Route 39 bus planning resumes in secret meetings

December 4, 2009
By

John Ruch

The MBTA has resumed planning major changes to the Route 39 bus line in deliberately secret meetings, the Gazette has learned.

Even one member of the “citizens working group” advising the MBTA on the process was unaware that planning had resumed and that it includes such major proposals as removing bus stops in front of two senior housing buildings in Jamaica Plain.

“These were not intended to be public meetings,” said MBTA project manager Eric Scheier in a Gazette interview. Asked what harm a public meeting would do, Scheier said, “It doesn’t harm. It’s more productive when you can stay focused on the issue at hand. You can’t accomplish as much [with a public meeting].”

The MBTA’s press office provided a statement to the Gazette confirming that working group meetings are “not public meetings,” in the agency’s mind.

At the same time, Scheier apologized for not notifying the Gazette of the meetings, and said that the “public has been welcome to attend”—though there was no way for most people to know the meetings existed in the first place. The MBTA intends to hold a large-scale community meeting next month to unveil the new proposals, after the detailed decision-making has happened behind closed doors.

Representatives of the Mayor’s Office and City Councilor John Tobin’s office reportedly have attended at least one of the meetings, apparently by invitation only. No one issued any kind of public announcement about the meetings.

But, Scheier said, “We’re not trying to sneak something by anybody.”

Scheier also claimed that the working group had agreed through “general consensus” to make its meetings secret. But four working group members told the Gazette they have no memory of such a decision or discussion. In fact, they generally supported publicizing the meetings.

“I’m a little upset to hear [Scheier’s claim] the [working group] committee chose intentionally not to advertise those meetings,” said working group member Jeffrey Ferris. “I think you run into trouble with that kind of stuff,” he said, wondering whether the state Open Meeting Law might apply.

“I probably wouldn’t push the T hard to [advertise the meetings]…solely because I don’t think it’s a great public forum,” said working group member Michael Halle in an e-mail to the Gazette. But, he added, “I also think the T should let the Gazette and similar publications know about the meetings (beyond general public notices), specifically because it helps get the feedback into the system.”

Lynn McSweeney, the only working group member who relies exclusively on the MBTA for transportation, said she has never received notice about any of the meetings, despite providing her phone number and e-mail addresses. While other members told her of earlier meetings, she was unaware of the recent secret meetings until the Gazette informed her of them.

“I tend not to take things personally, but I do wonder if they wanted to bulldoze this through with sort of a pretend public process,” McSweeney said.

Meeting notices aside, the MBTA has not conducted any other sort of public outreach, such as notifying abutters of bus stops that are targeted for changes. Scheier called the value of such notification “debatable.”

“People who live around these stops—you can’t get the word out to everybody. That’s the reality,” he said.

In at least one case, a concerned resident ended up doing such notification herself. As the Gazette reported last month, a resident worried about the removal of a South Street bus stop across from the Harvest Co-Op Market posted flyers on the street to spread the word and call for action.

According to Halle, that resident—who lives near the stop—was somehow identified and invited to the unpublicized November meeting of the working group. There, she “presented her case” for keeping the stop and got up to speed on the process. The resident later flyered the area again, including with the first public mention that the working group met again.

The overall existence of the Route 39 improvement process is well-known, and often controversial, as it calls for removing some bus stops, moving others and adding bus shelters. The Route 39 is the second-busiest bus route in the entire MBTA system.

But the last the community heard from the MBTA in previous public meetings, the process had examined only the JP part of the line between Forest Hills and Perkins Street, and was awaiting the construction of expanded sidewalks at some Centre Street stops as a pilot project.

But in fact, the working group resumed its planning at two meetings held in Mission Hill in August and November, both of which were deliberately unpublicized. Its planning now has covered the rest of JP and Mission Hill, with some discussion of the Back Bay terminus of the route.

The Gazette learned of the meetings from a Mission Hill resident who said she received e-mail invitations to them for reasons unknown to her. She passed the word along to some other Mission Hill activists, who attended at least one of the meetings. She said the residents attending the meeting pointed out the lack of a Gazette reporter in the room and complained to the working group about it.

MBTA officials ignored Gazette requests for details of the proposed route improvements. The timeline and cost also remain unclear.

But handouts from the secret meetings, provided to the Gazette by the Mission Hill resident, show significant changes. They include eliminating the bus stops at Bynner Street, near the Mount Pleasant Home senior residences, and on S. Huntington Avenue in front of the Goddard Housing senior housing building.

Farther down the route, there are bus stop shifts proposed in such key locations as Brigham Circle in Mission Hill and the Longwood Medical Area. Reportedly, there is even talk of ending the route at Copley Square rather than Back Bay Station.

The Route 39 process has a history of secrecy, as well as other controversies, including a lack of representation on the working group for Mission Hill and Back Bay resident. All of the active members appear to be JP residents.

Working group members have varied opinions about the quality of the process, particularly its method of making decisions by “consensus” rather than votes.

Ferris and McSweeney said the MBTA appears to be declaring consensus where it does not exist. Member Michael Reiskind said that Scheier is “very low-key on important issues,” suggesting he slides certain topics under the radar.

But Halle said that “consensus for most changes that we examined was pretty strong,” adding that a public review of the overall plan when it is drafted should be the final say.

The Route 39 process was forced to happen by a lawsuit, and was supposed to cover any mode of transit the community wanted to discuss. But state transportation planners quickly made it clear that the process would only include the Route 39 bus.

The first meeting about the process, held two years ago, was organized as a private, invitation-only meeting. It was turned into a supposedly public meeting at the last minute, with the Gazette invited six hours beforehand.

The working group was formed without any official announcement of who is on it. It began meeting last year in deliberately secret meetings, a practice the state Executive Office of Transportation defended at the time. The Gazette learned of the working group informally from a member.

After the Gazette protested the secrecy, Scheier began sending meeting notices to the Gazette. The Gazette publicized the meetings and reported on them. Public attendance was rare at any of them. It is unclear why MBTA officials decided to switch back to secret meetings.

Scheier told the Gazette last week that the Gazette, at least, will again receive meeting notices. However, it is unclear when the next working group meeting will be. Handouts from the secret meetings indicate that one is slated for Dec. 14. But the MBTA press office said the next one will be scheduled after the large-scale community meeting in January.

In any case, Scheier strongly defended the secret meeting process. He said it is good enough that the public knows generally that the process exists and that it can review the final plan at the end.

“We don’t just go forward without generating input from the community,” he said. “If people in the community aren’t happy with the recommendations of the working group [after the January community meeting]…we will revisit these situations.”

“The working group is really the best way to move the project forward,” Scheier said. Of unpublicized meetings, he said, “I don’t think that’s uncommon for a public project. If you have examples to the contrary, then shame on us.”

One example to the contrary is the city’s ongoing Centre/South Streetscape and Transportation Action Plan. Meetings of its citizens advisory committee have been well-publicized and relatively well-attended. Scheier has made presentations at some of that group’s meetings in JP.

Earlier this year, a city-formed citizens advisory committee reviewing the Jackson Square redevelopment also ran into controversy for secret meetings. That led the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council to establish unanimously a policy that all community planning meetings in the neighborhood be open to the public, including the press.

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