Jackson CAC votes to ban media

May 1, 2009
By

David Taber

JPNC unanimous in its disapproval

After about 40 minutes of private deliberation and without further comment, the Jackson Square citizens advisory committee (CAC) at its April 23 meeting announced a decision to ban the media from that and all future meetings.

City and state elected officials, as well as the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC), decried the CAC’s decision in the days following the meeting, which was held at New Academy Estates in Egleston Square.

At its April 28 meeting at the Nate Smith House, the JPNC, which has a representative on the CAC voted unanimously to call for all community planning meetings to be open to the press.

Mayor Thomas Menino has previously said that he opposes CACs adopting a policy of always barring people from their meetings.

“He is totally against that,” Mayor’s Office Spokesperson Dot Joyce previously told the Gazette.

The CAC, like similar groups throughout the city, was convened by the city to provide Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) staff members with community input about development issues. The Jackson Square CAC is playing that role for a $250 million, multi-site redevelopment project being undertaken on nine acres of public land in that neighborhood by a team of developers including the JP-based community development corporations Urban Edge and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC).

The question of whether the press would be allowed to cover meetings was the first item on the April 23 meeting agenda, the Gazette first learned at the meeting. When the meeting was convened, the public—including the press, aides from state Reps. Jeffery Sánchez and Liz Malia’s offices, and representatives from the development team—were asked to step outside. BRA deputy director for planning Muhammad Ali-Salaam also attended the meeting and stepped outside when the public was asked to leave for the CAC’s private deliberation.

Ali-Salaam did not respond to Gazette phone calls for this article.

When the public was invited back in, the CAC announced it had, after a series of votes, voted to not allow the press to cover future CAC meetings. Gazette editor and publisher Sandra Storey, who attended the meeting, asked to speak, but was told she could not. Despite that, she reiterated a previous offer to sit down with CAC members individually or as a group to discuss how media and community groups can work together constructively.

Storey and this reporter then voluntarily left the meeting, leaving the Gazette unable to report on its content.

The CAC’s recent efforts are just the latest iteration of a community process that, since the 1990s, has helped to define the scope of and provide guidance for the project.

Prior to the development team—Jackson Square Partners (JSP)—receiving designation as the developer for the sites in 2005, state Rep. Sánchez—at the time working for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services—and the BRA were involved in running broad “visioning” processes for the sites. A BRA-run group called the Jackson Square Coordinating Group (JCG) conducted that process. The CAC was formed after the development team was designated. Its responsibility is the marathon task of reviewing the teams increasingly specific plan for the sites in real time, as planning, and eventually construction, move forward.

Sánchez recently told the Gazette he strongly disagrees with the CAC’s decision.

“I am definitely concerned and I would ask them to rethink their position. They should keep their doors open to everyone. That’s how it started out,” Sánchez said.

He also praised the Gazette for having played a key role in keeping the public informed about the process. “Keeping the community informed about what’s going on translated this from a vision into a project with [over $10 million] in funding,” he said.

At the JPNC’s April 28 meeting, JPNC chair Jésus Gerena said, “As somebody who’s been involved with Jackson Square [planning] for 10 years, I think its sad the CAC voted that way.”

The community fought for years to get public input, he said, and sought to bridge traditional neighborhood and cultural boundaries as it developed a community vision for the project.

The CAC decision “is not about creating bridges. This is not about sharing information. It’s sad,” he said.

Gerena is on the staff of the Hyde Square Task force (HSTF), a community organization that is involved with Jackson Square Partners. He said he was not representing HSTF or JSP in his comments at the JPNC meeting.

In addition to the CDCs and HSTF, Jackson Square Partners includes for-profit developer Mitchell Properties. The developers are mostly working on individual projects under the JSP umbrella.

Some of those plans have hit roadblocks. But city and state funding, including allocations from the federal American Relief and Recovery Act, clear the way for the team to begin work this year despite the recession. With the funding, the team hopes to begin public infrastructure work and Mitchell Properties hopes to begin work on a 103-unit residential building with ground-floor retail at 225 Centre St. on of Columbus Avenue north of the Jackson Square T Station.

The Gazette has been attempting to attend CAC meetings regularly since January after Urban Edge told the Gazette its plans build a state Department Of Youth Services (DYS) facility on property it owns on the corner of Ritchie Street and Columbus Avenue had fallen through earlier in 2008.

The Gazette complied with CAC requests that it leave two of the four meetings it attended between prior to the April meeting.

In a phone interview after the recent meeting, Urban Edge President Mossik Hacobian said, “We would prefer the CAC work to be completely visible and transparent to the community…I would like to think if they are fulfilling their responsibility on behalf of the community then [press coverage] shouldn’t be an issue.”

But he said, “As an empowered community group, they have strong views about how they would like to conduct their business.”

And, from the developer’s perspective, the CAC itself is in the driver’s seat, Hacobian said. “They set the guidelines about how we interact. We present the information they ask us for when they ask us for it. We try to be as transparent as we can be to the CAC and the community.”

In an e-mail, BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker reiterated the city’s position, previously reported by the Gazette, that the city also has no control over the CAC.

The membership of the CAC has apparently changed drastically and experienced a fall-off since its inception three years ago and it is unclear if all of the members are aware of how it has run itself in the past. At a previous meeting, BRA project manager Sinclair noted that the CAC had originally declared its meetings open to the public including the press.

At recent meetings the Gazette has attended, there have regularly not been more than eight CAC members present. Sinclair had also previously brought up that on paper the group has 23 members. Under its original rules, 11 members have to be present to constitute a voting quorum.

At the April 23 meeting, Sinclair said the CAC could change its quorum rules.

The BRA did not respond to a Gazette request for a copy of the original CAC rules.

In response to a Gazette question about that decision, Shumaker said, “Sinclair…did not advise the CAC that they could suspend the quorum rules…Since the CAC can decide on its own rules, Mr. Sinclair simply stated that should they wish to, they could update how they define a quorum.”

Whether CAC’s are subject to other rules, namely the state Open Meeting Law is a disputed point. In 2007, Suffolk County District Attorney District attorney’s office issued a legal opinion stating that two other BRA advisory groups are subject to the open meeting law. The BRA subsequently issued a response disputing that opinion. No one has mounted a legal challenge to the BRA’s opinion, and the issue remains unresolved.

But many side with the DA.

“I think [CAC meetings] are subject to open meeting laws,” Sánchez said.

“I’m not sure what they are thinking, I’m not sure this is legal,” Malia said when asked for a response from the Gazette.

Referring to a suit filed against City Council for violating open meeting laws, City Councilor John Tobin said, “That’s the thing that got our body into trouble with the open meeting laws, was the BRA. If I was the BRA, I wouldn’t be excluding [anyone]. I wouldn’t be shutting people out.”

Shumaker said the BRA does encourage CAC openness. “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,“ she said.

Hacobian said the lack of clarity from public officials makes it hard for the CAC or the developers to know what to do.

“Even folks in the public sector charged with interpretation of what the rules mean are not in agreement,” he said. “You certainly can’t fault the CAC or us for not having reconciled our different views.”

Mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea suggested that, in prohibiting press coverage, the CAC is not fulfilling its responsibility.

“It’s appointed by the mayor, supposedly representing the citizens, yet they want to exclude themselves from the citizens. It just doesn’t make any logical sense,” he said.

CAC members have previously said that their rationale for not wanting press coverage of their meetings is they have “work to do” and some members generally distrust for the media. At the JPNC meeting, Red Burrows, who represents the JPNC on the CAC, said that at the closed session of the CAC on April 23, “There were some people who felt the coverage from the Jamaica Plain Gazette was biased and unfair, and some who thought they were quoted wrong…They were the loudest voice in the room.”

Many observers said barring press coverage creates the appearance of impropriety.

Tobin described it as “suspect. We are not talking about top secrets here. We are talking about a development we have been talking about for years…It’s a public issue. It’s supposed to be a public process.”

The JPNC’s motion in support of open meetings was offered by Burrows. It states that, “It is the policy of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council to make all meetings of community planning open to the public, including the press.”

Burrows will still participate in the CAC on behalf of the JPNC.

The JPNC discussed the Open Meeting Law, but it was considered by some to be a peripheral issue. The meeting s should be open in any case, said JPNC member David Baron. “I don’t really care if the Open Meeting Law applies.”

In the discussion, JPNC member Kathy Holland spoke in support of an imperfect press, saying she has been misquoted in newspapers before, but does not see that as a reason to ban the press from public meetings.

At the meeting, Colleen Keller from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services expressed support for the motion.

Speaking to the Gazette, and voicing a personal opinion, Mike Frank said the CAC decision makes no sense to him, personally.

“What I want to know is, how do you ban the media and not the public? The media are there representing the public. What’s to prevent anyone in the public from reporting? What are they talking about that is so hot? If you don’t want what you say in the paper, then you don’t want to be on the CAC.”

Frank is a member of Friends of Kelly Rink, which has been working with Urban Edge on a controversial plan to build a new permanent home for Kelly Rink in Jackson Square, but said he was not speaking for that group.

Steve Glickel, another member of Friends of Kelly, who was also speaking personally, said, conversations about “the disposition of public land for the public good should be covered [by the media].”

Referring to potential complaints about media coverage, he said that sometimes “people have a right to be upset. You write a letter to the editor.”

Glickel attended the April 23 meeting as a member of the public.

Hacobian applauded CAC members for continuing to volunteer their time for the development project. “The six or eight people putting in time deserve a lot of credit for their effort,” he said. “But another reason I think transparency is helpful is everyone can’t be at the meeting. More press coverage helps keep people informed.”

Other members of JSP did not respond to Gazette requests for comment. JPNDC referred the Gazette to a press statement previously offered by JPNDC director Richard Thal on behalf of JSP. “The JSP LLC supports inclusive and transparent planning processes for any development project in which we’re involved. We appreciate the work of community representatives and hope and expect that the press will fairly handle the complexities of the issues involved in any major development project,” the statement said.

The Gazette reported last month that City Councilor and mayoral candidate Sam Yoon said he thinks the City and the BRA do not provide enough infrastructure and support for CACs.

At that time, City Hall spokesperson Dot Joyce told the Gazette Mayor Thomas Menino had called for “constant monitoring” of the openness of CACs. Joyce did not return Gazette phone calls for this article.

John Ruch and Sandra Storey contributed to this article.

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