No Rules, Few Records for CACs

July 10, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

BRA/mayor’s groups form, run with little info

The city-appointed citizens advisory committees (CAC) that review major Boston real estate developments—and that are notorious citywide for secrecy—are formed by the Mayor’s Office and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) with no standard rules, structures or operating procedures, a Gazette investigation has found.

There is no standard documentation about who is appointed to CACs and how, and the members receive no training, a BRA assistant secretary told the Gazette.

That was after she offered the Gazette thin BRA files on two area CACs that showed varying nomination processes—including members nominated by the BRA itself—and, in one case, no list of who was actually ap-pointed. The files were the BRA’s only response to a Gazette Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that sought complete records about the CACs’ formation and training.

Mayor Thomas Menino typically meets with the CAC members—often joined by the real estate developers—in City Hall for an “orientation” session. But Menino spokesperson Dot Joyce was unable to say exactly what is discussed in those meetings, and the Mayor’s Office ignored a Gazette FOIA request for any CAC-related re-cords.

CACs, composed of unpaid volunteers, are free to run by their own self-devised rules. But it appears that CAC members receive no standard training in running a meeting, community organizing, real estate terminology and processes and other basic aspects of their work.

BRA non-responses to requests for CAC information is typical, according to activists in Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods who have questioned CAC secrecy and process.

“I asked for rules. I didn’t get anything,” said JP resident Bill Allan of his FOIA request to the BRA last year. Allan, a member of Friends of the Kelly Rink, was seeking documentation on how the local Jackson Square CAC is supposed to operate. Allan said the BRA did provide him with some e-mails between the BRA and the CAC.

Brighton resident Abigail Furey, a member of Brighton Neighbors United and now a Boston City Council can-didate, told the Gazette that her group’s FOIA request to the BRA about a secretive Boston College CAC was met with similarly scant information and no real answers.

It is unclear what the motivation for non-responsiveness is. Even if the information sought in a FOIA request does not exist, the government agency is required to say so.

CAC members usually are nominated by various methods and officially appointed by the mayor. The BRA then organizes and staffs the CAC meetings. Despite this city involvement, the Mayor’s Office and the BRA claim they have no control over CACs and allow them to operate however they wish. BRA project managers frequently offer informal, on-the-spot advice to CACs.

CACs are sometimes known as Impact Advisory Groups (IAGs) or Task Forces. Technically, IAGs are a special type of group and the only one required in the zoning code, formed to review specific community mitigations for large projects. In addition, the BRA sometimes forms CACs for its own redevelopment projects, such as the new CAC for the improvement of Centre and South streets in JP.

While technically described as merely advisory to the BRA, CACs sometimes have other powers, including directly negotiating project details with developers. Those powers do not appear to be written down any-where.

In recent years, some CACs in JP and other neighborhoods have caused repeated controversies by kicking out reporters or other members of the public, holding secret meetings or attempting to limit reporting about the meetings, sometimes with the vocal encouragement of BRA officials.

A BRA official tried to declare an entire meeting of a Mission Hill CAC “off the record” last February. That CAC has a long history of unpublicized and early-morning meetings that cut off public access, though it has become more open following Gazette coverage.

Most recently, the Jackson Square CAC banned the media from its meetings. Gazette coverage of the contro-versy led the BRA to declare in a new policy that its staff will no longer attend any CAC meeting that is not completely open to the public, including reporters.

But that still leaves many questions unanswered about how CACs are organized and put in the position of reviewing multi-million-dollar developments that change the faces of entire neighborhoods.

The Gazette asked the BRA in March for information about the selection and training of CAC members, but got no response. In April, the Gazette filed the FOIA requests for all documentation—including staff e-mails and any standard official forms—about the selection and orientation of the Jackson Square and Mission Hill CACs.

Under federal and state open records laws, the city typically has a maximum of three weeks to provide records; or explain when and how they will be available; or state that the records do not exist. Three months later, the Mayor’s Office has not responded to the Gazette’s request.

The BRA’s response was providing access at the BRA’s City Hall offices to its incomplete public files—literally, two thin file folders—about the CACs’ nominations.

When the Gazette noted to BRA Assistant Secretary Tammy Donovan that the files did not fulfill the FOIA request, she said that there are no standard documents about CACs, including no training documents. She also said that she believes the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) handles the notification of appointment to individual CAC members.

No other BRA official responded to the Gazette’s request.

The scant information in the Jackson Square and Mission Hill CAC folders indicated a varied approach to forming the groups.

The Jackson Square CAC nominations in 2006 came from such official sources as local elected officials—but also from ONS and the BRA itself. A nomination letter included formal language saying the CAC would be lim-ited to 15 members, a “majority of whom must be residents, business owners or designees of community organi-zations in the affected area.”

The Mission Hill CAC nomination process in 2001 involved an apparently publicly distributed flyer seeking nominees. Unlike Jackson Square, the Mission Hill folder contained several e-mails and letters from resi-dents nominating themselves or fellow residents.

The Jackson Square CAC is technically an IAG, which might explain some differences in its process. How-ever, there was nothing in the records stating that. It is unclear whether the Mission Hill CAC is consid-ered an IAG.

The Jackson Square file did not include a list of actual appointees to the CAC. The BRA recently provided the Gazette with a list of members, which was out-of-date and did not appear in the file. The file’s list of nominees also was incomplete, as it did not reference some current CAC members at all. The Mission Hill file did have a membership list, though it is unclear how current it was.

Nothing in either file explained what appointees are told about their upcoming work and responsibilities. The only post-nomination document in either file was a Mission Hill resident’s personal e-mail to a BRA of-ficial, sent in 2001 as a “quick thank you for taking the time with Marcia and I.” There was no explanation of what that meant.

Best of JP 2014