meetings open. There just isn’t the political mandate to make that a priority.”

“The BRA’s entire mission would be turned on its head” if he becomes mayor, Yoon said. “The BRA has to make it clear that there’s a planning function that puts the community [in the role of] a client.”