BRA: Staff members won’t attend closed meetings

May 15, 2009
By

David Taber

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) is directing its staff not to attend Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) sessions that are not open to the public, including the media, BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker told the Gazette on May 6.

The move came after the Jackson Square CAC—a city convened group charges with providing community input on a major redevelopment project in Jackson Square—voted in a private session at its April 23 meeting to ban the media from all of its future meetings. “We haven’t had a group make this kind of decision before,” Shumaker said.

Brenda McKenzie, a BRA senior staffer, on May 12 told the Gazette that it has always been BRA policy to not attend closed-door community meetings. ‘The policy is the same” she said, but staff members are being reminded.

She said she did not think the policy clarification will appear in a written document.

At the April 23 meeting, BRA project manager Rodney Sinclair sat in on the closed-door session where the CAC decided to ban the media. Sinclair also remained at two previous Jackson Square CAC meetings after the Gazette was asked to leave.

Following those meetings, the Gazette asked the BRA why it allowed staffers to attend closed meetings. The question was part of a list of Gazette questions e-mailed to the BRA about the CAC process. The BRA’s response did not discuss any specifics about the BRA’s criteria for sending staffers to meetings.

Shumaker noted that it would be difficult for BRA staffers to gather community input from meetings they did not attend. “How do you take advice from a group if you are not there?” she asked.

The hope is that the threat of a BRA staff boycott will be enough to keep CACs from holding private meetings, Shumaker said.

But if CACs chose to meet in private, the BRA would have to “change how we get neighborhood advice…We will have to make a greater effort to reach out to the community at large.”

The wisdom of the CACs decision at the April 23 meeting was questioned by local elected officials, community members, and at least one of the developers involved in the project.

“I think it’s appropriate, and I am happy that the BRA responded quickly,” state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez said of the recent BRA clarification of its policy.

The CAC has a responsibility to the whole community, he said, it should not just be “a small group in a closed room.”

“Why should anybody be shut out?” City Councilor John Tobin asked. “We are not building the atom bomb here.”

CAC members’ rationale for preventing media coverage of meetings included concerns about their statements at meetings being misrepresented.

Contacted by the Gazette, Jackson Square CAC chair Rodney Singleton declined to comment, saying he had not heard about the BRA policy regarding staff attendance.

McKenzie told the Gazette she plans to attend the next Jackson Square CAC meeting. She plans to “strongly encourage them to keep the meetings open to the public and transparent so everyone can participate,” she said. The next meeting has not yet been scheduled.

The Gazette was asked to leave two previous Jackson Square CAC meetings since January, once by unanimous vote, and once by an informal request.

Previously, Shumaker told the Gazette the BRA has no control over how CACs conduct business.

The new policy does not directly contradict that. “We can’t dictate [to the CACs] because it’s a community process and an organic process,” McKenzie said. “All we can do is explain to them why it’s important to us.”

Shumaker noted that CACs could still to go into what she described as “executive sessions,” where all members of the public are asked to leave the meeting. BRA staffers would not participate in those sessions, she said.

The BRA also maintains that CAC proceedings are not subject to the Open Meeting Law. CACs are advisory groups, the BRA says, with no decision-making power, and do not directly advise the BRA board, but BRA staffers. In legal opinions regarding other similar BRA citizen advisory groups, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office has disputed that claim of exemption.

“There is no change [in our position] on the Open Meeting Law,” Shumaker said.

In a May 7 editorial supporting open CAC meetings, the Dorchester Reporter applauded the BRA’s announcment that it would not attend closed meetings, but said, “The BRA should take an even tougher stand by putting the CAC on formal notice that its ban—unless reversed—will render its further work moot. And if the group refuses, a new community process should commence that will include all members of the public—reporters included—in their meetings.”

The Reporter also suggested that the CAC should “make [those concerns] known vigorously through letters to the editor and other media. Perhaps the group should consider starting a blog or posting their meetings on YouTube.”

CACs are convened by the City to provide BRA staffers with community input about development projects. Sometimes, as is the case with the Jackson Square CAC, they are a required part of large project design review under Article 80 of the city’s zoning code. In the code they are referred to as impact advisory groups, and are specifically charged with providing input about community mitigation.

Generally, projects that include over 50,000 square feet of floor space are subject to large project review and approval by the BRA board.

The $250 million multi-developer, multi-phase Jackson Square redevelopment project falls well within the criteria for large project review. Developers plan to build hundreds of units of affordable and market rate housing, new retail, a community center and a community athletics facility on 9 acres of mostly publicly owned land in the neighborhood.

Correction: Boston Redevelopment Authority staff person Brenda McKenzie’s name was misspelled on two occasions in the print version of this article.